Monthly Archives: March 2016

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Recollections

This episode starts with Tom Riley minding Whit’s End for Whit, while he visits the cemetery on the anniversary of his wife’s death. Connie is curious about her, so Tom tells a story.

Five years ago, Jenny Whitaker was advocating the renovation of the Filmore, an old rec center, which meant taking on new, modern, profit motivated Councilman Glossman. She opens with a passionate appeal to the council on its long history and nostalgic value to the community. Glossman tears this down in a moment. It’s old, but not even close to historically significant. At best, it has sentimental value. The council takes a break and Whit expresses some concerns to Jenny about how worked up she is. He admires her dedication, but doesn’t think it’s the most important issue in the world, and besides she’s been fighting one of those lingering colds that just hasn’t gone away. I’m sure that won’t come up again.

So what does Glossman want, and why does Jenny feel so strongly about this issue? Well, at first Jenny gets a policemen up to testify about juvenile delinquency, which made me think the Filmore used to have programs that effectively rehabilitated teens who were into drugs or something. But nope, Odyssey doesn’t have a delinquency problem. Of course not. Jenny argues that the reason they don’t have a problem is that places like the Filmore keep kids off the streets… you know, I should just cut to the point they take forever to make. The center is going to be torn down and the land sold to a mall, and that mall will have video games! Video games!!! VIDEO GAMES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Apart from saying “video games” in a voice most of us reserve for “North Korea,” Jenny’s main argument is that kids these days grow up so fast and they need a place where they can be children. I can’t honestly say I agree with that. I can’t honestly say I disagree either. I can’t figure out what the hell that means. Does Jenny mean that children are constantly required to sit and be quiet, and not given enough opportunities to move? Does she mean that we sometimes expect adult self-control from a two year old? If so, I’m right there with her. Is “growing up too fast” code for “know about sex”? Or even, “being taught sex ed that isn’t abstinence only”? If so, I’m not putting up with that bullshit from the same people who tell six year olds to cover our knees in case they remind grown-ups of breasts.

To be honest, given how often people in this episode say generically nostalgic things about the good old days, I suspect what she really means is that modern childhood is not identical to her childhood. Ideas and technology that she saw invented are the new normal for today’s children. Some things that were normal to her, in turn have gone away. To feel a sense of loss over that is natural but to actually expect the world to work differently is extremely silly.

Anyway, big bad modernizing arcade loving Glossman points out that renovating the center will cost money, selling the land will raise money, and she has provided no real reason to keep the building except for some sentimental value and moral panic. Which, based on the debates that have taken up half the episode is, um, accurate. You wouldn’t guess that from Jenny’s reaction, though. She storms on with won’t somebody please think of the children and what happened to the good old days when people cared about each other, and faints in the middle of the council.

Yup, she’s fallen prey to the literary cough of death. Of course, Whit’s initial reaction is to blame the building and the activists, but then he takes a trip to the building, and meets a little girl who is just so sad that its going to be torn down. She loves coming to play house, a game that she clearly can’t play anywhere else. She doesn’t want a mall with video games, because “you see one space alien, you’ve seen them all.” All she wants is to keep coming to the old building with her Mommy. Oh, and her name is Jenny.

So naturally Whit storms the council and buys the building out from under Glossman’s nose, giving him a lecture on how some people like the old things and we need to look after our kids. Oh yeah, despite living a very modest lifestyle Whit is insanely wealthy. This comes up every now and then.

So that’s how Whit’s End happened.

What honestly bothers me most about this episode, apart from the overuse of saccharine cliches, is that there’s the nugget of a good idea here. I don’t actually have a problem with promoting recreation that isn’t about staring at a screen all day. I do think the desire to make everything profitable can remove all entertainment that costs under twenty bucks, and that’s a problem. Above all, I think communities need spaces to just have fun together, whether they are rich or poor. In fact, one of my favorite shows of all time is largely about that.

Parks and Rec

What makes that show great is that it doesn’t boil issues down to simple, two sided good guy bad guy teams. I mean, sometimes there are arbitrarily obstrictive jerks, like Councilman Jam, but then the show actually bothers to establish that he’s an asshole. Glossman is talked about as if he was utterly despicable, but every stance he takes is completely reasonable, and he doesn’t have a bad personality. He doesn’t have a personality, period. On Parks and Rec, the writers would have bothered to characterize him, and also had the cast address his valid objections, regardless of their personal dislike. Perhaps they would have saved the Filmore with a fundraiser, or rented some concession stands to local businesses.

