Madonna mocking God on a cross might be OK for television viewers, but a talking tomato affirming faith in God might be pushing the envelope.
That’s the dual message NBC is sending to the homeland as it places strictures on VeggieTales content in its Saturday morning children’s lineup while allowing a glitzy mock crucifixion scene for evening viewers.
It’s a conundrum of modern times that has Georgia Baptist children’s workers scratching their heads in formulating a response. Do they boycott the watered-down VeggieTales programming where NBC has edited out the entire Christian message – or do they embrace the remaining secular values, praying that a new generation of unchurched children will prevail upon their parents to purchase the DVDs and bring the gospel into homes previously closed to the church?
As the British say, it’s a sticky wicket.
Assault on Christian values
For Georgia Baptists it’s a glass half-empty vs. glass half-full scenario with many taking a wait-and-see stance in the early stages of the battle. But on the national scene, groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association are calling for Christians to send a million emails to the network demanding that they receive the same respect afforded other religions. Visit www.afa.net/Petitions/IssueDetail.asp?id=215 to see Madonna on the cross in a scene from her current “Confessions” concert tour and for information on the email campaign.
With the ongoing secularization of Christmas on the horizon and believers already upset with that annual assault, many are digging in their heels and calling NBC to task for taking a decidedly Christian product like VeggieTales and removing the biblical values which made it so popular.
Instead of children learning a variation of “What Would Jesus Do?” they are being taught the equivalence of “What Would Bob (the Tomato) Do?” Somehow the two just don’t have the same effect.
As Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, told the Index this week, “It’s all very complicated.” Much of that is because VeggieTales, which was founded as a Christian company pioneering quality animation to teach children biblical values, grew too fast and was forced into bankruptcy to pay its bills. See related story on page 11.
In an interview with the Index an NBC spokesperson initially downplayed the assumption that the network was targeting all biblical content for the cutting room floor.
“We are not producing any new content, but using existing material from the VeggieTales library. All the core values remain intact, but we are having to edit the product down from its original running time to 23 minutes to fit its 30-minute time slot with room for commercials,” she said.
The Index was told that the Bible tag at the opening and ending of each segment was being removed to cut several minutes from the program but any references to God or the Bible would remain in the storyline. At the same time Vischer, in an interview with the Index, intimated that he entered the financial arrangement with the new owners of VeggieTales to edit the stories to fit for time – but he was not aware of any agreement to edit out the spiritual content that was the heart of the series.
His response to NBC’s statement about sidestepping the issue and claiming all editing was based on running length and not content was a pensive one word: “Interesting.”
But late last week, under growing pressure from several Christian media groups inquiring about the content, NBC reversed itself and said it did not want to air programming that offends or excludes any individual religious group. Christian watchdog groups now believe its revised stand on VeggieTales is forcing NBC to reevaluate its decision on the Madonna concert and possibly edit the crucifixion scene from the show – something to which the performer has strongly objected.
Vischer is taking the moral high road, expressing appreciation for NBC coming clean with its real intentions. But he is also stating his role in the dispute.
“As a guy deeply involved with the project, I know that statement [about editing for length and not content] is false. We sent them our first episode for TV, which was already edited to exactly the right length, and they rejected it because, at the end, Bob the Tomato said, ‘Remember kids, God made you special and He loves you very much.’ They demanded we remove that line. The show wasn’t too long, it was too religious.” He said the second installment also was sent to NBC, edited for perfect timing. The response from NBC was an email with a list of lines that needed to be removed, “each of them containing either the word ‘God’ or ‘Bible.’
Vischer has a problem with NBC saying God is inappropriate to Saturday morning network programming while allowing Madonna that privilege in a broadcast of her concert.
“Last week it was announced that NBC would allow Madonna to perform, on the air, the song in her current tour [that] she sings while suspended from a mirrored crucifix,” Vischer said on his web log. “I know the audience and time of day is completely different, but it is a bit ironic that telling kids God loves them is ‘not okay,’ but singing a song while mocking the crucifixion is fine and dandy.”
As far as Georgia Baptists are concerned, some are encouraging members of their churches to send an email to NBC from the American Family Association website expressing the deletion of the VeggieTales content while allowing the Madonna concert to run intact. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping the national exposure will broaden the market for the pro- duct and introduce a new generation to the characters.
“I think the NBC move is great, all things considered,” said Johnny Mize, who with his wife, Vicky, have been workers in the children’s ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Hartwell.
“If you just market to Christians you don’t reach the unchurched. I can easily see this reaching people who would not otherwise purchase a VeggieTales product. I think of this as being similar to the Jay Jay the Airplane character. It was a children’s television program with strong values but there was no mention of God. But when you purchased the videos you received the full biblical content and that’s when you realized it was produced by Christians.”
His wife agrees.
“Larry Boy is a great hero figure who will appeal to children who will then insist their parents purchase the DVDs for them to see other stories. That’s when the gospel will get into those homes that would never be open to it any other way,” she says.
