Remember Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber? The animated vegetable stars may have left the scene, but the guy who created them hasn’t. Phil Vischer, whose popular kids television series VeggieTales originally aired in 1993, has returned with a fresh project and a conspicuously different approach. What’s in the Bible? is a new DVD series designed to communicate the unfolding storyline of Scripture from a decidedly gospel-centered perspective.
News reporter Buck Denver leads the cast of puppet characters in this fun and engaging exploration currently spanning Genesis through the letters of Paul. In addition to gospel-shaped biblical theology, Vischer laces apologetics and hermeneutics throughout in a way that kids can understand. The result is a resource bound to help kids and adults alike better grasp the Bible’s epic story and prize its ultimate hero—Jesus Christ.
I talked with Vischer about VeggieTales moralism, how What’s in the Bible? is unique, his concerns about kids television, and more.
What realization did you have 10 years into VeggieTales, and how has that shaped your approach to What’s in the Bible?
I launched Bob and Larry back in 1993, and personally oversaw each video release and product until 2003, when a lawsuit forced the company into bankruptcy and out of my hands. God turned what seemed like a tremendous loss into a huge blessing, as I was given time and space to get off the VeggieTales “treadmill” and just focus on him. As my relationship with God grew deeper and my love of the Bible increased, a profound thought hit me: Had I just spent 10 years trying to get kids to behave “Christianly” without actually teaching them Christianity?
VeggieTales was (and is) a great format for retelling an individual Bible story or presenting a Christian value, but it wasn’t such a good format for explaining the entire arc of Scripture or unpacking tricky concepts like redemption or sanctification. I found myself with a blank piece of paper and all the time in the world. So I decided it was time to go beyond teaching biblical values to actually teaching the Bible.
There are numerous Christian resources for kids out there. What’s unique about this DVD series?
Christian kids resources tend to fall into two camps: children’s Bibles and entertainment products like VeggieTales. Both have value, but both also have limitations. Very few children’s Bibles cover more than 5 percent to 10 percent of the Bible, and tend to focus on scenes that lend themselves to cute illustrations. Concepts like sin, judgment, propitiation, atonement, and sanctification are really hard to draw. If it doesn’t look good on a wallpaper border for a nursery, it probably isn’t going to make the cut. As a result, most children’s Bibles present a highly truncated gospel.
On the other hand, entertainment products typically follow the VeggieTales model: tell a story that illustrates a value, then wrap it up with a Bible verse to show the biblical basis for that value. We certainly need to teach kids biblical values, but biblical values aren’t the gospel. Introducing a child to “kindness” isn’t equal to introducing him or her to Jesus.
What concerns you about the world that’s been created for children by “kids television”?
The recent expansion of kids TV (from individual shows to entire 24-hour networks) is both good and bad. Good, because the rise of kid-focused networks like Disney and Nickelodeon have pulled kids away from watching more adult-themed shows on the broadcast networks (which have, as a result, become much more adult-themed). In addition, Nickelodeon and Disney both strive to be “pro-social,” employing child development experts and promoting values like teamwork, tolerance, and environmental responsibility. This is all good. Our kids—especially the younger ones—are spending five to eight hours a day in these TV worlds of pro-social messaging.
The downside is that these worlds are godless. There is no religion in the world of Sesame Street. No matter how far she explores, Dora the Explorer will never bump into her Creator. So kids television inculcates our kids with a completely naturalistic view of the world. There is nothing “behind the curtain”—nature is all we’ve got. People behave kindly simply because they are kind people. It’s a worldview increasingly in tension with what Christian parents hope to instill in their kids, and one that has a dramatic effect on a child by the time he or she reaches high school. With the average 10-year-old boy in America consuming eight hours of media per day, the effect of these ever-present windows to a godless world cannot be ignored.
You’ve mentioned your desire to move beyond merely “teaching Bible stories” to actually “teaching the story of the Bible.” Why is this shift important, and how do you accomplish it in the series?
We are very intentionally walking kids through the entire Bible—mentioning every book and explaining how each book fits into the big story of “God and what he’s done for us.” We’re also very consciously not skipping the tricky parts. What’s with all the weird rules in Leviticus, and why don’t we follow them all today? Why was it “okay” for the Israelites to kill all those Canaanites? And what’s up with Song of Solomon?! These are issues few kids have ever heard raised in Sunday school, yet they’re some of the key issues that can knock your faith out from under you in high school or college.
We’re combining a basic overview of the entire Bible with some key apologetic concepts to give kids (and their parents) a sort of “Christianity 101” preparation for a life as a Jesus follower. To be honest, I believe we often underestimate what kids are capable of learning, and overestimate what grownups in our churches are capable of (or interested in) learning. The two groups, I believe, are much closer together than many pastors would prefer to acknowledge. What’s in the Bible? is a 13-hour miniseries—an “Introduction to the Christian Faith” for the entire family.
What resources have influenced your convictions beneath and vision for this series?
Throughout the project, my single biggest resource has actually been The ESV Study Bible. When I first started thumbing through that work I thought if I could just find a way to “inject” this body of knowledge into every Christian, the church would be revolutionized overnight. What’s in the Bible? is really my attempt to do just that.
John Schwarz’s wonderfully concise A Handbook of the Christian Faith has also been helpful. In addition, I have greatly appreciated and been guided by the writings of N. T. Wright, the sermons of Tim Keller, the books and teaching of my good friend Skye Jethani, as well as several faculty from nearby Wheaton College—Old Testament scholar John Walton in particular.
What’s in the Bible? currently consists of 12 DVDs (each featuring two 25-minute episodes) spanning Genesis through the letters of Paul. Are more installments in the series forthcoming?
Number 13 is in production, and it completes the series! Attempting to explain Revelation to children is a highly questionable way to end any major project, but God seems to have put it there for a reason, so explain it I will. And with that we’ll have 65 songs and 13 hours of video that can take a single child or an entire church body through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. There’s more I’d love to teach like this—church history, science and the Bible—but first, I think I need to take a short nap!