Christian bookstores

After the Veggie sale, Part I

NASHVILLE -- VeggieTales fans know that strange things happen when the big green digital cucumber launches into one of his infamous "Silly Songs with Larry."

The new "School House Polka" salutes words that sound alike, with the chorus: "Homophones, homophones, where the crews come cruising down the plane. Homophones, homophones, I need my kneaded biscuits plain!" The twist is that Larry keels over on his back and delivers an accordion solo that fuses great moments in rock music history.

Some nervous Christian consumers let Mike "Larry the Cucumber" Nawrocki know that (a) Jimi Hendrix was not a Christian musician, (b) "Smoke on the Water" was not a Christian song and (c) "School of Rock" was not a Christian movie.

"There are always people who are going to say, 'We don't think rock 'n' roll like that is appropriate for our kids,' " he said. "You just have to be funny anyway, even if that bugs them."

Nawrocki pondered this artistic dilemma, then continued: "The whole key to humor is to be able to criticize the authorities and make fun of the powers that be. But that's hard for some Christians to do. ... That may even mean criticizing the church, in particular. But how are we supposed to do humor if we can't do that?"

It isn't easy to write computer-animated comedies that are safe enough for Sunday school, yet hip enough for media-soaked youngsters and their parents. Yet this high-wire act has made VeggieTales one of the most recognized brands in family entertainment.

These days, even loyal customers are scrutinizing new products from Big Idea, Inc., the reorganized company that replaced Big Idea Productions. Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer created the original company in 1993, but it slid into bankruptcy in 2003 after losing an $11 million federal lawsuit about a verbal contract with a video distributor.

The new owner is Classic Media, which owns Rocky & Bullwinkle, Lassie, the Lone Ranger and a flock of family franchises. Nawrocki, musician Kurt Heinecke and a small team of other Big Idea veterans moved from greater Chicago to join a cluster of entertainment companies in Franklin, just outside Nashville. Vischer will continue to do the voices of his many digital characters, while writing one Veggie script a year and consulting on others.

The key is that the VeggieTales brand is still healthy, said Terry Pefanis, the new chief operating officer. During the bankruptcy proceedings, bidders put Big Idea under a microscope and found that it was selling 5 million home video products a year, with about $50 million a year in total product sales.

No one doubted the future of the Veggies -- if they remained hip and wholesome. But Pefanis said executives from one or two entertainment giants still thought that Big Idea needed to stop quoting the Bible so much.

"They kept saying that VeggieTales needed less God so that we could make it big on mainstream television," said Pefanis. "But the problem is that if we stop talking about God, what use are we? What are we going to tell stories about? ... On top of that, if we start leaving out the Bible, we're going to lose our core audience and we're dead."

As entertainment entrepreneurs, the new Big Idea leaders know they have to do what they have done in the past -- dominate the Christian market, while reaching out to suburban superstores that hail from Arkansas. While the Christian retail industry claimed $4.2 billion in sales in 2003, the Big Idea team keeps talking about two bigger ideas in the marketplace. Forty percent or more of all Americans say they go to church and 80 percent or more say they believe in God.

Thus, the new "Sumo of the Opera" ends with a bite of St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews, but gets to its lesson on perseverance via Gilbert and Sullivan, professional wrestling, ESPN and "Rocky."

"You can't just haul off and hit people in the nose," said Nawrocki. "If you do, you've started selling a sermon and that doesn't work.

Harry Potter for grownup believers (of all kinds)

ORLANDO -- Lee Hillman's nightstand contains a copy of Sir James George Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion." It's a condensed version, not the two-volume 1890 epic or the12-volume monument from the following decades. The single volume contains more than enough magical minutia for ordinary readers. Six dense pages will usually put Hillman to sleep.

Nevertheless, the practicing pagan keeps reading. It has helped give perspective on her other passion -- reading and writing about a certain young wizard in England.

"There is no relationship set up in the Harry Potter books between magic and religion," said Hillman during Nimbus 2003, the first global convention dissecting the 2,715 pages published so far in the series. "This had to be a deliberate decision by J.K. Rowling. ... She is using literary conceits drawn from throughout Western culture."

She scanned the crowd at a panel discussion last weekend entitled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft? Pagan Perspectives." Then she said the same thing again, as a Wiccan believer and another miscellaneous pagan nodded in agreement.

"There is nothing in these books that relates magic to any particular religion," said Hillman. "There is no connection. None. None. Zero. ... They are not really about witchcraft."

Don't misunderstand. Hillman still loves the Potter books. That's why she was wearing a spectacular witch's hat and robe, a flash of purple that even stood out among the 600 other colorful fans at Disney's Swan Hotel. Among online Potter devotees, the 31-year-old secretary from Rochester, N.Y., is known as "Gwendolyn Grace, Minister of Magic" and she was the driving force behind the gathering.

Nimbus 2003 sprouted out of the Internet, where the "Harry Potter For Grownups" email list has 10,000 members and a "Fiction Alley" list dedicated to stories written by fans for other fans has 30,000 members.

With this kind of reach, organizers attracted participants -- about 90 percent female -- from across the United States, as well as from England and Australia.

In hotel hallways, witch wannabes raised their expensive, professionally carved wands and fought imaginary duels with tickling spells and other incantations. In the lecture halls, others heard papers on everything from Harry Potter and the First Amendment to "Greenhouses are for Girls, Beasts are for Boys? Gender Characterizations in Harry Potter." There were packed sessions on so-called "slash" fiction in which online scribes write gay and lesbian themes into new Potter stories.

Organizers also dedicated an entire track of lectures and panels to spiritual issues, addressing topics such as "Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Heavenly Virtues: Moral Development in Harry Potter" and "Can Any Wisdom Come From Wizardry?"

Hillman and other pagan panelists were convinced that Rowling -- who has said she attends the Church of Scotland and does not believe in magic -- is a wonderful writer for children, but is clearly not interested in witchcraft. This is not the magic in which they believe.

"There is a cause-and-effect relationship to everything in these books," said Hillman. "You say the spell, you see the effect. ... It's like turning on a light. You flip the switch and the magic is there. That just isn't how things work."

Meanwhile, evangelical writer Connie Neal enthusiastically found echoes of biblical stories and parables in the Potter canon. Her book "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" has been banned in many Christian stores, but "this only seems to have made the secular stores more interested," she said. She keeps challenging people to set up evangelistic reading groups that mix Bible study and Harry Potter discussions.

A Jewish cantor found echoes of the Talmud. A Mormon speaker found strong family values. And classics teacher John Granger aired the thesis of his book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter," arguing that Rowling has soaked her work in centuries of Christian symbolism and spiritual alchemy themes shared with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis and countless others.

"The human person was designed for resurrection, in love. That is what we yearn for because that is how we were created," he said. "That is what these books are about. We respond to them because we are human. Rowling is using symbols and themes that have worked for centuries. And you know what? They still work."