Phil Vischer

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

VeggieMovies, take two

NASHVILLE -- The idea for the movie began with a vision of three fake pirates falling from the sky into the ocean, transported in a magical rowboat back into the 17th century.

It helps to know that Elliot, Sedgewick and George have, in their previous dramatic lives, been known as Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape -- key characters in the successful VeggieTales products created by Big Idea, Inc. Now they're headed back to theaters in "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything," a feature film distributed by Universal Pictures that is scheduled for release on Jan. 11.

This time around, the vegetables don't quote scripture and their adventure doesn't turn into a funny version of a Bible story. Still, the artist also known as Bob the Tomato stressed that Veggie fans don't have to worry that these pirates have abandoned the faith.

"You can do a story like this one of two ways," said Phil Vischer, who created Big Idea, Inc., and continues to work as a writer and performer for the company.

"You can say, 'Let's start with a Bible story and then we'll figure out where our characters fit into it.' When you do this, you know that you already have a story and some characters and there is a biblical message in there. The challenge is figuring out how to make it VeggieTales story. You have to find the humor."

This is what happened with "Jonah," the first feature-length VeggieTales production, which cost $16 million to make and took in about $25 million at the box office back in 2002. That was a lot of money for an openly Christian movie in the days before "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

However, "Jonah" was a high-stakes gamble for Vischer and his Big Idea team, part of a complicated legal and financial train wreck that led to the sale of the company to Classic Media. The VeggieTales franchise -- which has sold more than 50 million DVDs and other video products -- is now part of the Entertainment Rights, a British company.

The VeggieTales stars have also been a hit on Saturday mornings for NBC, but with some of their more explicit God references trimmed for general consumption. The big question for the Big Idea people is whether softening the religious language in their stories is a plus or a minus, when it comes to reaching a wider audience.

This is not a new question. Vischer noted that the VeggieTales team has been using a second, less explicitly religious, way of telling stories since the very beginning.

If the first approach to telling stories starts with the Bible and then blends in humor, the second begins with a funny story and then tries to blend in some faith. That's what happened in 2003 when Vischer had his rowboat vision and wrote the script for "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."

"You can do it either way. This time, we just started out with the slacker pirates and we went from there," he said. "When you go this route, someone always has to ask, 'So what's the lesson here?' I usually have to say, 'I don't know right now, but we'll dig around until we find one.' "

So the new movie's message is biblical, even if it doesn't openly quote the Bible.

Christian parents who take their children to see the film will recognize that it's a parable about God helping the heroes conquer their fears and weaknesses, said Terry Pefanis, the chief operating officer at Big Idea. Many other viewers will think that it's a silly, positive, wholesome story for children -- period.

Studio executives know that, to be a mainstream hit, this kind of faith-friendly product has to appeal to both of these audiences. It has to please the people from the pews, while reaching out to as many other viewers as possible.

"There is a Christian market out there," said Pefanis, after a test screening of an unfinished version of the movie last week in Nashville. "Hollywood is starting to realize that, now.

"There are people who want to see good entertainment that has some Christian content. But it has to be good. You can't just put something in a Christian box and expect people to love it. There has to be a real story in there."

Slicing the Veggies

If you were a television executive, which program do you think would offend the most viewers across America?

The first is a children's show featuring digital vegetables that sing and dance and tell silly parables. Each episode ends with a Bible verse and a witty tomato's reminder that "God made you special and he loves you very much!"

The second is a prime-time special in which Madonna sings her enigmatic ballad "Live to Tell" while hanging on a disco-mirror crucifix and wearing a crown of thorns.

If you decided that it's the vegetables that are too hot to handle, then you're on the same wavelength as NBC.

Actually, both shows got early green lights -- although the latter had to surrender its Bible verses and some key God talk. The man in charge of slicing the "VeggieTales" is Phil Vischer, the heart, mind and voice behind Bob the Tomato and many other characters. He has faced a crucial question while wrestling with NBC program guidelines: How much God is too much God?

"The parameters of what we're doing have not been clearly articulated," said Vischer, who works as a consultant for Big Idea, Inc., the company he created that is now owned by Classic Media. "It's kind of like hunting for the electronic fence in your yard. You keep walking until the back of your neck starts tingling and then you know that you've hit it."

However, he discovered a crucial clue while editing the broadcast version of "Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush."

In the script, Larry the Cucumber is convinced Samson must have gotten his extraordinary strength from his hairbrush. No, replies Bob the Tomato, the Bible says that Samson's strength came from God.

"That line was OK," said Vischer. "Where we got into trouble was the next line, where Bob says, 'And God can give us strength, too.' The NBC people said we had to take that out, so we must have crossed a line right there. ...

"What God does in the past is OK as long as it stays in the past. But if you cross that line and say that God can affect your life in the present, then that's too much. That's reaching out to the audience and that's proselytizing or something. That's bad."

The rules get tougher when children are the primary audience, he admitted. Media executives worry about programs that blur the line between "values" and "evangelism." Still, anyone who studies modern cartoons knows that producers are constantly trying to shape the beliefs of children when it comes to the environment, racism, gender, self esteem and a host of other topics.

Thus, some angry conservatives sense a double standard.

"NBC has taken the very essence of 'VeggieTales' -- and ripped it out. It's like 'Gunsmoke' without the guns, or 'Monday Night Football' without the football," argued L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. "NBC is the network that hired a squad of lawyers to argue that dropping the F-bomb on the Golden Globe Awards isn't indecent for children. ... Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: 'So, saying '(expletive) you' is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not 'God bless you.' "

Also, some "VeggieTales" loyalists -- Big Idea has sold 50 million DVDs and videocassettes -- have posted notes at arguing that the grown-up believers behind the silly stories have "sold out" in the secular marketplace.

Vischer said the key is that edited "VeggieTales" episodes will be shown on television, but they will not replace products on store shelves. If children like what they see on Saturday mornings and want their own copies, they will end up watching the original versions -- with "the Bible verses and the rest of the God stuff still in there," he said.

The semi-open door at NBC, he said, is "kind of like being invited to sing at the White House. The good news is that you get to sing at the White House. The bad news is that they aren't going to let you sing all of your Christian songs because they might upset the ambassador from Saudi Arabia and some of the other foreign dignitaries.

"But it's still good, in the long run, that people at the White House get to hear your music. The goal is for them to want to hear more."