Veggie sales, Veggie sales

It didn't take long for Phil Vischer to create the following prime directive for his computer-animation studio: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

The folks at Big Idea Productions will do just about anything for a laugh when creating their VeggieTales versions of Bible stories. But Vischer is committed to keeping a safety zone between the sacred and the hip, even while Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and friends storm the kid-video castles of Disney, Viacom, Newscorp and Time Warner Inc.

"There's a biblical core to the stories we tell and people have to know that will always be there," said Vischer. "So the major plot points are sacred, but we get to have fun with the details. People have to understand that we're not competing with Sunday school. We're competing with Saturday morning television. We're in a different ball game."

So the Bible remains the Bible. But Joshua is a cucumber in a robe and green peas carry the Ark of the Covenant around Jericho while grape slushees rain down from the walls. A tiny asparagus named Dave spins a slingshot around his head and slays Goliath the pickle. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego survive the fiery furnace of a candy czar who wants them to worship a towering chocolate bunny. Virtual vegetables prance through music videos that are as bizarre as the regular music videos they are mocking.

The result is a phenomenon that has Christian bookstore owners dividing life into two eras - "B.V." and "A.V." Big Idea Productions has sold 6 million half-hour videos, with 4 million units shipping in 1998 - the first year of a distribution pact with Lyrick Studios that put VeggieTales in WalMart, Target and other secular outlets. An 11th video release, "Silly Songs 2: The End of Silliness?", goes on sale this weekend.

Meanwhile, Vischer is taking calls from movie studios and cable bosses. The Veggies make their TV debut on Dec. 19 in a primetime PaxTV special built around the company's "The Toy that Saved Christmas" video.

It was back in 1991 that Vischer got tired of making Pop Tarts dance, beer bottles spin and graphics sparkle for corporate clients in Chicago. Using funds from family and friends, the Bible-college reject began creating vegetables that told Bible stories, after deciding that candy bars might worry parents. Either way, it was cheaper to animate figures with no limbs. Today, Big Idea has about 70 employees, but Vischer said he isn't sure about that number since he keeps running into new people in the hallways.

Some major VeggieTales influences are obvious, such as Dr. Seuss and Monty Python. Some are less obvious, such as communications theorist Neil Postman's classic "The Disappearance of Childhood" and the work of media entrepreneur Bob Briner, who chides modern Christians for abandoning work in art and culture.

While it would be hard to push a creed in a for-profit company, Big Idea isn't ashamed of its big ideas. Its mission statement includes a list of blunt "we believe" statements, such as: "Popular media, used irresponsibly, have had a profoundly negative impact on America's moral and spiritual health." Company goals include enhancing "the moral and spiritual fabric of our society" and leading "a revolution reintroducing Christian values into popular media."

Vischer doesn't hide the fact that he wants to create a recognizable, quality brand name with clout -- like Nike, Starbucks, "Touched By An Angel" and, yes, Disney. But this takes time. Most attempts to promote faith in the marketplace have taken a one-shot, zap-them-with-the-Gospel approach.

"It's like, 'Bonk!' We hit people in the head with a Christian brick and, when it bounces off, we can't understand why it didn't work," he said. "Of course, we also used up all our money making that one brick and we can't buy anymore air time or tell anymore stories because we haven't created a real company that makes money so that we can stay in the game for the long haul. So we throw our brick and quit.

"What we want is for people to fall in love with our characters and grow up with them. We want to have a lasting impact."