Watching Dogma With a Nun

Note from the future: I ended up a neopagan witch. The nun is still my best friend. This is not relevant to anything. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.

What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.

When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.

After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.

The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

Watching Dogma When I Doubted

When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.

At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.

So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.

I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.

Metatron

Metatron is Alan Rickman, which in and of itself is reason enough to watch this film.

When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.

God

Oh yeah, and God is played by Alanis Morissette

I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.

But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.

Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist: Jonah Part Two

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

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 a 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 VeggieTales.

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 VeggieTales as an Atheist; Jonah Part One

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

This is the last of my VeggieTales 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 VeggieTales 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 meeting a guy who is solidly in his comfort zone; taking God’s word to people who already 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 (with a rubber floaty ducky), 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. I mean, there were lots drawn instead of Go Fish, and no duck floaties, but otherwise it’s exactly how things play out in the Bible. 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.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.

Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion or morality, but a whole lot to say about good writing.

Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to hold onto their faith and cultural identity. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some kind of a striptease? It’s one of those cases where the Biblical writers are being wink-wink about customs that we don’t know much about. But there’s a definite suggestion that she was being coerced to do something skanky.

This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feel  happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine the live action version of Aladdin had Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.

Mr. Nezzer...
Mr. Nezzer…
...and Mr. Lunt
…and Mr. Lunt

As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.

So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.

Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.

Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a valid reason to be scared.

This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.

Just look at that face.
Just look at that face.

The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.

The Grim Tickler
The Grim Tickler

Payoff of the first plot point; Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her. Even so, she waits until almost the end of the episode to spit it out.

Payoff of the second plot point; the king rewards Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.

Payoff of the third plot point: in the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. He sends Haman off to be eternally tickled instead. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.

Er, tickled.

On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.

Veggietales’ The Toy That Saved Christmas; An Atheist’s Perspective on the Nativity

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

Christmas is a time of traditions. For some it’s touring the neighborhood lights displays. For some it’s putting on Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving. One friend of mine does not consider the season real until they have drunk spiked eggnog while watching Ralphie get his Red Rider BB gun with this thing that tells time. Traditions have many uses. They invoke nostalgia, provide a sense of stability, and often exist as a reminder of some deeper value. That last one is especially true of Christmas. Every other song and TV special is about finding its true meaning, which I suppose means one tradition is going a hunt for the point behind the traditions. Truly, it is the most meta of the holidays.

This episode has George the scallion telling his granddaughter a story about a town that didn’t get Christmas. Not in the Narnia cursed by the White Witch sense, but in the sense that they didn’t understand its true meaning. The little veggies all whine about toys and beg for more, because evil toymaker Mr. Nezzar is indoctrinating them through commercials to think that the whole point of life is to have more stuff than other kids. So, basically a documentary so far.

All that changes when one of Mr. Nezzar’s toys, Buzz-saw Louis, starts to feel that he is missing something.

Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.
Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis. For kids!

There isn’t really any reason for this. Narrator George speculates that his wiring was a little off. In any case, he breaks free, teams up with Larry, Bob and Jr Asparagus, and they all go looking for someone to tell them the true meaning of Christmas. This person turns out to be Grandpa George, who tells them the Nativity story.

Actually, he just does that thing Linus does in the Peanuts special, where he starts from “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…” and stops just after the angels show up, which always struck me as odd. Explaining the true meaning of Christmas by quoting those seven verses is like explaining the Hero’s Journey by describing that time Han Solo got frozen in carbonite. Sure, it’s intriguing, but you don’t really come close to grasping the real point without knowing the whole of Empire Strikes Back, and ideally you should have seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi as well.

At least in the Peanuts special, there was room for Charlie Brown to have been familiar with the whole story from another source, and Linus was just reminding him after the guy had a rough time. In this case, Louis has just been manufactured, and as for Larry, Bob and Jr., all it took was a few commercials to completely obliterate any sense of deeper meaning behind the holiday. Clearly they haven’t been living inundated with the whole “original sin – incarnated deity – death and resurrection” mythos.

Despite their ignorance, George just has to follow those verses up with “you see, Christmas isn’t about getting. It’s about giving,” and they have a total change of heart. Even though the verses he quoted don’t say anything about getting OR giving, and you have to be fairly familiar with Christianity to see the connections between those two messages. It should all sound like a chain of non-sequiters to these characters.

Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.
Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.

Of course, they immediately feel an urgent need to get the message out, so they sneak back into Mr. Nezzar’s factory, where they put together their own commercial and broadcast it into everyone’s home. And naturally, all the kids immediately stop whining, families start cuddling and all is well.

If you’ve read my previous VeggieTales posts, you know that every episode featuring Mr. Nezzar has him threaten somebody with death, only to be redeemed at the last minute, at which point everyone acts like he wasn’t just on the verge of being an extremely enthusiastic murderer. This is no exception. Mr. Nezzar is angry that they’ve ruined his moneymaking scheme and prepares to send the protagonists all over a cliff, taunting them with their imminent death, until the villagers surprise him with a Christmas present and the holiday spirit overtakes him. Mr. Nezzar rescues Buzz-saw Louis and friends in an epic sled-chase, and all is better.

For the record, of all the Nezzar redemption arcs this the one I like best, because at least he does something to show his change of heart is genuine, as opposed to just saying he’s totally not a psychopath anymore.

A brief summary like this can’t help but leave out all the jokes that make this episode, as usual, charming. I mean, Mr. Nezzar’s minions are penguins. Penguins!

pennnnguiiiiiiiins
pennnnguiiiiiiiins

But the advantage of a summary is that it lays out the weaknesses of the plot, without anything to disguise it. Characters are farcically impressionable, swayed this way and that by whatever commercial or story they last heard. There isn’t anything meaningful at the heart of this story, for a very simple reason. The Nativity is just like any other Christmas tradition. It is a series of symbols, and needs active interpretation to uncover the point beneath it all.

As in so many things Christian, I don’t actually have a problem with the story of Christ’s birth, just the assumption that anyone who doesn’t make it the center of their holiday is missing the entire point of everything. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it isn’t even the entire point of Christmas; the holiday has roots in virtually every pagan winter solstice celebration from Iceland to Russia. The traditions carry history, but the meaning is something we rediscover and reinvent with every new generation. You can’t find Christmas by narrowing in on one story. You pick what you think it should mean, and you home in on the traditions that bring those to life for you.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Larry-boy and the Rumor Weed

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

You know, the whole reason my parents had me watch all this stuff was to make sure I grew up fitting into a narrow, curated image of normality virtuous and pleasing unto God. When I rewatched this for my review, I was drinking a bourbon and coke while my gay boyfriend lounged totally naked on the couch. Not for any pervy reasons, it was just laundry day. Still, take that fundy upbringing!

This one, like the previous Larry-boy, scared me as a kid, but I did watch it, very bravely. Hooray for young me. It opens with Larry-boy saving two peas from an evil scallion who took their milk money. This establishes that Larry-boy is a real superhero, despite the fact that Jr. will once again be the actual day-saver.

Oh, and that Larry accidentally creates the villain by knocking a plant onto the telephone wires of a gossiping housewife.

I love how she's vaguely sinister, and yet kinda weirdly likeable. Like you should know she's trouble, but you're so gonna talk to her anyway.
I love how she’s vaguely sinister, and yet kinda weirdly likeable. Like you should know she’s trouble, but you’re so gonna talk to her anyway.

The next day, Alfred gives a talk at Jr’s school, and when he makes a joke about recharging his batteries, Jr concludes that he’s a robot. This is understandable. Personality-wise, Alfred is basically C-3PO. On Jr’s walk home, he encounters this little plant, and the robot rumor officially starts.

Soon, Mayor Blueberry is making a call to Larry. It seems that the rumor weed has been sending out shoots in everyone’s yard. Wherever she goes, she spreads the rumor of Alfred the robot, and in the typical telephone game of gossip, he soon acquires laser eyes and a plan to rule the world. Mayor Blueberry warns Larry about the dangerous rumors, and also the plummeting property values. No, the last part was not me being snarky. It’s actually something she says. God, I love Veggie Tales.

Here we have Veggie Tales making a nod to feminism. I think this episode wins most female speaking parts in VT history. Sadly.
Here we have VeggieTales making a nod to feminism. I think this episode wins most female speaking parts in VeggieTales history. Sadly.

So while the rumor weed sings her villain song, Larry-boy engages in some ineffectual gardening. Naturally, being a supervillain, she’s immune to any standard weapons.

