Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Where’s God When I’m S-s-scared?

If you didn’t grow up Christian, odds are you’ve never heard of Veggie Tales. If you did, there’s still a distinct possibility that you haven’t. If you not only grew up Christian, but grew up during the nineties with parents who were wary of turning on the television, for fear  that the rampant secularism would drag you to hell, odds are that not only have you heard of Veggie Tales, but you watched them long past when you should have outgrown them. Like with the Disney animated canon and Winnie-the-Pooh, you pretended to be over them for a millisecond in middle school, and then came to your senses. Your parents watched them with you, not because they had to, but because they were genuinely entertained. You dressed up like them for Halloween the All Saint’s Eve celebration with lots of candy but none of the Satanism that those trick-or-treating kids were unwittingly engaging in. If those of you not immersed in this culture think I’m exaggerating, bear in mind that my older sister’s friends, who were in their mid to late teens, thought someone was the coolest shit ever if they owned this shirt.

Bob the Tomato, one of the protagonists. And we all thought it was the coolest shirt ever.
That would be Bob the Tomato, for the uninitiated.

The power of nostalgia is strong indeed. When I turned the first episode on, I was trying really hard to look out for ideas I could analyze, but honestly most of my brain was just going, “It’s that song! I remember that song! I know all the words still! Squeeee!”

Now, I should note that not everyone who was a fan of this series was a radically conservative Christian. It was just particularly popular among that crowd because, well, it was a huge fish in a dinky-ass pond. Censorship happy Christians tend to find themselves with a small catalog of morality tales available to show their kids, and most of them really suck. Veggie Tales didn’t suck. The stories were actually good and the jokes were actually funny. Ergo, it was huge, so huge that Family Christian Bookstores could have called themselves “Veggie Tales and Also Some Angel Figurines on That Table Over There.”

The show usually starts with Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber introducing the moral, and then the vegetables all enact one or two stories illustrating it. Veggie Tales has a recurring ensemble cast, and it can get a little confusing because those characters can appear in stories playing either themselves, or be themselves playing a character. To make that a little less confusing, they do generally fill the same sorts of roles. Bob the Tomato is the most adult of the recurring characters, and usually plays the role of everyman and/or voice of reason. Larry the Cucumber has a silly and childlike personality, but while he has probably the most versatile repertoire he always retains a bit of goofiness (he also happens to be my favorite). I’ll explain the others as they are introduced. There is also traditionally a Silly Song With Larry, which is exactly what it says on the tin and has no point whatsoever, except to be fantastic.

After the story, Bob and Larry go to Qwerty, the computer, for a Bible verse to cap off the episode. The moral intro – story – Bible verse closing format was pretty standard in the sorts of stories I grew up with, and typically the only part I liked was the story in the middle. The intro and Bible verse was just preachy and annoying, and this is coming from someone who likes moral philosophizing (just wait until I get to Adventures in Odyssey and start ranting about Chris. Grrrrr…. Chris). Veggie Tales, was the exception, because while they used the format they also didn’t take themselves too seriously. There was a running gag that, at the end, whenever Bob announced it was time for the Bible verse, the “What We Have Learned” song would start playing. The song was annoying, but it was as annoying to Bob as it was to all of us and he would fruitlessly try to stop it. Hijinks ensued, and then they got to the verse.

The first episode opens with Bob and Larry standing on the kitchen counter talking about a letter they got from a kid viewer. Even though it’s their first episode and they don’t have any viewers yet. You know, when I was first watching these, I had daydreams of someday writing my own letters and having them inspire an episode, but now I’m suspecting that might not have been how it worked at all. Anyway, the letter writing totally-not-a-show-writer kid has been getting scared, like kids do, and so Bob and Larry introduce a pair of stories teaching the lesson that you shouldn’t be scared because God is looking out for you.

The first story centers around Jr. Asparagus. Jr. Asparagus is the audience surrogate, and his personality is a bit inconsistent. He is alternately naughty and a goody-two shoes, not based on any sort of internal logic but just based on whether the story currently requires him to be one or the other. He’s my least favorite character, which is unfortunate because when Bob and Larry aren’t the protagonists, usually Jr. is. In this story, he watches “Frankencelery” before bed and can’t sleep because he’s seeing monsters in his toy chest and his closet and so on. Then, to prove to him that the world really isn’t full of horrors, two adult strangers suddenly appear in his bedroom.

