Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, has been busy since leaving that enterprise following the 2003 bankruptcy of Big Idea Productions. His new company, Jellyfish Labs, produces the web video programming called Jelly Telly. Using the characters from Jelly Telly, Vischer is producing a series of DVDs called What's In the Bible? with the goal of doing for biblical literacy among children what Sesame Street began to do for basic literacy over 30 years ago.
I watched the first disc tonight with my kids—it contains two half-hour episodes on the basic overview of what the Bible is and Genesis 1-11 respectively. I have to say that I'm very excited about what Vischer is doing and can't wait to watch future installments. (The second disc in the series is already available.) My review in a nutshell is this: get it for your kids and watch it with them. I want everybody to see these things, including (perhaps especially) adults whose knowledge of the Bible is a shade on the sketchy side—this information is valuable for believers of all ages.
I am amazed by Vischer's ability to communicate often challenging concepts lucidly and succinctly. (For example, his explanation of the Apocrypha through Captain Pete the Pirate made me want to stand up and cheer.) He elevates kids to the level of the material instead of dumbing down the material to the supposed level of the kids (as in so many, though not all, well-meaning children's story Bibles). My four-year-old probably doesn't understand much of what is going on yet, but she can't take her eyes off it. And the series is a stunning testament to his incredible virtuosity, as he both writes all the scripts singlehandedly and also voices (and probably "acts" with) all the puppet characters. Seriously, is there anything this guy can't do?
If I were to laud all of the praiseworthy things about this disc I saw, it would take a while. But instead, reluctantly (and perhaps unfairly), I'm going to point out the one concern I have about the series moving forward. It involves a few related points from which I diverge from Vischer doctrinally.
The first is that Vischer makes a very big deal out of humans' free will. This in itself is not a huge problem since all Christians believe in free will in at least the limited sense that through their lives humans are presented with options and make conscious choices among them. (Not terribly controversial.) But Vischer makes clear that what he means by "free will" is what is technically called libertarian free will, namely that an individual's will causes itself to make choices independent of other influences on it, including the nature of the individual him- or herself. Obviously Vischer doesn't word it this way in this children's production. But this is the idea that underlies his statements that we choose to love (that is, that our independent choice comes before and causes the act of loving) and that for God to make us love is for us not really to love at all but to be impersonal robots. This view of the will is held in Eastern Orthodoxy and predominates in Roman Catholicism (I think), and it also happens to fit with the views of most Protestants, at least in the U.S. I hold a minority view, namely that our free will consists in being able to do what we want to do, but what we want to do emerges from our nature and our environmental influences that we don't have total control over, but God does. So in the case of love, rather than choose to love, I love automatically, by instinct, and then I choose behaviors driven by that love. (For example, I didn't initially choose to love my wife. I couldn't help but love her, and then I chose to love her in action as a result.) And if God quietly alters my nature so that I instinctively love him when I didn't before, I don't feel particularly robotic as a result.
Related to this, because Vischer holds that God's hands are entirely off the will, things are genuinely risky for him. There is no certainty that people will make choices that work out for the best, because God doesn't know or can't affect or at least won't affect what people choose. By contrast, my view is that there is no risk for God, because God both has and exercises ultimate, absolute control over people's natures and people's environments that determine people's decisions. So God isn't wondering how things will turn out, hoping for positive results, but rather he all-powerfully gets his way through people's choices, which he holds in his hand.
Another difference of opinion has to do with the nature of sin. Vischer verbally describes sin as what results from our choices to disobey God and do things our own way. He visually depicts sin as an external force that comes upon people who have made such choices and that influences subsequent choices. I do not entirely disagree with this. But I wish it was at least balanced by the idea that sin precedes our choices and drives them and that sin is inherent in our fallen nature—it emerges from within us, not just from temptations outside of us. What Vischer implies in his account of Genesis 3-11 is that there is no original sin. What I mean by "no original sin" is that each person is born with the ability to choose to live sinlessly, but each person has their own personal Fall when they do not do that. He also implies, however, that each person does sin, presumably because of the influential presence of sin in human society into which we are born. We'll have to wait and see if he gets more specific about all that. This is roughly the Eastern Orthodox position and is also popular among many contemporary Protestants (and perhaps some Catholics as well). It is not the historic Protestant and Catholic position, which is that humans are somehow born into sin, that Adam's transgression has fundamentally warped the nature of every one of his descendants, who are thereby sinful (and perhaps guilty) before committing a single sin and need divine intervention before they do a single thing really right. (That's what "original sin" means.) Again, for Vischer choice precedes nature, whereas for me nature precedes choice.
I wish that if Vischer was determined to jump into this thicket that he had in his inimitable way sketched Christians' differences on these points. This is exactly what he did beautifully with respect to six-day creation versus theistic evolution in his telling of Genesis 1-2. I am really, profoundly impressed with how he handled that. It would be nice if he comes back around to these differences on free will and sin in that way later, but perhaps the ship has already sailed.
For me these doctrinal differences are not yet a deal-breaker. I can talk to my kids about the alternate angles to the ones he presents as they're able to grasp them. However, if these positions turn out to be central, predominant features of Vischer's narrative moving forward, they might become a deal-breaker for me. In that case it would truly be a teaching that diverges from the instruction I want to give my kids. Hopefully it doesn't go that way. I can't wait to see what he does with Revelation.