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.
It's getting harder for parents to avoid the question of whether they even want their children to feel at home in today's culture, said blogger Jen Wilkin, speaking on "How to Raise an Alien Child." Parents now face the challenge of training "our children to feel comfortable with feeling different. …We are going to ask our children to trade being the same for being set apart."
Children in these kinds of homes, she said, will have day-timers that look different and their vocabularies will sound different. They will understand the word "enough," along with the concept of "delayed gratification." These children may even have time to read books and make music, on their own. On most days they will eat dinner with their families -- at a table.
"The alien child will not own what other children own -- when they own it," said Wilkins. Rather than using technology as a form of medication to dull the stress of life, these children "will not watch, read or listen to what other children watch, read or listen to. They will view entertainment differently."
It's impossible, she stressed, to promote a set of rules that will work for all children. The bottom line: Religious parents must find principles that work for them and have the courage to defend them, inside and outside their homes.
"The only reliable way to raise an alien child is to be an alien parent," she said. Thus, the "alien family is not afraid or concerned with fearing what other parents think."
In his Nashville talk, Vischer stressed that this kind of parenting requires faith and patience. After all, parents are trying to help children face big questions that have echoed through the ages. Children will ask: "If God loves me and he's all powerful, why is everything so messed up? If God is all loving and he can do anything, why are there bullies at school? If God is all loving and he can doing anything, why is grandma sick?"
Answering these questions will take time, he said, and the moral principles required to answer them are the stuff of big, ancient, mysterious stories. In the end, parents have to make hard decisions and find a way to pass on those stories. There are no short cuts that teach moral absolutes.
"These are not physics questions. They are metaphysics questions, they are spiritual questions," said Vischer. "No scientist has ever run out of a lab holding a beaker saying, 'Eureka, I've figured it out! It's OK to eat animals, but NOT people! Look! The solution turned blue.' That has never happened."