What "America's Favorite Vegetables" Say About Evangelicalism
Theology Today, 2000
If you do not have young children, you may not know about the latest phenomenon in the evangelical subculture. For several years, the "VeggieTales" video series has been sweeping young American evangelicalism. Both sales and anecdotes prove the point: Big Idea Productions, which produces the series, expects sales of 15 million by the end of 1999.1 Most of the children in my own church's Sunday school (in which I teach) sing along with the theme song when we resort to video to pacify them at the end of the hour. My extended family owns copies of all the episodes; my children know the characters, songs, and narratives. They may not know the kings of Israel like Puritan children did, but they do know that one of them was an asparagus.
My purpose here is not to introduce or describe the series. That is best left to evangelical word-of-mouth and Big Idea's marketing department. My interest is in VeggieTales as an achievement of evangelical Christian ethics, and a window into the evangelical ethical tradition. What does the VeggieTales phenomenon say about the state of evangelical ethics in America?
Like evangelical ethics in general, the series is too morally complex to be reduced to any one of the usual descriptive models offered for evangelical ethics.2 Its moral theology lends itself to many analytical frameworks: Narrative ethics, deontology or rule-based ethics, virtue ethics, heroic ethics, casuistry or contextual ethics, and biblical ethics. Let us consider each in turn, then go on to ask a critical question that emerges from close study of the series.
Narratives. Veggie ethics are narrative ethics, recasting biblical stories and offering new parables in order to form viewers morally. Episodes do not simply offer abstract principles, case-studies, or thought-experiments to train viewers for moral decision-making. They tell stories above all, biblical stories in order to form people of biblical character. In appealing to character-forming biblical narratives for moral training, Veggie ethics draw on one of the continuing strengths of evangelicalism: the exchanging and remembering of testimonies.3 In jeopardizing her friendships and losing her home, Madame Blueberry learns to treasure gratitude rather than possessions. She may not quite compare to Corrie Ten Boom, but children resisting the totalizing discourse of American consumer culture may find her story helpful in the same way adults resisting totalizing discourses of "ethnic cleansing" have found strength in the Dutch Reformed saint's example. Veggie ethics' narrative character not only anchors them in the evangelical tradition, but also puts them on the cutting edge of postmodern Christian ethics, of the likes championed by James McClendon and Stanley Hauerwas.4
Rules. Remembering biblical narratives is something evangelicals have long taken seriously; but what of the equally serious attention they have paid to the simple duty to follow God's commands? Particularly in evangelicalism's Reformed wing, ethicists like Richard Mouw have sought to defend the place of deontology in Christian life, not as the milk of infantile (or even "prehuman") pedagogy, but as solid food for Christian maturity.5 Here a video series for children may not seem like the best way to support Mouw's argument! Yet like the Bugs Bunny cartoons of the fifties, VeggieTales are not merely for tots. Big Idea does not just want to reach children; it wants to reach parents. Both their inside jokes (such as nearly subliminal frames of Sonny Bono and Avogadro's Number) and their morals (consumerism and gossip destroy relationships; adultery cannot be excused, but it can be forgiven) are meant as much for adults as for children. In other words, Bible stories and divine commandments are not just kids' stuff. One never outgrows God's rules.
