By Otto Selles
Wasn't That a Mighty Fall
"Why is Martha's picture in the paper?" asked Anna, our nine-year old. It was March, and high time my wife and I had a talk with our kids about Martha Stewart's trial. Isabelle, seven years old, became very upset when we explained the guilty verdict: "But Martha's nice. She's a good woman!"
Such a reaction was perhaps to be expected from a child nursed on little other regular TV programming than Martha's daily show and some children's videos. I had even argued—in this journal several years ago—that Martha offered a positive role model for my kids. At least she demonstrated more get-go than the sort of female leads found in the popular VeggieTales videos my daughters enjoyed. But what did my suggested role model roll me into? A discussion on insider-trading and obstruction of justice with a first-grader. Should we have stuck to our rule of no TV—aside from, say, value-rich Veggie fare?
Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I read an article in Christianity Today (May 2004) profiling Phil Vischer, co-founder and former CEO of Big Idea Productions, the company behind VeggieTales. I had heard of the company's difficulties but didn't realize how far it had fallen.
Coinciding with weakening video sales, rapid expansion, and the middling success of its feature film Jonah, Big Idea got slapped with a lawsuit for changing distributors. Bankruptcy and then buyout by Classic Media soon followed in late 2003. During the crisis, Vischer's health declined, he lost his fortune, and suffered an understandable identity crisis.
Over Sunday dinner, I told my wife about Big Idea's troubles. Anna interrupted for explanations: "What's a breach of contract? Is it like, I sell my videos at one store and then switch to another without really asking?" I could almost taste the irony: Martha Stewart's spotless living had been sullied in the courts, and VeggieTales had become a tale unto itself.
Through his company's bankruptcy, Phil Vischer discovered a clear sign from God pointing to the error of his ambitious ways. At the beginning of his career he felt he could choose between becoming an "empire builder" like Disney or a storyteller like C.S. Lewis. And he chose Walt, with the goal of developing a major Christian media company. "I was trying to be someone that God didn't call me to be and that God didn't create me to be," Vischer commented in the Christianity Today article.
I feel bad Vischer had to lose his shirt to discover his true vocation. But Disney over Lewis? It's like choosing Thomas Kinkade over Rembrandt, a painter of franchised, artificial light instead of an artist of the deepest shadows.
The fact is, my family has, for the most part, left behind Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber and ventured into Narnia. (In full family disclosure, I should note we made a rather lengthy detour via the American Girl series—a media and role model adventure in itself. I also do not mention Luc, our youngest, who came to Martha, VeggieTales, Dr. Seuss et al. much later and has his own story.)
I hadn't reread C.S. Lewis' seven-novel series since I was a child, and I now trip over his sometimes fussy style and dated attitudes—think of the tedious, stereotyped orientalism of The Horse and His Boy. My kids, however, are entirely taken by the novels' fantasy as well as the choices, good and bad, the characters make. Our discussion of Narnian villains got me thinking again of the media worlds presented by VeggieTales and Martha Stewart—creative worlds where evil is either attenuated or altogether absent.
First off, VeggieTales videos continue to avoid truly rotten apples. A Snoodle's Tale, a feature released this spring, stars not a vegetable but Snoodle Doo, a plump, bluish Q-Tip with wings, hands that float in the air, and a back-pack filled with paints and a kazoo (trust me). Other Snoodles mock his attempts to fly and draw, but Doo meets his Creator—on a high hill no less—and receives a true picture of his potential. The video shamelessly rips off its rhyme and village backdrops from Dr. Seuss, especially The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. At the tale's end, Bob the Tomato (voice of Phil Vischer) admits he has been to "over-used literary emulation camp" the past summer—a self-conscious jab at VeggieTales fondness for literary borrowing. What the tale forgot to borrow, however, is a Grinch-like villain. The snooty Snoodles who mock Doo's noodle are as unimpressive as the trite torments they invent. Despite the goal of helping wee ones fight nasty peers, the tale presents no credible nastiness.
The Veggie world revolves around sugar-coated childhood troubles and failings, problems easily resolved in the arms of a huggable God. Larry the Cucumber concludes A Snoodle's Tale with the VeggieTales' credo: "God made you special and he loves you very much," to which Bob the Tomato adds, "And he wants you to paint, he wants you to sing, and he wants you to soar." Penned by Vischer, the tale reflects his own difficult path through financial failure to spiritual self-discovery—making the sugary sweetness of the tale even more surprising.