And, you know, then I would find myself able to have a complex opinion on events as they unfold, instead of being forced to side with the bloodsucking politician.


Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Connie Comes to Town

In the series of Veggie Tales reviews that I just wrapped up, I sometimes agreed with the moral and sometimes didn’t, but overall I could respect the basic intent and approach of the show. Furthermore, over the years as I’ve detoxed from harmful ideas that my conservative Christian upbringing immersed me in, Veggie Tales doesn’t come to mind often as a bad influence. Mostly I think it taught me good lessons. I can’t say the same thing about an equally integral part of my childhood; Adventures in Odyssey. Jesus Christ, that show.

Adventures in Odyssey is a radio drama produced by Focus on the Family, an organization designed to fund and promote all of the icky conservative things, from abstinence only sex ed to conversion therapy. Its founder is James Dobson, who also founded the Family Research Council, the organization whose name is code for “the research says gay and straight families are equally good, but lets pretend that it says the opposite of that.” This isn’t shocking because Dobson really loves misrepresenting research. I could rant about Dobson is for ages, but instead I’ll link to this post by Sirius Bizinus, which goes into more of his terrible advice to straight spouses and parents. Trigger warning for the world’s worst solution to domestic abuse.

On to the review. Odyssey is a small Midwestern town where a kindly, wise old man named Whit teaches kids valuable life lessons about how awesome conservative Christian values are. He owns Whit’s End, which is, well, here’s how it went when I tried to describe it to a friend.

Me: So, its all very religion themed and has books and displays about the Bible, but its not a church. It’s a kid’s hangout with games and activities and things, but its also kind of a restaurant. At least, it has ice cream and pizza? You can just leave your kids there and they’ll hang out being all wholesome and Christian.

Friend: Sounds like a Chuck-E-Cheese for Jesus.

Me: …yeah okay, that’s exactly what it is.

The trouble with Adventures in Odyssey was how, unlike Veggie Tales, it was tinged with a jingoistic self-righteousness, even at the best of times. Its a very “what happened to the good old days?” show, and people are often understood to be bad simply because they wear the wrong kinds of clothes, listen to loud music, or even come from a big city.

A perfect example of this is “Connie Comes to Town,” the episode that introduced my favorite character. The official moral is supposedly about being content. With Odyssey, you never have to guess these things, because an annoying woman named Chris opens the episode with a lecture and closes it with a Bible verses to reassure us that its sufficiently Christian. For the record, I found her annoying long before I was an atheist. Her voice has that gratingly artificial cheerfulness to it. She opens this episode with that “grass is always greener” cliche, and closes by clarifying that while simply being positive is a step in the right direction, the real secret to contentment is serving Jesus Christ. So, how does the middle support this aphorism sandwich?

Whit is overwhelmed at Whit’s End. There are crowds of kids and no one but him to manage things. He tells his friend Tom Riley how hard it is to find good help. Apparently he’s a bit particular, which is why, when Connie Kendall walks off the street looking for directions to a completely different place she’s applying to, he hires her on the spot.

Connie’s parents just divorced, and she moved to Odyssey with her Mom. She’s trying to earn enough money to move herself back to Los Angeles and live with her Dad (her Mom doesn’t know this plan). Also, she’s  not very religious. All of that is enough to establish that she’s a soul in desperate need of saving. Not going to church every single Sunday is bad enough, but add a big city and a tragically broken home (nobody from a good wholesome place like Odyssey would ever consider divorce), and clearly she’s a walking cry for help.

We are also introduced to Bobby, a preteen who is bored with the small town where there’s nothing to do but the Bible Bowl, which is this epic game where Whit, um, asks people questions about the Bible. Whit is sympathetic towards Bobby, albeit in a vaguely patronizing “I know how it is for you young people” way. Dreaming of a world where the trivia nights dare to dabble in sports records and US history is clearly a foolish adolescent phase.

Of course, Bobby develops a passionate crush on either Connie, or possibly the very concept of LA. I think for him the two are pretty much inseparable. He decides to run away to LA with her, fantasizing about being the big strong boyfriend who protects her with all his twelve year old might.

