Comparative Religion for Tykes, or why my kids and I loved Veggie Tales.
Easter Weekend is upon us and our Christian friends and family insist on hijacking yet another perfectly reasonable seasonal Pagan celebration with yet another story about that Jesus character. This time instead of the happy Miracle of Childbirth manger scene we get a full day of torture porn followed by a burial and a seventh level Cleric spell. Additionally our Jewish fellows may have spent the time celebrating Passover, the celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt as described in the biblical story of Exodus, which contains some of the best Wrath of God stuff in the whole Bible and is almost certainly fictional. Secular families may be faced with two problems during this time. One, how to introduce some of the basic concepts of their families religious beliefs without making Grandma sound like she’s a few eggs short of a basket, and what to put on TV if the Egg Hunt gets rained out but nobody likes baseball. Thankfully there is an answer to both of these conundrums, Veggie Tales.
I have to admit that I was at first immensely skeptical of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki‘s creation when it was first introduced to me in the form of “King George and the Ducky”,
which is an animated retelling of of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, only with a rubber ducky standing in for the object of King David’s lust, a happier ending for the vegetal stand in for Uriah the Hittite and absolutely no boning of any kind. I was frankly appalled. However, because of the series’ Christian nature, Veggie Tales is considered a “safe” choice by strict religious parents and grandparents and so it is often the only children’s TV entertainment available on a visit to Oma and Opa’s. So we ended up seeing them on Xmas and Easter and… they started to grow on me a little.
Because here’s the big secret you might miss if you let yourself be prejudiced by their religious agenda. Veggie Tales can be HILARIOUS! I’m completely serious. I’m a connoisseur of children’s TV after nine years of stay at home parenting and I have to rank many of the Veggie Tales in the top 5 or 10 of children’s shows when it comes to comedic timing and quality of writing and performance. Unlike some religious programming that seem to mail in the entertainment part of the job in favor of heavy handed messages and cheap production values, the Veggie Tales team show an immense amount of pride in their craft. After watching some of their better shows I could easily see them crafting a mainstream show that would be quite successful.
I don’t want to oversell things. As an atheist parent raising a non religious family there is much about the message Veggie Tales sells that I don’t like. Especially in their straight re-imaginings of biblical stories like Esther, The Girl Who Became Queen, or Josh and the Big Wall, they come across as apologists for some pretty questionable behavior on the part of Yahweh. Although I do give bonus irony points to anyone who can make the genocidal conquest of Canaan funny. On the other hand, show’s like The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything (a 2006 theatrical release), or The Lord of the Beans (one of my favorites, a marvelous send up of Tolkein) barely mention God at all while still managing to get their messages across. I particularly like the fact that the creators at Big Idea seem to embrace and enjoy popular culture. These guys may be Christians. But they are quite obviously geeks as well. Their video’s touch on pop culture icons as diverse as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the Avengers and Spiderman and they pay musical tribute to everything from Broadway to the B 52’s
So how can secular parents use Veggie Tales, or at least how can we deal with the fact that they may be exposed to them during the holidays or on a playdate? For one, watch the shows with your kids and talk about them . The superhero themed League of Incredible Vegetables, the fourth installment of the adventures of Larry-Boy, was a lot of fun to watch, but afterwards we ended up discussing the problems behind the show’s message of trusting God instead of your superpowers. For the more biblical stories, use the Veggie Tales as a jumping off point to discuss the real Bible stories behind episodes like Gideon:Tuba Warrior, or the entirely more obscure Rack, Shack, and Benny. A little knowledge of the Bible can be a great way of inoculating your little skeptics against evangelism later in life.
A lot of the Veggie Tales episodes and films are available on Netflix, or for borrowing from your local library. If you are worried about the overt religious messaging, but your little ones have picked up the bug from friends or family, I suggest getting a copy of one of the Silly Song collections. The silly songs feature Vischer and Nawrockie’s excellent sense of humor and satire with almost all of the God talk stripped out. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites.
Approached with an open mind, Veggie Tales can be an excellent introduction to some basic biblical concepts for the unchurched family. And I think they can give us some pause when we are quick to exclaim, like Hitchens, that “religion poisons everything”.
Featured Image: Veggie Tales
Harvest from the garden, September 2014, Amy Aletheia Cahill on Flickr, shared with a Creative Commons License