Alfred uses science to find the mother weed at heart of the root system. Unfortunately, once Larry-boy is underground, he can’t receive Alfred’s radio directions. Larry-boy’s superpowers are basically 1. super-suction ears and 2. Alfred micromanaging everything via radio, and frankly the super-suction ears don’t work that well. He’s slightly screwed. Alfred realizes this, at sets off to save him. On a teeny tiny scooter. I am so sorry I couldn’t find a decent picture.

When Alfred gets to the center of town, nobody will help him because they think he’s a robot.

Actual line; "I'm not a robot. I'm British!"
Actual line; “I’m not a robot. I’m British!”

As the weed threatens Larry-boy, and the townsfolk threaten Alfred, Jr’s dad finally shows up and sets Jr straight. “Recharge my batteries” is an idiom; a weird one, but it doesn’t mean Alfred is a robot. Just, you know, Alfred-ish.

The Jr and Laura Carrot realize that if they go say nice things about him, the weed stops being evil and starts sprouting flowers. And thus, the day is saved! Except that there’s still an enormous weed covering all of town, and now everyone in town must carefully watch what they say because anything could be passed along, distorted and create widespread panic. But you know, the day is otherwise pretty saved-ish.

I loved this episode on rewatch. It’s definitely a candidate for Best of Veggie Tales. I also think the message is great. Obviously, when there is concrete evidence that someone is abusing their power and doing harm, that should be talked about. But even then, it’s important to stick to facts and not get sucked into gossip for gossip’s sake.

In this world of information overload and clickbait, it becomes too easy to let the real issues be drowned out by information that might not be accurate, let alone relevant. I try to stay out of the world of media gossip, so I might not have the most relevant example, but a few months ago there was this video by Amandla Stenberg about cultural appropriation of black culture. Media honed in on one three second clip of Taylor Swift, and turned it all into “Amandla slams Taylor Swift, ohmigod look at the catfight,” when the video wasn’t about Taylor Swift at all. The segment wasn’t even directly critical of anybody. It was just pointing out how ubiquitous the borrowing of black culture is, and there were other parts that were much more explicitly critical. An honest report of what happened was less interesting than the mean-spirited rumor, so the actually constructive topic was eclipsed.

All of which is to say, be aware of this human tendency to hone in on easy, ugly gossip. Before you engage in it, think about whether it is really helpful. Check the facts to make sure it is accurate. Don’t fuel the growth of mutant city-consuming monster weeds.

Watch me menace your favorite characters. Mwhahahaha!
Watch me menace your favorite characters. Mwhahahaha!

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Josh and the Big Wall, Part 2

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

Part One here.

One of my favorite philosophical questions is the Euthyphro dilemma. It’s from a story about Socrates, as told by Plato. Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro what morality is. Euthyphro declares that morality is what is loved by the gods. Socrates responds by asking whether they love morality because it is moral, or whether it is moral because they love it. Either way feels like a trap. If the first one is true, it erodes the moral authority of the gods. It suggests there is some higher standard that they must bow to, and makes Euthyphro’s first answer incomplete. The second one, however, seems even worse. If morality is only good because God happens to prefer it, there could easily be alternate worlds where God decrees rape and theft and murder moral. Christians apologists often bemoan the moral subjectivism that they think would inevitably follow an atheist’s perspective, but the compare “genocide is okay when God says it is” to any brand of secular humanism, and see which one sounds more subjective. To me, letting morality depend on God’s say-so is just making it subjective from his perspective, and removing our ability to question his subjective whims. At least with human moral subjectivity, I can question nihilists and the like. I can still reject their morality, and if my empathy driven sense of right has no objective grounds, theirs is no more so.

Christian philosophers often solve this dilemma by stating that God is synonymous with morality, that he is the higher moral standard from which all goodness emanates. This is a logical solution, but when combined with the Old Testament God you end up with some tricky questions. Was it really moral to condone rape and genocide? There are multiple solutions, including believing there was something special about those circumstances, rejecting Biblical infallibility, or simply accepting that it is a question humans might not have an answer to, and for the purpose of this post I don’t really care which one you believe in, with one exception. Those who believe that their religion gives them a right to dictate my actions – including criminalizing homosexuality, censoring books I read and write, forbidding me from living a psychologically stable life as my preferred gender – they tend to believe that morality is whatever God says it is. They believe that he is never wrong, that he has never changed his mind and that the Bible is infallible. In essence, they pick the second prong of the Eurythpro dilemma. They say, whatever God declares moral is moral, no matter how wrong it seems to us, and you must never question him.