Initially, Whit raises some valid concerns about Connie’s plan while also acknowledging that it’s her choice. But when Bobby tells Whit he plans to go with her, Whit flips out. Oh, and he doesn’t talk to Bobby, or even Bobby’s parents. The blame for all this is placed squarely on Connie. Nevermind that it wasn’t her idea. Nevermind that she wasn’t even aware of how serious he was. (Bobby offhandedly brought it up once and she changed the subject. She is genuinely shocked when Whit brings it up again.) Whit lectures her on how impressionable the kid is and how he has a crush on her, as if any of that is her fault.

When pointing out her absolute lack of knowledge or intention to encourage Bobby just motivates Whit to say things like this.

“Every time you come in contact with another human being, something happens. Neither one of you is ever quite the same again.”

“You can’t drift through life thinking you aren’t going to influence anybody. God made each and every one of us dependent on each other, and he wants us to feel some responsibility for one another.”

“What kind of world are we going to have if nobody cares about anybody else?”

All of which is completely irrelevant to the situation at stake. The issue is not that Connie doesn’t care for anybody but herself. The next couple of episodes establish just the opposite. The issue is that Whit is taking a situation outside of her control or knowledge and making it her responsibility. Finally, Connie asks for some concrete suggests about what the hell she should do. Cut to…

Connie leading the Bible Bowl. This fixes everything, because reasons. She decides that the only reason she wanted to go back to LA was that she missed her friends, but goshdarnit, there are some lovely people right here in Odyssey. And I guess without Connie to follow Bobby’s dreams of running away just evaporate, or whatever.

Whit is way out of line to place the blame for Bobby’s plan on Connie, or to demand that she change her plans for his sake. His concerns about her leaving in the first place aren’t necessarily wrong, but are oversimplified. The episode addresses none of the following issues.

  • Did Connie’s Mom have reason to believe her father was an unsuitable guardian? Later episodes say they split because he cheated on her. There’s no suggestion that he was otherwise abusive, unloving or unstable, and its weird that this episode doesn’t even bring that up.
  • Was Connie given any say in which parent she stays with? It doesn’t sound like she was, which is bad. Even a minor much younger than her (she’s implied to be sixteen or seventeen) would normally have been consulted. At her age, the move will affect her high school transcripts and options for college. She has valid reasons to stay beyond “I miss my friends.” This isn’t to say running away is a good solution, but she might feel like her needs are being ignored and this is her only option.
  • Is she sure her father is still living in the same place and has space for her? Does she have backup plans, like trustworthy friends she can stay with or money for a bus ticket back?
  • Has Connie thought of what she will do if something goes wrong on the trip itself? The episode makes a big deal about how dangerous the bus trip from Illinois to California is for a young woman (what, you were expecting this show to be sexism free?), but when she insists on going, nobody gives her advice on how to make it safer. Fear mongering is no substitute for suggesting she hide some extra money in her shoes.

Maybe LA is the best place for Connie. Or, maybe she did need to learn how to be content where she was and see what Odyssey has to offer, before running off and scaring the shit out of her Mom. Where are the discussions that empower her to make a better decision, rather than guilt-tripping her into complying with the opinions of the Designated Moral Guardian?

This is unfortunately typical of Adventures in Odyssey’s approach. Even when it advocates caring for others, it fails to take the real needs of a person into consideration, just as it advocates learning and discovery while reflexively rejecting anything that feels modern or worldly. Examples of the latter, and many, many other problematic messages, coming soon!

As always, thanks for reading.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…



… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist: Jonah Part Two

Throughout their narration, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything make a big deal about compassion and mercy. In one scene they give definitions that I quite like. Compassion is “when you see someone who needs help, and you want to help them,” and mercy is “when you give someone a second chance, even if they don’t deserve it.”

They go on to say that of the two, mercy is most important, but you can’t have mercy without compassion. This connection seemed obvious to me at first, but then as I thought over it some more, it seemed arbitrary, almost like Yoda’s “fear leads to anger” speech in The Phantom Menace. Then, as I thought about it even more, it became brilliant. Their definition of mercy creates a question. If someone doesn’t deserve a second chance, why would you give it to them? Often in my childhood, the answer was “because God says so.” Occasionally it was even, “Matthew 6:15. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” This is kind of a terrifying verse when applied to people are mistreating you, saying they are sorry, and then mistreating you again, especially when you can’t get away from them. I think about this verse every time I’m informed that the Duggars have forgiven Josh Duggar for his hypocrisy and abuse.