God's rules, particularly the Ten Commandments, are prominent in what we might call the "narrative deontology" of Veggie ethics. Rack, Shack and Benny retells the stories of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and Where's God When I'm Scared? retells the story of Daniel in the lions' den. Both embody the commandments to have no other gods before the Lord, and neither to make nor worship graven images. Rack, Shack and Benny issues a tear-jerking, softly spoken command to honor our parents, even when they are distant and powerless to praise or punish. Josh and the Big Wall (updating the fall of Jericho) appeals to God's promise to fight for those who refuse to fight for themselves, in order to underwrite an pacifist ethic that fulfills the commandment not to kill.6 In Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space, a terrifying encounter with the powers teaches a boy caught in a web of lies that only the truth can overpower them. A similar crisis in Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed teaches not to bear false witness against neighbors, and adds a tangential scene that condemns theft. The prohibition on adultery (a sensitive topic in children's videos) is turned into a prohibition on stealing and selfishness in King George and the Ducky, a retelling of David and Bathsheba. Madame Blueberry and The Toy that Saved Christmas (in which children battle a toy company over the true significance of Christmas) warn of the destructive power of covetousness, and proclaim the healing power of sharing in thankfulness. Are You My Neighbor? retells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and God Wants Me to Forgive Them? reaffirms Jesus' command to forgive others even after hundreds of transgressions. Both episodes thus command the Law in its New Testament totality (Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14, Jas 2:8). Finally, as if to underline the narrative character of divine commands, Josh and the Big Wall and Dave and the Giant Pickle (in which Jr. Asparagus, as King David, defeats Goliath) locate these messages firmly in the history of Israel, as Exod 20:2 locates its commandments in the Exodus: "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt."7
Nine commandments covered in thirteen episodes is an impressive achievement. The only commandment that remains unaddressed is sabbath observance. (Given the dubious status of sabbath-keeping in evangelical theology and practice, I am not holding my breath.)
Virtues. Love, not mere obedience, is the fulfilling of the Law. And in Veggie ethics, teleology and deontology cohere. One can just as easily map the VeggieTales episodes to the theological and cardinal virtues of the Thomistic tradition as to the Ten Commandments:
Faith: Rack, Shack, and Benny; Dave and the Giant Pickle.
Hope: Where's God When I'm Scared?; Josh and the Big Wall.
Love: Are You My Neighbor? God Wants Me to Forgive Them? Madame Blueberry; King George and the Ducky.
Prudence: Dave and the Giant Pickle; Where's God When I'm Scared; Rack, Shack, and Benny.
Justice: God Wants Me to Forgive Them? Are You My Neighbor? Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space; Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed; King George and the Ducky.
Temperance: Madame Blueberry; Rack, Shack, and Benny; The Toy that Saved Christmas; King George and the Ducky.
Courage: Rack, Shack, and Benny; Dave and the Giant Pickle.
Lest this list make it seem like Veggie virtues are disembodied, "objective" concepts, we must note that each story's virtues are embodied in virtuous, phronetic characters. Joshua, David, Daniel and his three friends of course embody hope and prudence, faith and courage, repentance and reconciliation, and so on. In the contemporary stories, the Asparagus parents, Larry-Boy, and Jr. Asparagus are the most common "saints" whom we can remember and imitate for our own moral strength and formation. They do not just dispense moral wisdom; they are living wisdom. Their presence redefines and redeems the moral situations they inhabit. They mediate virtue to those who lack it as they practice the community practices of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, prayer, and fellowship.8
Heroes. Here the picture is more complex. Homeric heroes exemplified ancient Greek morality and embodied its virtues.9 On the other hand, contemporary American ethics have heroes who are more likely to be Kantian moral agents and Nietzschean supermen, embodying the qualities that Americans call virtue. (A quick perusal of the "action" section of the local video store is all the proof one needs.) These figures may play unproblematic parts in Hollywood screenplays, but they sit much less comfortably in the Christian ethical tradition. This raises a classic hermeneutical problem: How well can one communicate the gospel using a defective literary form?
Quite well, it turns out by subverting the form. The awkward role of moral heroes in VeggieTales mirrors the dubious place of the American moral hero in Christian ethics. Consider the story of "Larry-Boy," the super-cucumber. A kind of Batman figure, he is featured in two episodes and marginal in a third. He is clearly marketed to win mindshare over the superheroes that plague so much children's programming. But Larry-Boy is a parody, more Mr. Limpet than Bruce Wayne, who can never assume the typical persona of a superhero.
This is because Christians know that role is a fiction. Moral work must always be done by repentant sinners and exemplars who mediate the gifts and bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Thus Larry-Boy, the main character, is always marginal to the actual plots of his narratives. He never rescues anyone. In fact, his hubris puts him at the mercy of the powers, and Larry-Boy ends up being rescued by those he set out to save! Larry-Boy's bizarre role as antihero indicates just how subversive authentically evangelical Christianity is to American moral mythology, with its godlike superheroes and cosmic hand-to-hand combat scenes. VeggieTales does to comic-book mythology what Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven singlehandedly did to the mythology of the Western.