That is why I am tackling this message. I do not think it is benign. It is, on the contrary, the root of all conflict between fundamentalist religion and the rest of us. I do not think its okay to decide that on one day genocide was okay for no better reason than “God told us to.” I think we need to cultivate our own moral judgment, and question that order. I’m not that picky about where that questioning leads you. You get to make up your own mind, as I sure don’t have all the answers for you. Both of us, using our best judgments, will each still be wrong about some things, and that’s okay. I just care that you don’t let the claim of authority trump your judgment.

I really want to do these reviews in a way that is fair. I don’t want to be one of those vitriolic reviewers who looks for things to criticize, for the sake of stirring up controversy or having something to say. When I think something is good, I call it good, and when I have conflicted feelings, I spell out the conflict for you rather than pick a side. There are many reasons for this, but not least is this; when I come to a story like this, and I get ranty over a beloved children’s story, it will be clear that I am not doing this out of some vendetta against the Bible. I am disturbed by this story, and the more I think about it, the more disturbed I am. As a child, I was told a story of genocide, but it was sanitized beyond all recognition. As I grew older, piece by piece of the real story was given to me, so gradually that as I transformed this innocent story of slushie fights and irate French peas into one of blood and terror, the gory truth still had, to me, an air of innocence and moral clarity. The invaders were the good guys. The oppressors were righteous, the God who commanded this slaughter just and benevolent, and the victims faceless and nameless.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Josh and the Big Wall, Part 1

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

This episode  opens with a letter from a kid who was told not to beat people up. He thinks this sucks, because sometimes other people are mean and he just wants to give them a pounding. Scary kid. Larry and Bob turn this into a lesson on why its important to follow God’s directions even when you don’t want to. That way this kid will understand that no matter how much he wants to punch people in the face, he shouldn’t, because God doesn’t condone violence.

So they tell the story of the destruction of Jericho, where God commands the Israelites destroy an entire city and slaughter its inhabitants.

Interesting choice, but okay.

Now, understand, when I say slaughter, I don’t even mean a slaughter by ancient barbaric Biblical times. Back then, at least there was a decent probability of women and children being spared. The elderly and sick might not be killed. Even some fighting men might be taken as slaves. This isn’t good, but it’s a non-death alternative. Not so with the Israelite conquest of Israel. Because God doesn’t want his chosen people contaminated with other religions, they are commanded to kill everyone. Joshua 6:21, NIV; “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” One family is spared; that of Rahab the prostitute. See, she heard some stories about God that freaked her out, and she said, “hey, if I help your spies out, can I not die?” And lo, they said, “sure, I guess, why not?”

Okay, I had issues with this episode. Its not that its a bad episode. Like most Veggie Tales fare, its witty, goofy, well paced and full of catchy songs. It also happens to be focused on the moral that, more than any other, gives me issues with my Christian upbringing. The episode explicitly tells us, from the opening scene to the end and all through the middle, that we must always follow God’s directions, no matter how scary, unpleasant, or hard to understand.

It also bowdlerizes the crap out of the whole genocide part of the story, which means one of two things. The first is that the creators thought about how if small children like me heard that God commanded the slaughter of an entire, we might question whether he was actually the good God they were marketing to us. The second is that they themselves never thought of the people who the Israelites slaughtered as actual human beings. They never bothered to consider the story from their point of view. I do not know which explanation bothers me more.

You know, there’s too much ranting to do on this piece. I’m just going to get through the rest of the episode, and save part two to get into the complexities of the Euthyphro dilemma.

So anyway, the story opens with Larry playing Joshua, heir to Moses, about to lead the Israelites into Israel. They actually arrived in the area about forty years ago, but they’ve been sitting out in the desert as a punishment. Punishment for what? Well, after they arrived, they sent some spies into the Promised Land, where they observed that the people who lived there were strong, armed and well fed, compared to the exhausted Israelite people who had been wandering in the desert for years. This scared them. So God gently reminded them of all the things he’s done for them and gave them a miraculous sign to reassure them.

