Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Phil Vischer, Veggie Tales & the Movies

If you're a Christian parent of young children then you no doubt are familiar with the popular kid's video series, VeggieTales. The programs star Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato and tell Bible stories using examples and language that kids can understand. My kids have enjoyed them in their younger years and I appreciate the quality with which they are done.

The man behind VeggieTales, Phil Vischer, saw his dream begin to crumble several years ago when financial challenges forced his company, Big Idea Productions, into bankruptcy. Although still involved with the production of VeggieTales, he no longer owns the company.

Since VeggieTales has experienced widespread success in the Christian market and some exposure in the mainstream (through movies like Jonah and being part of NBC's Saturday morning lineup), Vischer has an interesting and informed perspective on how Christians involved in the arts can make a positive difference in the world.

In an interview that Vischer did with Todd Hertz in Books & Culture, he gives some insight into how Christians can make films that influence our culture. In commenting on the recent success of movies like The Passion of the Christ, the Narnia films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he had this to say:
"I've learned the hard way that movies are not a great teaching medium. If you want to engage people emotionally, great—but you can't ever turn to the camera and say, "Now I have three points I want to make about parenting." You can do that on TV. Sesame Street does that. Dora the Explorer does that every day and nobody says, "That's not film making! That's didactic!" The difference is that people do not go to the movies to be preached at. That's the bottom line. The more you preach, the fewer you reach. What frustrates me with the film business is how much time, energy, and money you have to spend to have the opportunity for two sentences of real transparent meaning.

The Passion was such an anomaly; you really can't use it to learn much of anything about the nature of film. You had the most popular film actor in the world making a deeply personal work of art about a religious story. What are the odds of that happening again?

The movies inspired by the Narnia stories and the Lord of the Rings are also tough test cases. How many Narnias are there? How easy is it to come up with another Lord of the Rings? It's not. There's [J.R.R.] Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis and then everybody else. Besides, Narnia had a 50-year history of engagement with fans—and a grandfather-clause evangelical exception for the use of fantasy and magic. You can't get away with that today. Now, if we go to another fantasy world, we need to find Jesus there—literally.

That is why for some evangelicals, the Harry Potter books are seen as being straight from the pit. Even if Rowling says she's employing Christian themes, forget it. How do you write a Christian fantasy today? I have no idea. I don't know that you can. I think we've killed it. I think we are so concerned with how oppressed our worldview is and so defensive that we've painted ourselves into a corner. And thus, we can't tell the kind of stories that Lewis or [G.K.] Chesterton would have told to share the gospel. It's kind of depressing, frankly."
You can read the complete interview here.

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