Of course, this subtlety is no doubt lost on many children and parents, who continue to mistake Larry-Boy for a conventional superhero. I frankly wonder what value the character really has, beyond his merchandising potential. On the other hand, my five-year-old figured it out, telling me that "Larry-Boy thinks he's a superhero, but he's not," and concluding that the same must be true of Batman.
Occasions. Christian ethical experience and literature have abundantly testified to the inadequacy of "decisionism," which reduces ethical reflection to hypothetical decision-making in the face of seemingly insoluble ethical dilemmas. Yet even those who criticize decisionism appreciate the vital role of decision-making in Christian moral theology.10 Their conclusions mirror Big Idea's conclusions. VeggieTales are often occasioned by letters from children in moral quandaries, but never determined by them. Big Idea calls its stories and songs "nuggets of truth" that help children respond when they find themselves in similar situations.
Yet Fletcher's wafer-thin Situation Ethics is nowhere to be found.11 VeggieTales characters are not autonomous moral agents abstracted without histories. They are neither the masters nor the victims of their contexts. They are people facing powers and principalities, and God's help comes to them through fellow believers.12 VeggieTales give situation and decision the proper role they play in Christian moral life no more and no less.
Bible. "Moralis quid agas," said Nicholas of Lyra: The moral (or tropological) sense of Scripture teaches what you should do. If the moral resourcefulness of Scripture was obvious to medieval exegetes, it was even more so to Protestants. Evangelicals usually claim to reject the allegorical method, but they affirm the moral sense of Scripture (and often resort to a particularly evangelical flavor of allegory when it comes to "applying" Bible verses devotionally and homiletically). The Bible is a storehouse of divine ethical wisdom that God decrees into our moral life.
Every Veggie tale underlines the evangelical form of Nicholas' conviction. Scripture's norming power is evident not only in the biblical stories that several episodes retell, but also at every episode's end, when Bob and Larry (who host most of the episodes) hear what Bible verse Qwerty the computer offers as God's Word on the topic. For instance, the newly homeless Madame Blueberry learns that her whole life is an allegorical illustration that "he who is greedy for gain troubles his own house" (Prov 15:27a KJV). Nicholas, a father of the fourfold allegorical method, would be proud.
These moments draw on and return to a practice entrenched in evangelicalism: the use of Bible memory verses. Young evangelicals carry these around like mental Tefillin to help them negotiate their private and public lives (cf. Deut 6:6-9). VeggieTales thicken the practice of memory verses by locating their own Bible verses in narratives, unpacking them in rules, locating them in virtuous characters, and applying them to the occasions of modern American life.
Synthesis. All this indicates that neither Veggie ethics nor the evangelical ethics they reflect are reducible to any one model of ethical inquiry (teleological, deontological, or responsive). Their synthesis is complex. Yet it is not arbitrarily eclectic. It is anchored coherently in the moral sensibility of the Reformed and revivalist evangelical traditions, which harness some of the best ethical resources of the wider Christian tradition. All of its features resonate with evangelical moral sensibilities as the soaring sales figures show.
BUT WHERE ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS?
It should be clear that I am impressed by Veggie ethics and by the American evangelicalism that produced them. They are far superior to the G-rated poison churned out of late by Disney and its clones. But is everything so healthy in the produce aisle? Two striking features of the series stand in the way of an unqualified endorsement of Big Idea's ethical vision.
The first problem seems insurmountable: Jesus' narrative is marginal to the series. With only a few exceptions, it is entirely absent from every episode. And the exceptions themselves are telling. The Toy that Saved Christmas is a Christmas story in the tradition of Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, where the gospel is in the narrative, rather than being the narrative. Jesus' only prominent role in Are You My Neighbor is the unnamed and invisible source of the parable of the Good Samaritan indeed, there the biblical prooftext is given from Leviticus rather than any of its New Testament citations. In God Wants Me to Forgive Them!?! Jesus is only named as the source for the command to forgive seventy-times-seven times. In every other respect and in every other episode, Jesus appears dispensable to the series. Every story is either an Old Testament retelling or a modern-day parable, in which the Savior himself never appears. The Ten Commandments receive well deserved attention, but rarely in the form that Jesus offered in his own words and deeds.
