Of Love and Lightbulbs: VeggieTales and the Power/Folly of the Gospel

Is VeggieTales Christ-ian?

       I’ve come to realize that much of one of my favorite examples of Christian culture-making growing up, Big Idea’s long-running animated series VeggieTales, was not all that distinctly Christian. What I mean, taking the word very literally, is that VeggieTales has little to it that is uniquely Christ-ian. Is VeggieTales theistic? Certainly. Does it teach biblical morality? Yes—but morality without Christ creates moralists, not Christians. Though theistic, biblically moral, and embedded in the fabric of the evangelical, American, cultural Christianity of the past twenty years, not much of VeggieTales is centered around a theology of Christ the cosmos-creating, cosmos-sustaining, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, someday-soon-returning, and eternity-reigning Lord. 

       I am concerned that, if we defined Christian art as art shot through with a thoroughly biblical Christology, we might find that many of our Christian movies, music, and books are merely moralistic, theistic, or culturally, but not genuinely, Christian. The message of Christ’s death for sins and His resurrection is “of first importance”; it is the gospel which saves us, in which we must continue to stand (1 Corinthians 15:1–4). [1] Something is wrong with Christian culture-making if what is of first importance in Christianity is not clearly presented to be of first importance in its art.

What is Christian Art? 

       “Christian art” is, of course, a disputed term. Some would define it narrowly, so that only works like church music and portrayals of biblical scenes would qualify. Others would define it broadly, so that anything a Christian artist makes is automatically Christian. Still others would say that Christian art does not even exist. “Art does not get saved,” they would say; “only people do.” 

       I would insist that Christian art does exist. Christian art is Christ-ian; it is art about Christ. This definition takes a middle ground between the narrower and broader definitions. It is narrow in its specificity and because it excludes many things, and yet also broad in that, if we recognize the lordship of Christ over all things, it is far from being overly rigid and limiting. The definition presents creative possibilities for truly Christian art that are as infinite as the glories of Christ are infinite. 

       Granted, my proposed definition needs nuance and further explanation and defense. I hope to continue to explore its implications, and make revisions to it if necessary, in future writings. For now, I would simply like to show how it interacts with an example of art that typically would be labelled Christian: namely, a particular episode of VeggieTales, titled The Star of Christmas.    

Teaching London to Love—with Lightbulbs

       Released in 2002, The Star of Christmas is one of the few episodes of VeggieTales that I would call Christ-ian. (Incidentally, another VeggieTales episode that I would call Christ-ian, An Easter Carol, is the sequel to The Star of Christmas, and the only episode I know of that addresses the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.) The Star of Christmas is also, intentionally or not, a subtle critique of the Christian art that is not Christ-ian, even of VeggieTales itself.  

       In this episode, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are playwrights living in a Dickensian London. Dismayed at the fallen world around them, the two decide to stage a musical that will “teach London to love.” Bob is convinced that his show will attract an audience, and will impart its transformative message, if he can accomplish the following objectives: 

  • One, open the musical on Christmas Eve. 
  • Two, stage catchy musical numbers. 
  • Three, cast an A-list actress. 
  • Four, have the crown prince, who is a theater aficionado, in attendance on opening night.
  • Five, showcase a technical innovation to draw in the crowds: lightbulbs. 

       This is Bob’s secret weapon, the one he invests more hope in than any of the other items in his master plan: Lightbulbs. Lightbulbs on sets. Lightbulbs on costumes. Lightbulbs everywhere. Bob is like a modern blockbuster director: special effects and spectacle, he believes, are what people want, and he focuses on these to the neglect of developing a strong, compelling story. Indeed, even by the standards of VeggieTales wackiness, the songs and the plot of the musical are ridiculous. Moreover, the lightbulbs cannot live up to the hype. They are clunky, unruly, and a fire hazard.  

       But Bob and Larry have bigger things to worry about than their electricity bill or finding words that rhyme with blossom (hint: it’s possum). They face competition from the least likely of places. Junior Asparagus, the preacher’s kid at the church nearby, is directing a Christmas pageant to be performed that same night. With his father’s approval, the church’s most prized possession, an ancient relic known as the Star of Christmas, is going to be featured in the play. The crown prince—and everyone else in London, it seems—is far more interested in seeing the Star of Christmas unveiled to the public than in watching French peas dancing around in lightbulb caps. Bob—so much for teaching London how to love—is jealous.

       Fast-forward past the parts where Bob and Larry steal the Star, set their theater on fire, and wind up in prison. To Bob’s shock, they are bailed out by Junior and his father. This is an act of love more touching than anything in Bob and Larry’s script, and it anticipates what is coming next. Fast-forward again, past the scene where the four of them race to get to the church on time in a rocket-boosted motor car (the typical VeggieTales hijinks), and the episode arrives at a moment of astounding clarity. Standing beside Junior’s father and watching as the Christmas pageant unfolds, Bob has an epiphany. Already amazed that the Asparaguses paid his bail, Bob now sees the reason behind this amazing grace. He tells Mr. Asparagus, “There’s only one story that can teach London how to love—and this is it.” 