Thankfully, Matthew 6:15 is not the answer the Pirates are giving. They imply that mercy is an act of compassion. People who have done something wrong may be in need of help, and a second chance may be the help they need. This applies directly to Jr.’s conflict with Laura, and Bob’s with Dad Asparagus. In the first case, Jr. can only see the brat who got her comeuppance, but there’s a bigger picture, one where they are both kids who do stupid things all the time and both have need of a break now and then. In the second, Dad Asparagus messed up, and feels terrible, but there’s no way to undo what happened. He apologized, and because Bob has been blowing him off he is worried he has completely ruined a friendship. At this point, both Jr. and Bob have legitimate grievances, but neither of them are balancing that with the compassion to see things from someone else’s perspective.

But let’s stick a pin in that and get back to Jonah.

Jonah snooty face
He’s not having the best week.

Jonah is stuck in the belly of a whale. Khalil tries to cheer him up, but this is ineffective, because Jonah just can’t get past the fact that he’s about to be, what’s the word? Oh yes, digested. Just as Jonah admits he was wrong to disobey, a choir of angels comes down to encourage Jonah. They tell him the story is not over, and though they aren’t specific about what comes next, they do tell him that God is the God of second chances.

Jonah Khalil pose
Naturally, when the choir of angels showed up Khalil was down to boogie.

Three days later, the whale gets sick and vomits Jonah and Khalil up, conveniently next to Jonah’s old camel. Well, it’s not the most pleasant way out, but it’s better than the alternative.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, but he’s still not happy about it, muttering “get in, give the message, get out.” On his arrival, he almost gets an excuse to bail, when the guard will not listen to him. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you see it, he once again runs into the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.

The Pirates, not willing to let an idea go just because its completely bonkers, used all Jonah’s payment to continue buying up twisted cheese curls, and did finally get the golden ticket to the factory in Nineveh. They are more than happy to smuggle Jonah in. I guess they figure that last time they obstructed his mission, even unintentionally, everybody almost drowned. Can’t blame that reasoning. This turns out to be not such a good deal for Jonah after all, because on one of their previous trips to the factory (apparently the golden ticket is good for multiple trips) Pirate Larry mistook some bags for free samples. The penalty for petty and entirely accidental theft, in Nineveh, is “the slap of no return!!!!!”

They tie you up to a pole and drop a giant metal fish on you. In a big gladiatorial arena. Oh, and they nab your friends and traveling companions to be slapped as well. Cause that’s fair and all.

Jonah Nineveh
Worst. Week. Ever.

Jonah attempts to mount a legal defense mid-execution, and when he mentions that he had just survived three days in a big fish’s stomach, the Ninevites take notice. I don’t know if you noticed, from all the subtle hints, but fish are kind of a big deal to them. This causes them to pay attention to his whole turn and repent speech, and they let him and his friends go.

Jonah promptly goes to find a good vantage point to watch the city be destroyed.

Yeah, turns out that through all of this, he never considered that the actual point of his speech would be for the Ninevites to be given a second chance that they might actually take. This part is all true to the original Bible story, but most children’s versions leave it out. Slaughter a whole city? A-ok. Moral complexity in your prophets? Woah, let’s not get crazy here. But, if any children’s Bible series was going to pleasantly surprise us all, it would be Veggie Tales.

Jonah climbs a mountain, just to get a good view of the destruction of buildings, and presumptive death of human beings, including children. It takes him a while to realize that this destruction isn’t going to happen. The Ninevites repented, and they meant it. They got right to work changing their ways and generally making amends, so for once God isn’t going to go all fire and brimstone on them. God doesn’t explain that to Jonah right away. First, he grows a tree, just to give Jonah a bit of shade, and perhaps a subtle hint that he’s gonna be waiting a lo-o-o-ong time. Then, he sends a worm to eat the tree and cause it to fall down. Jonah completely and utterly loses his shit.

Jonah Khalil tree
And you thought he was just the quirky sidekick. Turns out, he was the worm all along.

This was all to teach Jonah a complex and subtle lesson, which can be roughly summarized as “You literally care more about a single tree than thousands of men, women and children. What the fuck is wrong with you dude?!?!”

This is spelled out to him by Khalil. In the Bible, it was God himself who points out the hypocrisy of Jonah’s reaction. Apparently, he finally realized that communication via storms and convenient whales is perhaps a bit ambiguous. As in the Bible story, Jonah does not see reason, but instead throws himself to the ground, wailing that it would be better if he had died in the belly of the whale. Khalil decides to leave him. That is Jonah’s punishment; no whales, no fire and brimstone. For failing to accept that other people deserve the same second chances he wants for himself, he is left to wallow in his own selfish indignation. It is, in my opinion, the most just comeuppance ever delivered in the Bible.