A second, related problem is the complete absence of the Church in every episode (again possibly excluding its Christmas episode). The Christian practices listed above are never embodied in their liturgical forms. The only church I can find in the stories is a steeple that breaks the Bumblyburg (read: Gotham City) skyline passively in Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed. And it is apparently an empty cultural landmark, like the Gothic edifices of the Batman movie series, rather than a living community with a part in the story. In Bumblyburg, there are faithful parents, struggling children, incompetent public officials, a herdlike citizenry, and Larry-Boy. But there is no community of faith as such, no living embodiment of the gospel. No wonder Bumblyburg's inhabitants think they need a superhero, a deus ex machina, to rescue them!
Consider by contrast Springfield, home of The Simpsons. Springfield features real churches (too real for comfort, in fact), and churchgoing saints like Marge Simpson who hold together their families and their community and mediate the grace needed for its sentimental, happy endings. They are Springfield's hope. How could Bumblyburg know it is bumbly, in need of redemption, without a veggie Church "to make it the world," as Hauerwas would say? Can it really be that The Simpsons is ethically superior to VeggieTales?
WHY THE MISSING CENTER OF VEGGIE ETHICS?
It consistently rattles people when I tell them that Jesus and the Church seem to be marginal figures in Veggie ethics. How could this be? What does it mean? And why had they never noticed these omissions? Let me offer several possible interpretations.
Market pressure. The first, a classic church-growth argument, is grounded in market pressure: Big Idea Productions is accommodating its offerings to the limits of children's programming and the realities of the marketplace. It wants to offer what Big Idea's spokesman called "a make-believe and fun environment" in which to tell children that God loves them very much, and many stories of Jesus and the Church are ill-fitting in this environment. The stories that do not qualify must either be ignored, or cleaned up. Thus King David is renamed King George, Uriah survives the plot to do away with him, and Nathan's prophecy reconciles the two parties. The story resolves in a happy ending by washing out much of the moral complexity of 2 Sam 11:1-12:25. (And after all, what responsible parent would buy an unedited toddler's Bible?)
Furthermore, Big Idea wants to market these "Sunday morning values" through mainstream retail channels, not merely through Christian bookstores. It aims to compete in the big leagues, offering counternarratives to the worlds of Disney, Nintendo, and Saturday morning television with enough mindshare to survive their rivals' marketing power. And K-Mart will stock and promote videos about a loving, inclusive "God," giving Big Idea the market presence they need to succeed. However, material that invokes the "J" word or his Church is sectarian, divisive, and unattractive to buyers except at Christmastime. So, the utilitarian moral calculus goes, half a witness is better than no witness at all. VeggieTales can supplement the moral diet of churchgoing Americans, and evoke a hunger among unchurched viewers to go to Church for what they can't get at K-Mart.
Or perhaps market pressures is exercising a more benign influence. Big Idea's evasion of Jesus may simply reflect the popularity of Old Testament stories in Sunday school. Children's Bibles reflect a similar disproportion (though not nearly as complete a disproportion as this one). Besides, this way Jewish audiences can give their children Saturday morning values and Sunday morning fun!
Christology marginalized and transcended. A second explanation is christological. Big Idea says its creators have decided that Jesus will never appear himself in VeggieTales episodes. After all, how could Jesus be portrayed as a computer-generated vegetable without mocking the doctrine of the incarnation? Do Christian parents really want to explain to their children that Jesus isn't a literal vine?
