A Simple Word for Kids
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VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer relays how the concept of VeggieTales first began and talks about his latest project, the “Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids,” a book he hopes will take kids deeper into their faith.
A Simple Word for Kids
Bob: You are familiar with the “Keep It Simple” principle. That applies as we raise our kids; we want to keep our instruction to them simple. Phil Vischer says that comes with a caution.
Phil: There’s a big difference between simplifying something and making something simplistic. If you make it simplistic, they’ll end up with a simplistic faith, which won’t survive high school. If you simplify it, actually, grownups can understand it too.
When I talk to pastors—I’ve spoken several times at pastors’ conferences—I say, “The gap between what a third grader can learn and what a forty-year-old wants to learn is much smaller than you think it is.” If you can present the gospel in a way that works for a third grader—that they can retain—you’ve probably presented the gospel in a way that works for everybody.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, February 24th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Phil Vischer wants to help us, as moms and dads, make sure we communicate clearly and simply the basic truths of the Bible for our kids. He joins us today to help us with that. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think everybody can tell this story: “Do you remember where or when you first saw your first episode of VeggieTales?” [Laughter] Do you remember?
Dave: Of all questions to ask, that’s what we’re going to ask; yes!
Ann: I can too. I thought, “This is genius!” [Laughter] Then we were singing it all day every day: “God is bigger than the boogie man.
Dave: —“boogie man.”
Bob: See, I was—
Ann: “He’s bigger than Godzilla.”
Bob: My first one—somebody after church said: “You’ve got to come see this! They are showing this in the kids department at church.” I watch it; and they are singing, “Where is my hairbrush?” I go: “What is this about?!—“…my hairbrush”? They are showing this to kids?!”
Ann: And it’s vegetables singing it.
Bob: It’s vegetables singing it. In fact, I have to tell—well, I’ll tell you this story.
Dave: Who would think of this kind of thing, Bob? [Laughter]
Bob: I’ll tell you a great story here as we introduce the man who thinks of this kind of stuff. Phil Vischer joins us.
Phil: Oh, hi! [Laughter]
Bob: Phil, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Phil: Thanks for having me.
You did not—your first thought was not: “This is genius!” Admit it; your first thought was, “This is weird.”
Ann: No; it was genius—
Phil: Oh, come on.
Ann: —because our kids were singing it.
Dave: No; let me tell you.
Dave: When she said that, I thought, “That’s a look inside of Ann Wilson’s brain right there.”
Dave: She loves that kind of stuff; she’s doing that kind of stuff.
Phil: Nine out of ten people said, “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” [Laughter] Then, after a while, they thought, “Hey; but it’s actually good,” because it doesn’t seem like it would be good at first—
Dave: That was me.
Phil: —vegetable Bible stories. That is not a recipe for good family entertainment. [Laughter]
Ann: But anything that gets your kids singing.
Phil: Yes—biblically helpful songs—
Ann: Yes; exactly.
Phil: —except for the hairbrush song.
Dave: Hairbrush is not biblical; is it?
Phil: No; I’ve had people try to tease out the theology of the cheeseburger song for me, and it was like: “Did I get it right?” “Did I get it right?” “No!”
Ann: “It’s just fun.”
Phil: “You didn’t get it right; it’s just silly.” Is that allowed?
Bob: Tell everybody about the song that got you in big trouble with moms and dads all over the country.
Phil: Oh, the bunny song: “The bunny, the BUNNY, oh I love the bunny. I don’t love my mom or my dad, just the bunny.” Yes; that was a good idea—[Laughter]
Dave: That was it; huh?
Phil: —because it was supposed to be the song—it’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and the fiery furnace. It was what they weren’t supposed to sing. This was the song you’re not supposed to sing, so it had to have things in it that were obviously things that you shouldn’t sing! But then it was catchy, and kids sang it! Then their moms got mad at me, like I had something—I had everything to do with it. I guess it made sense that they wrote me letters, and I felt terrible; so we changed the lyrics.
