[Touchstone; November, 2008]
Just at the moment my first grandchild was placed in my arms, my cell phone rang — and it was Big Idea, Inc., the Veggie Tales company, asking my help in discerning whether to expand into different media. That’s always struck me as a curious synchronicity: my family tree was putting forth its newest branch, and there was the world of children’s entertainment, ready to follow them every day of their lives. But I handed off the child and took the phone call, and after some more conversation said yes to the invitation. They eventually said no to the project, but in the meantime I had the opportunity to observe a lot of talented people working at a high pitch of creativity.
Over the course of a year I made regular visits to Big Idea’s headquarters, located in a shopping mall in a suburb west of Chicago. The space had previously been a department store, and the expansive interior, complete with escalators, had been repainted whimsically (lots of purple); the cubicles of the mostly-young Evangelicals on staff were playfully festooned.
Big Idea’s first feature-length movie was then in production, and I was able to get a first-hand look at the storyboards for Larry the Cucumber’s portrayal of the prophet Jonah. Another part of the team was developing a series for older kids, graduates of the Veggies, titled 3-2-1 Penguins! I recall seeing video clips of several proposed designs for the penguins’ rocketship, and marveling at how real, how malleable, this new-fangled computer animation was. It was delightful to be on the fringes of an undertaking so full of talent, energy, and enthusiasm.
I soon discovered that my new Big Idea connection was easily the most impressive item on my resume. Folks who were not interested in my commentaries on NPR or speeches at Yale would say, “Veggie Tales? Really?” followed by, “Do you do one of the voices?” (I didn’t, though there was talk early on about my suitability for a certain eggplant.)
There was plenty about Big Idea to make me proud of the association. A lot of Christian entertainment is crummy. It’s saccharine, forced, imitative, and executed on the cheap. Big Idea was doing something original and charming.
The cartoons also represented a flag planted at the center of the battlefield for children’s attention. Today’s kids are swamped by electronic videos and cartoons; isn’t it a good thing if some excellent Christian entertainment gets in there too? People who would otherwise never encounter a Bible verse were absorbing bits of the Gospel through the videos.
That’s all something to cheer, isn’t it? Maybe. I felt a couple of twinges.
For one thing, I regretted that it wasn’t the stories themselves that engaged children (and adults), but the humor and excitement — the entertainment. The Bible is full of great stories, but kids today are swimming in enticing stories. Veggie Tales succeed because they are funny and well-done, not because kids find a story from the Bible more fascinating than tales about Cinderella or Spiderman.
In fact, the very elements that make this kind of Bible-based kiddie fare so successful pose their own risks. I received an email from a Sunday School teacher who had observed that, while Christian kids’ entertainment can communicate elements of biblical stories, it communicates plenty else besides.
When she was teaching her pint-sized students about Christmas, one of the children kept asking, “When does the rooster come in?” She had seen a movie about Jesus’ birth, and it included a funny rooster who sang a song. The moment was entertaining, and the song was no doubt memorable and devotionally-appropriate. But the child had no way to tell which parts of the story were genuine and which were imaginary. (It’s blasphemy, I know, but sometimes I think Christians celebrate imagination too uncritically.)
I’d hate to have to decide whether this kind of children’s entertainment is a good thing or not. I want to cheer those who work so hard to insert something with spiritual nutrition into the electronic stream flowing into children’s heads from infancy. I’d particularly praise those who do this well, who offer products that are as good or better than what the world can do. On the one hand, it seems obvious that this is not a battlefield we should ignore.
But, on the other hand, I wish there was a way to raise kids apart from that whole over-stimulating experience. You can’t go into the post office without seeing cartoon movie characters on stamps; you can’t drive to church without seeing them on billboards. Entertainment does its crafty best to saturate our worlds, and is virtually impossible to block out.
But there was once a time when the most astounding experience a child had each week was worship. It began as he entered a building uniquely designed and beautified to glorify God. There he would hear music unlike anything he encountered in daily life. There would be (in many of our traditions, anyway) bells and candlelight, vestments and sumptuous fragrances, and images of Christ and the saints which would greet his eyes wherever he looked. He would hear stories of the lives of the saints, and those would be some of the most exciting stories he ever heard, providing daily examples of real-life heroes whom he could emulate.
All in all, going to church would be the most sense-flooding experience a child had all week. People tease Orthodox Christians about putting everything to music and singing it three times, but when you think of the teaching role of worship in the long centuries of illiteracy, you can see what a valuable tool that singable repetition, that whole over-saturated sensory experience was.
But now, children are likely to find worship the most boring time of the week. And even if we could compete for their entertainment attention, and produced movies and cartoons that were theologically excellent, they would be just a few more pebbles thrown in the stream, to be forgotten by next season.
That first grandson recently turned 8, and the cohort of grandchildren has grown steadily over the years, now numbering 9. They consume a great deal of electronic entertainment, with Veggie Tales a small part of their diet.
My granddaughter, Hannah, is a voracious reader, and I thought I’d try competing with the more colorful demands on her attention by giving her a volume of the lives of the saints. It wasn’t a success. The big words were a problem, but the stories themselves have an unfamiliar pattern, and the exciting ones tend to include graphic bloodshed—for the good guys, who die instead of defeating the bad guy. Hannah is very polite, but it was easy to see the change in her enthusiasm when she began to tell me about an episode of the Disney show, “Hannah Montana.” I admit it, we’re in a quandary here, and I don’t know the best way out.