That's a fair enough point. But it leads to some problems: Is a medium where Jesus is not allowed to appear really appropriate for "Sunday morning values"? "? Is it right to rewrite David and Bathsheba's canonical tragedy like Disney rewrites literary and historical tragedy? Why the reticence to tell even the story of Jesus except at Christmastime? And why the absence of the Church? Both are prominent in other resources for small children like The Beginner's Bible.13
Then perhaps christology is also a consideration in a different, more ominous way. If John Howard Yoder is right that Jesus is irrelevant to mainstream Christian ethics in America, perhaps he is dispensable to evangelical ethics as well.14 Perhaps Big Idea has bought into precisely the vision of mainstream Christian ethics, which Yoder finds exemplified in H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, that Yoder's Politics of Jesus is out to defeat: Jesus is not directly relevant to Christian ethics, and God's saving work in the world no longer finds its earthly center in Jesus Christ or his community. God remains transcendent, Christ is gnosticized (or left as a symbol in a crèche), the Spirit's saving work is diffused over all creation, and Israel is reduced to a case study for the nations.15 Veggie ethics, then, are merely theistic ethics "Sunday morning values" stripped of both the community that meets on Sunday mornings, and the risen Lord in whose name it meets. They are the enemies of truly Christian ethics.
A problem with this reading is that half of VeggieTales episodes do in fact concern a concrete community of faith: ancient Israel, whom the narrator explicitly calls God's chosen people. But then where is that concrete community in the contemporary stories? Has it been subsumed into America? Is Big Idea Productions what you get when you take away the tax-exempt status of the Christian Coalition or People for the American Way?
After Christendom. These questions lead to a third, eschatological explanation: The Christian community and its Lord are missing precisely because VeggieTales is set in America. Bumblyburg, like Gotham City, is a secularized America whose few Christians are a teacher here, a family there. Its churches really are cultural landmarks, with which many citizens no longer come into contact. The Nezzar Chocolate Factory (an allegory of imperial Babylon) is an idolatrous economy that demands the ultimate allegiance of its workers and customers, whose few Christians live dangerously as Daniel and his friends lived in Babylon. The Nezzar Toy Factory acknowledges Christianity, but only in order to increase its sales of "Chainsaw Louie" action figures. A narcissistic and Machiavellian King George (Bill Clinton?) abuses his power, oppresses the powerless, and compromises his government's integrity (but repents when confronted). The powers are the state and Madame Blueberry's "Stuff-Mart" superstore, which sells envy and calls it happiness, and the blessed ones are the poor who can only afford to be thankful for what God gives them and to share it in love.
If this third reason is valid, then the community to which the Veggies look is present after all. But like the synagogue in the book of Daniel, it is out of sight. It lives in the wilderness, compromised, exiled, and captive in foreign lands, fighting off the world's sacrileges of its holy things (thus The Toy that Saved Christmas), biding its time as it awaits its final inheritance, and (like the prophets Nathan and Daniel) taking advantages of what opportunities it has to redeem its wider culture. This is what makes Big Idea's ethical mission of resisting other children's media so urgent. Veggie ethics are interim, apocalyptic ethics. Premillennial Bumblyburg makes the liberal Protestant Springfield of The Simpsons look quaintly nostalgic.
VeggieTales are then light on liturgical practices not because these are unimportant to American evangelicals, but because they are rarely at hand in modern life. So Rack, Shack and Benny takes us beyond Sunday mornings to address a situation facing millions of Christian children and adults the rest of their weeks: What do you do when, like Daniel's friends, you are facing peer pressure and temptation at work or at school or on the street, isolated from your community of faith? What do you do when, like Bathsheba, you are at the mercy of a tyrannical state? MacIntyre's and Hauerwas' community-centered visions might at times make such contexts seem hopeless. But it was in just such contexts Egypt, Babylon, and Rome that the Hebraic, Jewish, and Christian communities were born. Perhaps it is in twenty-first century America that evangelicalism senses its own providential captivity, and vows to seek the prosperity of its captors (Jer 29:4-7). Big Idea is corporate America's prophet, playing the dangerous game of confuting its false prophets from within its power structure (2 Sam 12:1-15, Dan 2:46-48). The image of Christians taking over Nezzar's television studio to reassert the true meaning of Christmas is, in a way, a parable of Big Idea's corporate strategy.