Phil: “I won’t eat my soup or my bread, just the bunny.” We made it dietary, not a rejection of parental authority. [Laughter]
Dave: That’s not as fun.
Phil: No; it is not as fun.
Dave: No; mom and dad have got to be in there.
Bob: I was talking to a friend of mine, who went to a meeting with people from a bunch of different Christian publishing houses. You may have heard this story.
Phil: Sounds like a fun meeting already. [Laughter]
Bob: The theme of the meeting was: “What was it that you passed on that wound up being a best-seller?” Everybody was telling the story the thing that they rejected that went on to be a number one best-seller.
I said, “What was the best story of the night?” The guy said, “It was the people who looked at us, and they said, ‘After the pitch meeting, when they’d left the room, we looked at each other and said, “Talking vegetables?!”’” [Laughter]
Dave: “I don’t think so!”
Phil: Yes; I pitched that at multiple places. I can’t tell you for sure who that was, but I can narrow it way down. [Laughter]
Ann: Can I just ask you, because you’ve probably been asked this a million times—
Ann: —where did you come up with that idea—like, “Oh, I think I’ll make them vegetables”?
Phil: Yes; that wasn’t my first idea. I knew that they had to be extremely simple characters, or I couldn’t afford to animate them by myself. [Laughter] And this was 1990, so this is five years before Toy Story. Computer technology is not where it needed to be. I couldn’t do arms, legs, hair, or clothes; [Laughter] so I thought, “What naked, bald, limbless characters could I put in Christian bookstores and not offend anyone?” I thought: “Okay; let’s go objects. We can’t do people; let’s do objects. Kitchen countertop is cute; I’m going to do that. Candy bars—I’m going to make a candy bar.”
I made a chocolate bar. I gave them a face, and I could make them kind of bend. I was like: “Hey; this could work. I think I could do a candy bar show.” My wife—I had just gotten married—my wife walked by and saw the candy bar on the computer screen; I was working at home. She said, “You know, moms are going to be mad if you make the kids fall in love with candy bars.” I thought: “Eureka! She’s correct!”
Ann: It’s true.
Phil: “Argh. Okay; what’s shaped like a candy bar that moms wouldn’t be mad about their kids falling in love with?” The very next thing that popped into my head was a cucumber.
Bob: And that’s almost three decades ago now.
Phil: Yes; yes. That was 1991 when I was walking around with a ten-second clip.
Bob: The last VeggieTales episode we saw that was a new episode was back—how many years ago?
Phil: Six years ago was the Noah. They did Noah’s Ark; I wasn’t involved in that. I haven’t written anything for VeggieTales in more than a decade.
Bob: Christmas, this year, we got to see the relaunch—
Bob: —of brand new VeggieTales.
Phil: New veggies. What has happened, in the meantime, is VeggieTales went very well. The company I ran went very poorly. Sometimes, you can make a hit and also go bankrupt. It’s kind of amazing, and it’s the kind of stuff they talk about in business school—like, “How did he mess that up so badly?” [Laughter] Well, he had no idea what he was doing; he was 25. My company went bankrupt even while I had a hit project, so I lost the hit project in bankruptcy in 2003.
Since then, VeggieTales has been owned by four different companies. Three years ago, it was DreamWorks®. Then DreamWorks sold itself to Universal®. Every time it had been sold, I would expect: “Am I going to get a phone call? Is somebody going to say, ‘Hey; Phil, can you help us with the vegetables?’” It didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen.
Then, when Universal bought it—Universal is so big that my thought was—“They are not even going to know that they own this: it’s inside a company, inside a company, inside a company—
Phil: —“that they just bought. This is going to be like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they put the ark of the covenant in a box—
Bob: —in a warehouse.
Phil: —“and they wheel it into a huge government warehouse. That’s that!”