       This is it? Presumed to be lost in the theater fire, there is no Star of Christmas to showcase. [2] There are no musical numbers. There are no A-list actors, just a few kids nervously plodding their way through line readings. The stagecraft includes a cardboard manger and a sheep costume made of cotton balls. The script is simply a reading of the nativity from the gospel of Luke. By the standards of any theater critic, there is nothing to see here—just like, by man’s standards, there was nothing to see in a certain stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Neither was there anything to see in a man bloodied and bruised beyond human likeness, hanging naked from a tree, dying a shameful death reserved for the worst of criminals. But this is it. 

Teaching the World to Love—with the Gospel

       The filmmakers over at Big Idea got this one right: There’s only one story that can teach our broken cities to love, and it is the gospel. In the final scene of The Star of Christmas, we see that the gospel story has transformed Bob, changing him from someone who steals and schemes of ways to elevate himself at the expense of others, to one who gives and seeks ways to bless others. He returns to the jail on Christmas morning to give food and company to the criminal who, the day before, was his cellmate and mocked his dreams of teaching London to love. It is true, Bob has failed to teach London to love; but now, he has learned how to love London himself, not with a show, but with the love of Christ. 

       This, I argue, is Christ-ian art—or at least, something awfully close to it. Christ, coming into the world as a helpless babe, becoming the suffering servant, and dying as an atonement lamb to save sinners, is held up as the only hope for mankind. The filmmakers recognize that only the gospel of Christ has the power to save. However—and this is the genius of The Star of Christmas—they also recognize that the power of the gospel is at the same time folly to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18). The “big idea” of The Star of Christmas comes not from a grandiose, high-wattage musical finale, but from a humble stage and the voice of children.

The Power/Folly of the Gospel

       Perhaps the folly of the gospel is why Christian art is not always Christ-ian. The gospel makes non-believers uncomfortable, and even offends them, because it calls them to repent of their sins and trust in a crucified Savior. What is more, the gospel can make even Christians uncomfortable, particularly because it makes them look foolish in the sight of the world. It is not surprising, then, that churches and Christian artists are tempted to try and make Christianity more palatable. Like Bob, churches try to draw crowds with spectacle, and Christian artists chase after better and better production values. Survey the latest Christian films opening at the multiplex. How many filmmakers have been running on the assumption that what “faith-based” films need most is better writing and cinematography and an A-list actor on the poster? [3] As good as those things can be, how often are they actually put in service of proclaiming the power and the folly of the cross?  A truly gospel-centered film may not win many awards, but people will walk away from it with a clearer picture of the Savior we proclaim.

       If, in Bob and Larry’s attempts to launch a hit musical, there is a satire of recent Christian filmmaking, there also seems to be a knowing criticism directed at VeggieTales itself. Again, though I grew up laughing and singing along with Bob, Larry, and the rest of the vegetable gang, apart from The Star of Christmas, The Easter Carol, and an earlier Christmas episode, I can’t remember any time when Christ was mentioned. VeggieTales encouraged me to be moral, but it didn’t encourage me to repent of my sins and put my faith in Christ. VeggieTales was more like Bob and Larry’s musical than Junior’s pageant. The year The Star of Christmas was released was the same year Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie arrived in theaters. Big Idea was at the height of its popularity and influence—a high that would soon be followed by some severe lows. With The Star of Christmas, I can picture the filmmakers asking themselves, “Have we sold off the gospel so we could buy more lightbulbs and draw more crowds?” [4]

       I absolutely would not discourage Christians from pursuing artistic excellence and seeking a wide audience. [5] However, before we send off more of our young adults to film school or look for more funding for special effects, we ought to seriously consider the humbling fact that God uses the foolish and weak things of this world to shame the wise and strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). We ought to ask ourselves whether we really trust in the power of the gospel to save. If we faithfully represent the gospel—even as we do our best to make our art as excellent as possible—we can surrender control and put our faith, not in the power of our art, but in the power of our Savior.

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Notes

  1. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2.  Someone might object to my interpretation of The Star of Christmas by saying that the Star functions much like the lightbulbs: it is a publicity stunt to boost attendance. People—er, vegetables—did not come to the church to watch an amateur show; they came to see a novelty. However, though there is an obvious similarity between the star and the lightbulbs—both are light sources—Mr. Asparagus and his son’s reasons for using the Star are different than Bob’s reasons for using lightbulbs or stealing the Star. The church does not expect the Star to teach London to love. It is simply an ornamentation. Bob, however, thinks the lightbulbs will be instrumental in the heart transformation of his audience. Moreover, those who do come to the pageant may already be aware of the theft of the Star, and of its supposed destruction in the theater fire. In any case, the audience’s reception of the pageant is not soured by the Star’s absence. If they came to see the Star, they left with something far greater.
  3. Using the neutralized term “faith-based film” instead of “Christian film” is itself telling. 
  4. After leaving Big Idea, VeggieTales co-creator Phil Vischer produced the more theologically-informed and gospel-centered What’s in the Bible?  Read more about Phil Vischer and his journey away from VeggieTales here and here.
  5. For a thorough explanation of why the power and folly of the gospel should not discourage us from “poetic effort,” see John Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 2014), 17–40.