The couple should know about hero figures. Their oldest son, Trent, wore a homemade Larry Boy costume for fall festivals and other occasions – complete with rubber plunger cups sewed to the headpiece – until he outgrew it and passed it down to brother Heston, now 6. Younger brother Bryson, 4, now sports a bright red Bob the Tomato suit also made by his mother.
George Cline, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church near Blairsville, likes the VeggieTales approach to computer animation of stories that place biblical concepts on a level children can understand.
“Animation puts very difficult subjects into a format that communicates best to younger minds,” he says. “The methods of teaching children has changed over the years but the message stays the same – the love of God, forgiveness of sin, and the importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
But he’s watching closely to see just how far NBC goes in editing the storyline or if future new products drift even further way from those founding guidelines. That’s because his church uses VeggieTales curriculum on Wednesday nights to teach children about biblical concepts.
He wants content to remain scripturally correct and doesn’t stray from sound doctrine – especially in light of Big Idea now being run by businessmen who do not profess to being Christians. He is concerned that the product line stays focused on the cross, and not on the dollar sign.
Kimberly and Butch Marek of the church are raising their children on the VeggieTales characters and like the values they are being taught.
“Alex likes singing the songs and loves all the characters. I think they do a great job of teaching Alex biblical concepts that she can grasp at a young age. I think we are providing her with a foundation that we can expand on in future years as she matures and grows in her understanding of what the Bible is all about,” Kimberly Marek says.
To further complicate the issue, what one media giant is taking away, another is giving back. The strange part is that they are both in the same family, Vischer told the Index. While NBC is editing God out of VeggieTales, its sibling in the NBC Universal conglomerate – Universal Pictures – has commissioned Classic Media (owners of VeggieTales) to produce a new VeggieTales movie and to make it as Christian as they want.
That underscores the schizophrenia that is so common in Hollywood and why it is so hard to organize boycotts against parent companies like NBC Universal, which owns the network and movie studio as well as theme parks and resorts, sports and Olympics programming.
All about the money
NBC Universal is one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies and was formed in 2004 through a merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment. In turn, it is 80 percent owned by General Electric and 20 percent owned by Vivendi. As Christians are discovering, boycotting one small entity such as NBC would have little effect on the corporation’s bottom line. Some would gladly boycott NBC but would draw the line on giving up their regular sports viewing.
B.J. Holliday, associate pastor and minister of music at First Baptist Church of Nashville, 20 miles south of Tifton in Berrien County, says his church used VeggieTales materials in Vacation Bible School and was pleased with the religious content. In fact, the congregation believes in the product line so much that it has already purchased a year’s supply of material that it might be able to use in a future children’s church format or some other event.
But he is not surprised with NBC’s move to strip the gospel from the Saturday morning children’s lineup.
“I watched the second VeggieTales installment on television by accident as I was flipping through the channel on Saturday morning. I was not aware of the controversy but I did notice that there was no biblical foundation at the beginning or end like there are in the videos, but I felt the overall content was still acceptable.
“I thought to myself, ‘Praise the Lord for quality programming right in the middle of Saturday morning television. It could have been far worse.”
Holliday is slow to say that NBC intentionally has its sights set on Christians by editing VeggieTales. He believes the network is not in the business of supporting Christian programming but is simply making business decisions that add the most revenue to its bottom line. It’s all about the money, he says.
“Why would Universal Studios want to produce a VeggieTales movie with traditional Christian content? Because it will make money, pure and simple; church groups will show up in droves to support it so they have a built-in audience.
“On the other hand, why would NBC decide to trim VeggieTales content on broadcast television? Because it is concerned with offending the majority of its audience. We need to remember that America is not a Christian nation, it is a lost nation.
“Network executives did not choose VeggieTales because it was Christian but because it was values-based. With a little editing here and there it became less offensive and thus broadened its market appeal considerably. By removing those biblical references it will not necessarily lose its Christian viewers but will potentially attract a much larger audience. I’m not saying that’s good, I’m saying that’s how it is.
“I think believers are being unrealistic to expect NBC executives to live by our values as Christians when they don’t even know who Christ is.”
Actions representing values
Holliday struggles with the dichotomy of the situation – deleting God on Saturday morning but showing a popular rock star mocking his faith in a crucifixion.
“It breaks my heart to know that millions of people around the world will see Madonna’s mockery of the crucifixion. But I can’t expect her to act like someone who shares my values because, by her actions, she shows she does not share my values.
“I think the best way I can speak against those actions is to turn the TV off and deny the network of that small portion of market share. We obviously need to pray for the network executives and for Madonna … not that they would not bring those scenes into our living rooms but that they would be saved. That’s the root of the problem.
“The Bible clearly states that Satan is the prince of this world. For all eternity he’s been working to mock Christ … not the founder of Islam or Buddhism or other world religions. That’s why I believe you see these attacks against Christianity. He does not attack other faiths, he attacks our faith and us as followers of Jesus Christ. He attacks Christians because he knows that Christ is the only real hope for our world.”
And on that note, Holliday was unknowingly echoing a statement Vischer would write the next day on his blog as he sought to bring perspective to the controversy:
“Let us Christians never forget that we are strangers here.”