The reaction of the veggies back home is similar to mine when I first heard the unedited version of the story. What? What the hell kind of ending is that? What? In this film, the happy ending is found not in a Hollywood rewrite, but in Bob and Jr. learning the lesson that Jonah didn’t. Bob finally accepts Mr. Asparagus’ apology, while Jr. offers his ticket to Laura, repairing their friendship. Then, of course, the musician in question shows up looking for directions, gives everybody backstage passes and ends this episode on a big musical number.

Jonah twippo
He looks oddly familiar…

I mentioned earlier that forgiveness was often presented to me as something that is required, on pain of not being forgiven yourself. And when your religion says everyone is inherently sinful and needs to be forgiven to not be burned alive for all eternity, that’s a legitimately terrifying prospect to have imprinted on you. So its interesting to note that in this movie, Jonah himself isn’t forgiven. Jonah gets a second chance, but he doesn’t get a third chance. You could say this is because he isn’t sorry, so the lesson is still forgive everyone who is willing to say sorry, but I want to analyze things a little further. Jonah’s first crime is running away, his second is preparing to gloat over the destruction of a city, and what both of them have in common is that he is unwilling to see the Ninevites as being equally worthy of forgiveness. Earlier, I noted how his line “your messages are meant for me” implies a mentality where he is the center of the story. He expects to be told what to do and given opportunities to make up for it when he makes a mistake, but he doesn’t even want to consider that there are other sides to his own story. It’s his lack of compassion that makes him unable to truly get over his own faults.

And that’s the real difference between him and the Ninevites, as well as Laura and Mr. Asparagus. Mr. Asparagus had his own perspective, where he was just trying to keep everyone’s spirits up, but was willing to see that Bob had another, equally valid one where he wasn’t being given the help he really needed. Laura initially refuses to take Jr’s seat, which shows she isn’t a permanently selfish person, but a kid who, like Jr., is capable of moments of good and bad, and still learning to have more of the former than the latter. We aren’t shown the Ninevites’ reaction, but we are informed their change of heart was genuine. Jonah was willing to say sorry to get out of a bad situation, but his attitude towards the rest of the world didn’t fundamentally change.

In my experience, that’s highly accurate of toxic people. Anyone can move their mouth and say “I’m sorry,” but it is only people who can adjust their point of view who get around to changing their behaviors. This movie managed to emphasize the importance of compassion and mercy while still giving us permission to step away from those who are stuck in damaging old behaviors, and that’s a balanced, honest message that I can really get behind.

I’m working on my next series of Reviews as an Atheist, and I can’t wait to start sharing them with all of you. Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Jonah Part One

This is the last of my Veggie Tale reviews for the time being. It is the last one I watched before I began to drift away from Christianity; though they have made more episodes, there is so much religious childhood nostalgia for me to unbury. Perhaps when I’ve run out of things from my past, I’ll take a peek at some of the more recent episodes.

Jonah was a big challenge for its producers. Unlike the thirty minute shorts, it was a feature length film, released in big scary secular theaters and everything. It did perform very well; their loyal fans turned out, and critics overall quite liked it as well. And, on rewatch, I found it a great note to end on.

The film takes a story within a story format. We first see Bob the Tomato, Mr. Asparagus and a van full of young veggies driving in the dark. They are all on their way to a concert. Jr. and Laura are sitting together, and Laura is bragging that while everyone else just has regular sit-in-the-audience tickets, she has the super special go-backstage-and-meet-the-singer ticket! Bob is struggling to figure out where they are, while Mr. Asparagus is pretty much just singing and playing guitar. No doubt he thinks “entertaining the kids” is an important job enough, and so he throws himself into it and completely overlooks the subtle hints Bob is dropping about maybe needing a hand with navigating. Also, he keeps hitting Bob in the face with his guitar.

Jonah road trip
I love Bob’s hat.

Hijinks ensue, clotheslines and porcupines get involved, until at last

  • The van has crashed into a stump
  • Not one but two tires are flat
  • Bob has a face full of porcupine quills
  • Laura loses her ticket.