Fiddling on America's roof. I suspect that all three explanations are partly valid. Indeed, though at first they seem to be at odds, the third explanation is a kind of combination and reconciliation of the first two. The missing Christ and Church of Veggie ethics in a way reflect Christology's and ecclesiology's complex status in an evangelicalism that has struggled, with some success, to accommodate itself to a world where Christology and ecclesiology are no longer welcome, at least not in their classical Christian forms.
I mean this comment as much more of a compliment than many might think (or wish). Like the exilic traditions of law, wisdom, and apocalyptic, VeggieTales' achievement lies in its fidelity to a vision that lays claims on post-Christian America, but only achieves its true coherence in light of the concrete story of Jesus Christ. Veggie ethics do not envision an atomized society of individuals stuck in immoral Niebuhrian societies, nor a Kantian world of autonomous moral heroes, nor a marketplace of utilitarian values, nor a Constantinian past. Instead, they portray a world of eschatological dispersion (1 Pet 1:1). In this world, all three qualities that Richard Hays finds determining the ethics of every writing of the New Testament community, cross, and new creation are both absent and essential.16
Jesus and the Church lie concealed in VeggieTales, as the New Testament is said to lie concealed in the Old. So non-Christian viewers, including stock buyers at the retail chains, never notice VeggieTales' missing ethical center. And most Christians never notice it either not because they consider Jesus irrelevant to Christian ethics, but because they supply the center themselves, through evangelical faith and practices that center on Jesus Christ's cross, community, and eschatological new creation. (These centers are reflected respectively in the ubiquitous "What Would Jesus Do?" merchandise of a few years ago, relatively high Church attendance and support, and popular sanctificationist movements like Promise Keepers.) Christian viewers supply the hermeneutic that locates Big Idea's biblical and modern narratives in a metanarrative centering in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and grounds the duty to obey God's commands to Israel in the son of Israel who fulfilled them in his flesh. The gospel turns ancient Babylon into imperial Rome and economic America, kings into idolaters, superheroes into false messiahs, and David the shepherd into the weak who in Christ humble the strong.
VeggieTales are therefore complex, two-level discourses directed both within their community and outside it. They indicate a kind of exilic quality that is developing in evangelical storytelling as the American evangelical subculture learns to negotiate post-Christian America. It is not unlike the encoded Old Testament language of bondage and exodus the black Church has long used to negotiate white racist America. Far from giving up on America, or capitulating to its idols, evangelicalism is continuing to engage its world critically, with a view towards both surviving and blessing it.
The VeggieTales strategy, like Jesus' rhetorical strategy in the Gospel of Mark, is risky business. Outsiders may fail to recognize that they are outsiders, and insiders may mistake the public face of their discourse for the Kingdom's secret (Mark 4:10-13). Believers may not only take advantage of culturally sanctioned means of evangelism (such as television Christmas specials), but become comfortable confining their full testimonies to them. Evangelicals are learning to be "fiddlers on the roof," conserving both their christological center and their commission as God's ambassadors to a world that needs redeeming. VeggieTales are a sign that they are beginning to get the hang of it.
1 This article takes into account the thirteen episodes of VeggieTales released as of mid-year 2000. At the time of this writing, a fourteenth episode, based on Esther, is due to be released in fall 2000.
2 See Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 196. Of Grenz's examples of evangelical ethicists, Oliver O'Donovan especially shows such sophistication.
4 James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume I (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 47-48; Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 17ff.
5 See Richard J. Mouw, "Commands for Grown-Ups," The God Who Commands (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 6-21. Hauerwas himself refuses to oppose teleological ethics to deontological ethics (23).
8 Confession: both Larry-Boy episodes, King George and the Ducky, Rack, Shack, and Benny, and The Toy that Saved Christmas. Forgiveness and reconciliation: King George and the Ducky, God Wants Me to Forgive Them? Are You My Neighbor? and The Toy that Saved Christmas. Prayer: Josh and the Big Wall, King George and the Ducky, and Madame Blueberry. Fellowship: Madame Blueberry (Is the final meal an agape feast, or is it communion?).
15 John Howard Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture," Glen Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 31-89.