No, sorry, actually he punished them all by making them sit out in the desert for forty years, where there was hardly any food and also a lot of them died without ever getting to live in this land he promised they would get to live in. Because they were tired and exhausted and scared.

Veggie Tales, being lighthearted fare for kids, introduces this with a lighthearted song about how all the Israelites are so excited to leave, on account of being really, really hungry.

Upon entering Israel they run straight into Jericho, which is manned by snarky French Peas in intimidating hats. Clearly this will not do, but the Israelites aren’t exactly equipped for a siege. God gives the Israelites the directions to march around the city for seven days and then on the final day blow their horns and yell. Then he’ll knock the walls down for them. Yeah, the walking doesn’t have any direct causal effect on the walls. Really God just wanted to watch them tap dance a bit before he did anything.

I feel obligated to give you all this link of the French Peas singing before dropping slushies on the Israelites’ heads.

There isn’t much of a plot; just the Israelites being tempted to give in and go back and being urged on because God’s way is always the best way (if you exclude the perspective of invaded peoples, of course). There is enough clever dialog to make this work without being boring. In the end, they do the trumpeting rendition and, the way the animation is done, the walls explode kind of like popcorn, which I liked. Standing in the rubble is nobody except a few French Peas who run free, leaving the Israelites to complain about how bad the dust is for their contacts. People being driven from their homes is funny!

Bob and Larry wrap this up by reiterating to the kid that God’s plan is always right, and you should always do what he tells you. They don’t add that there’s totally a precedent for God’s way being “murder. A lot. Basically commit genocide.”

Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist; Lyle the Kindly Viking

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here)

This is the third episode on the general topic of not being greedy (fourth if you count The Toy That Saved Christmas, which I’m saving for Christmas). I remember this episode not being my favorite as a kid, so I was curious to see what adult Lane’s reaction would be. This one is specifically about sharing, and just as Bob and Larry are announcing the topic, Archibald runs up to them, begging to have a chance to run the show. He points out that Jerry and Jimmy Gourd got to run a show, so why can’t he? Bob and Larry clearly aren’t comfortable with this, but they decide that it would be pretty hypocritical of them to announce that they’re about to teach kids to share and then, you know, not share. So Archibald gets to take over the show.

A while back I found this article about teaching kids to share, by a Mom who had become critical of it. It’s actually really well reasoned. I recommend checking it out, but the essential point she makes is that insisting that kids share all the time is just teaching them that they are entitled to things that don’t actually belong to them. Or, if you’re like me and my sister, that when other entitled people are insisting they have a right to things that are yours, you are a Bad Person if you don’t let them. Now, I don’t think kids should never be taught to share. I think sharing can also be about learning to play cooperatively and value time spent with friends over material objects, and those are important lessons. What I do think is that there is a balance that must be achieved, that we need to teach kids how to share, but also about setting up appropriate boundaries for themselves, and to respect the boundaries that other people set up.

So how does this episode handle that balance? I think they’re already off to a bad start. Larry and Bob have a right to do their show their way. They set it up, they do the work every week, and they can’t just start giving that up to anybody who says, “ooh, me, I want a turn!” This is especially a big deal if the person taking over isn’t going to be respectful of what they set up, which Archibald isn’t. His whole aim is to make VeggieTales more “classy,” which… it’s not bad that his tastes run more Ted Mosbyesque than the rest of the cast, but it is bad that he actively looks down on what everybody else does. If he doesn’t like how they are doing things, why doesn’t he go set up his own show?

Anyway, this is one of those two for one shows. First Archibald tries to put on a production of Hamlet, which doesn’t have much to do with sharing, but luckily his assistants, Jean-Claude and Philippe, screw up and instead obtain a script for Omelet, a conveniently sharing-centric parody. The play follows the dilemma of Omelet, prince of the starving country of Denmark, who is about to consume the last eggs in the kingdom, but people are telling him he should share. It’s not actually stated whether there is an overall food shortage, including non-egg foods, or whether the only food available to the people are their eggs. Now, the point I’m about to make is kind of pedantic for a kid’s show, but in my defense this occurred to me as a kid. They could have shown Omelet having lavish feasts while his people are starving, like how King George wanted Thomas’s rubber ducky even when he had a literal closet of them. They also could have shown him passing a few starving beggars in an overall adequately fed kingdom. Instead Omelet is about to eat his namesake dish, made from exactly three eggs, after there will be no more food in the kingdom. At that point I say go ahead and eat, because you’re dying along with everybody else and splitting that last omelet will help one, maybe two other people live for like an hour longer.