The only place to crash and make some phone calls is a seafood restaurant. Laura is upset, Jr. is angry at her for taunting them, and Bob is even angrier at Dad Asparagus, who in turn feels guilty. All the chaos is overheard by the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything debuted in the objectively best Silly Song With Larry ever. Here’s a link, do yourself a favor and play it. Now, later, while you read the rest; doesn’t matter. Just listen to it. No Jesus stuff at all, I promise. Anyway, they consist of Larry, Pa Grape and Mr. Lunt, wearing pirate costumes and not giving a fuck. In this movie they tell us about the one time they actually did something, and learned a valuable lesson about compassion that Bob and Jr should maybe listen to.

The story opens in the port of Joppa, where Pirate Grape, Pirate Lunt and Pirate Larry are working on their fool-proof get rich quick scheme; eat so many Mr. Twisty’s Twisted Cheese Curls that by the law of large numbers they come across a golden ticket and win the sweepstakes. Shockingly, this plan has resulted in them being seriously broke.

Jonah Pirates
The Pirates, executing their get rich quick scheme.

We also meet the Ninevites. Nineveh was a city in Assyria, and in the Bible it is described as very generically wicked. Of course, Veggie Tales has to take things one step weirder, so the Ninevites are also notorious fish slappers. As in they take a fish, and slap people. In the face. With the fish. Because reasons.

See? See why I love Veggie Tales so much?

We are then introduced to the man himself, Jonah, prophet of the Lord. He shows up to the Jews of Joppa and sings a song about being good and obedient. Conveniently for him, the people he is singing to are already being pretty good and mostly obedientish, so that goes well. We are being introduced to a guy who is solidly in his comfort zone; taking God’s word to people already predisposed to agree with it. He’s respected and powerful for doing nothing all that hard. This all gets shaken up when, later that night, Jonah is told to go preach to Nineveh.

He sings about how there must be some kind of mistake, and how much he hates the idea of talking to the bad guys. The refrain of the song is “no, this cannot be, your messages are meant for me (and my brothers).” I love the awkwardness of that addendum. Because it doesn’t fit the rhyme or meter, it suggests that Jonah actually does mean, not “your messages are meant for my people” but “for me.” His ego is tied up in his role as prophet, and Nineveh isn’t just a conflict for him because he sees them as bad. He doesn’t like seeing them as people worthy of a second chance because that forces him to acknowledge a narrative where he isn’t the center of the story.

The next morning, Jonah wanders through the streets in a daze, while people ask him about the new message, and he freaks out. He claims there isn’t one for today, but the lie itself panics him, and he soon finds himself booking passage with the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. Their great cheese curl failures have made them so desperate they are actually willing to do something.

The Pirates do their best to keep Jonah preoccupied, but he’s in a pretty deep funk, so soon he goes below deck. There he meets Khalil, a brand new character who is positively made of awesome. He’s a blue caterpillar (erm, half caterpillar half worm, this will come up later) who sells Persian rugs and listens to motivational tapes. He’s perpetually cheerful and trusting, and so a perfect foil to Jonah’s morose superciliousness.

Jonah Khalil
Just look at that face!

Jonah, being a tasteless bastard, finds Khalil annoying and takes to calling him Carlyle, and its honestly hard to tell how much that is apathy and how much is “I can’t be bothered to learn your actual name.” He soon tunes the caterpillar out, and falls asleep. His sleep is troubled with nightmares about running away from God, and he wakes up to find the ship has been caught up in a terrible storm.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything decide that somebody on board has displeased God, and therefore they should figure out who it is. Since God is clearly not the most forthright of beings (I mean, he’s sending natural meterological phenomena to communicate specific disappointment with a specific person) they figure they’ll all play a game of Go Fish, and the loser is clearly the one who caused the storm. This being a Bible story with Bible rules, Jonah loses and confesses to everyone. The Pirates make him walk the plank, and Pirate Grape first prays that God not kill them with this storm, nor hold them responsible for Jonah’s death, because, you know, they totally didn’t start it! I love this for three reasons. First, it’s the only acknowledgement you will ever see in a story like this that God comes across kinda capricious and scary. Second, it’s actually Biblical. Third, Pirate Larry follows it with “And please keep my ducky safe. Amen.”

Jonah and the ducky
Nope. No words. I have no words.

Of course, the moment Jonah hits the water, the storm clears, and a whale comes up to swallow him. Ya’ll should know this bit.

Oh, and Khalil gets swallowed too, because wacky hijinks. I really can’t do them justice, so just take a good look at that picture of Jonah with the ducky floatie and the shower cap. And, of course, stay tuned for part two.