Yeah, that one came across  a little differently on rewatch.

"Hi, I'm Bob. I'm a tomato, and I'm here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative."
“Hi, I’m Bob. I’m a tomato, and I’m here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative.”

Anyway, the strangers are Bob and Larry, who have been magically teleported into his room to explain that everything is okay, because God is looking out for us, and also to introduce Jr. to the actor who plays Frankencelery (that should be Frankencelery’s monster, or Adam to his friends, but I didn’t write the script). The actor reassures Jr. that he’s actually quite nice and nobody got hurt for real in the movie, and they all teach him a song to cheer him up next time he gets scared. Afterwards, Jr’s Dad comes in to talk to him about the movie and give the kind of talk responsible parents have with their kids who have just been scared by a monster movie, only to find that the episode has done his parenting for him. This is fairly typical of their relationship.

The second story is Daniel in the Lion’s Den, starring Larry as Daniel. Later Veggie Tales will play around with the Bible stories they tell, but this one tells it straightforwardly. King Darius, played by Archibald Asparagus (the default veggie for snooty, supercilious roles) has a dream that none of his wise men can explain. Daniel shows up and explains it with the help of God, gaining the king’s favor and leaving the wise men wondering why they didn’t just pull something Freudian out of their asses.

These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.
These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.

The wise men then enact Biblical Evil Wise Men Plan A; get the king to declare himself God and promise to punish anyone who worships anyone else, knowing that the Biblical Protagonist will never betray his principles! They have, however, forgotten to read to the part where this always ends in the Biblical Protagonist being punished but miraculously saved, and the king then takes it out on said Biblical Evil Wise Men. So Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den, but an angel keeps all the actual lions away, so that doesn’t go according to plan at all. All the while it is repeated that Daniel reminded himself not to be afraid because he knew God was with him, thus tying it into the overall theme.

This is a tricky moral for me to talk about because, on the one hand, I don’t agree with it, but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, just that it assumes a premise that I currently reject; “God exists.” Now, some atheists do have issues with this kind of thing because Christians are using them to indoctrinate their kids in the idea that God exists before they have a chance to make up their own minds. On the other hand, many Christians would say the same thing about atheists, that they’re indoctrinating their kids with God’s nonexistence and probably dooming them to hell. The reality is that everybody teaches their kids based on what they believe, and probably all of us will end up teaching our kids some things that are not entirely correct. You can’t just take what you believe and say that nobody can teach their own kids anything outside of that, and that cuts both ways. However, I do think it’s unethical to insist on your kids only being exposed to one set of beliefs. People often say, “I don’t want my children to be confused by X,” to which I respond, “why the hell not?” We learn to think by being confused, by encountering contradictions and alternatives and not being sure what the truth is. It’s no different from becoming strong by exercising until we are tired, or growing as people by going through difficult circumstances. And sure, sometimes people look at two ideas and choose the one that isn’t true, but would you really rather they never had the choice?

So what does all that have to do with Veggie Tales? On the one hand, nothing. This show is not itself indoctrination, it’s just showing a Christian point of view. On the other hand, it was often used as indoctrination, in that many parents chose to use it as a way to placate their children’s desire for television while avoiding exposing them to anything that struck them as remotely un-Christian, and the sorts of people who follow that mentality tend to have a very broad definition of un-Christian (in my own family, The Hunchback of Notre Dame counted, because of Esmeralda’s neckline, and also Mulan for… reasons?) But I do think it’s important to make the distinction between what a thing is, and how it can be used. The show could, for the most part, fit just as easily into the home of Christians who saw absolutely nothing wrong with Harry Potter.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m going to have as many negative comments on this one, because most of these stories are just basic common sense child appropriate morals that happen to have a Bible verse at the end. I promise I’ll still take out my angry atheist hammer if I think it’s warranted, and there are a couple episodes where it will be, but for the most part this show holds up even post-conversion.

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