In the end Prince Omelet decides to share his eggs with the kingdom, after sharing with a friend and discovering that sharing feels good, and then someone points out that there aren’t enough eggs for everybody. The problem is resolved when they discover that there are actually plenty of eggs, but the people had been using them as ping-pong balls. So the problem was never that Omelet won’t share, it was that his people were idiots.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this short. There were some funny Shakespearean jokes. Mr. Lunt is forced to play Ophelia because of the tradition of male actors playing women, and says, “I think we’re gonna get letters about this.” There were lines like, “Alas, poor yolks. I’ll chew them well, Horatio.” It did have that Veggie Tale charm. That said, it was pretty far from their best effort.

After Omelet comes the title story. Archibald has them perform what he thinks is long lost play by Gilbert and Sullivan. At the end it’s revealed to be a pop-up book by Gilbert Jones and Sullivan O’Kelly. Ooops.

Lyle, played by Jr. Asparagus, is part of a community of Vikings, but doesn’t like raiding and pillaging. So instead of going out with them, he stays home making potholders, and then, when the Vikings give him a little bit of their loot for him to get by on, he takes it back to the people they’ve robbed. Which… that’s not actually sharing. Sharing is when something is yours, and you let somebody else use it. The Vikings are stealing, and he’s returning what was rightfully theirs all along.

One day, the Vikings catch him, and Olaf, the chief Viking played by Mr. Nezzar, uh… I’m trying to frame what he does as anything other than attempted murder, but I don’t think there’s anything else you can call it. No, seriously, they’re on their boats, there’s a storm, and Mr. Nezzer Olaf coldly and deliberately sabotages Jr.’s Lyle’s boat. His intent does not seem to be for Lyle to survive having learned a valuable lesson. It’s pretty dark for VeggieTales. The monks throw him a life preserver, which is supposed to be a moral lesson in how sharing means you make friends who might help you later… except then the Vikings are also tipped overboard, and at Jr.’s insistence the monks save them as well, with the line, “I’m pretty sure God wants us to help everyone, not just the people who are nice to us.” Naturally, the Vikings are all repentant after being saved, and vow to be kind sharers instead of thieves forever after.

This bothers me. Not that I think the monks should have just stood by and let the Vikings die, but I also have issues with how easily the Vikings go from thieves who are at the very least willing to murder to model citizens. I’m trying to think of what the monks should have done instead, and I can’t come up with any answers, I think because this premise was just wrong for a kid’s show. Raiding and murdering are kind of a big deal. They place this whole conversation in a realm where “share your toys” doesn’t really apply. If they wanted to talk sharing, they should have shown, say, a selfish kid who doesn’t get to participate in the community of nice kids who all share with each other, because Selfish Kid won’t let anybody else touch their toys, ever. Then Selfish Kid tries trading a toy for another one, and suddenly realizes that sharing is a great way to make friends.

This goes back to my earlier point about how you need to balance lessons about sharing with lessons about boundaries. I think one of the big pitfalls of the way I was raised is the lack of emphasis on my right to erect boundaries when it was appropriate to protect myself, both physically and emotionally. I actually know a lot of people who suffer from a kind of Perpetually Guilty Nice Person Syndrome (which I will hereafter call PGNPS), where we have to treat others nicely or we think we are assholes, but if we ever assert our right to things like privacy or our time or to be treated well, we worry that we are being The Worst Human Beings EVER! Later in life, that mentality leaves a person vulnerable to predators. This episode, where somebody who was willing to take life threatening actions against you is your new best friend minutes later, and the monks are treated as bad for having misgivings about people who repeatedly harassed and terrorized them, is a great example of one of the ways I was taught PGNPS.

That’s why I am taking a kid’s morality tale so seriously. I agree with the implicit premise of Veggie Tales; that the stories we tell affect how we live our lives, and that the stories we tell children can have an especially powerful affect. I think it’s important to think critically about what messages we are sending, about when they apply and when they don’t. I don’t think it’s okay to teach kids that you should just roll over any time someone says they want to use your stuff, and I don’t think we should teach kids that we can just brush off and forget the actions of people who actively try to hurt us.