I just thought: “Well, that’s the end of Bob and Larry. They are in a government warehouse.” Instead, what happened is the Trinity Broadcast Network, which is the biggest religious broadcaster, reached out to Universal and said, “Hey; can we buy VeggieTales from you?” They said, “No; we don’t sell characters”; they said, “But you could rent it from us.”
Phil: What?—renting characters? That’s weird. So, TBN did a deal with Universal, where they could produce 18 new episodes of VeggieTales. Universal would give approval to them; but then both Universal and TBN reached out to me and said: “Hey; Phil, we’re pretty sure you had something to do with this. [Laughter] Would you come back and try to make new episodes feel like the very old, original episodes?” They want it to feel like 1994/1995—early episodes. I said: “Yes! I can totally do that!”
Bob: You wanted it to feel like the original but be different even than the original; right?
Phil: Yes; not to be exactly the same; it’s in a different context.
They had—TBN actually had the idea: “What if it was like The Muppet Show, and it was Bob and Larry trying to put on a show/a variety show in a live theater?” I said, “Well, I actually had that thought, probably, 15 years ago”; because The Muppet Show was my favorite TV show when I was a kid. Of course, I also had the thought—I was 25 when I started; I’m 50 now—my spiritual life has deepened quite a bit over the—hopefully—
Phil: —over a quarter of a century of walking with Jesus: “What can I bring to it that I couldn’t bring to it as a 25-year-old?”
One of the reasons I wanted to make the shows/the episodes shorter and be able to a variety show style segments is there are great Bible stories that you can teach kids that wouldn’t hold up as a 45-minute story. Paul and Silas in prison—you know, it’s a wonderful little story about trusting in God and having peace in bad circumstances. You can’t turn it into a 45-minute story; but as a 10-minute, mini-musical, I can do that.
There are stories that are worth telling kids that have value and are shorter, and they actually work. I am going deeper into the Bible now with kids than we ever could with VeggieTales before, and it’s really been fun.
Bob: This is where you have been while VeggieTales was away from you:
Bob: —you produced the What’s in the Bible? series—
Bob: —and you got a podcast going on; you are doing a series on Right Now Media, where you are—
Phil: —teaching the Bible, basically.
Bob: —to kids.
Phil: Yes; when I lost Veggies, suddenly, I had—like, my desk was completely empty. There was nothing on—there was nothing on the piece of paper; it was just blank.
I thought, “Okay; God, well, what do You want me to do, starting over from scratch?” What I felt very strongly was Him saying: “Take kids deeper. You can only go so deep theologically with happy, bouncy, talking vegetables. Figure out a way to take kids deeper into their faith.”
One of the things that kind of convicted me was, after ten years of veggies, I was looking back and saying, “Have I spent ten years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity?” I was a rule-following kid—like I can follow the rules with the best of them. If you say, “Be more forgiving,”—“If I work hard enough, I will be more forgiving.”
But there are lots of kids that, no matter how hard they work, rules don’t come naturally; and Christianity is not something that should only work for rule-following kids.
Phil: That’s the whole point. None of us are really following the rules. The Holy Spirit remakes you from the inside out when you walk with Jesus. That’s a story I couldn’t tell in VeggieTales easily. The What’s in the Bible? series was: “Let’s start with kids in the Book of Genesis and go all the way to the Book of Revelation; touch on every single book in the Bible.” When you do that, you learn a lot, too; because, you know, how often do you sit down and try to teach someone the entire Bible?
Dave: So, when you try to—I know, when I teach Scripture on a weekend to adults, I learn more than anybody in the room, probably; but if I’m going to try to do that with kids, same thing is happening for you?
Dave: I mean, you’ve got to take it and dumb it down; and it’s a whole new deal; right?
Phil: No; no; I’m not dumbing it down. I’m taking the cookies and putting them on a lower shelf. That’s the way I look at it. It’s not to make it simplistic but to make it simple. You can do—there is a big difference—
Dave: There you go; yes.
Phil: —between simplifying something and making something simplistic. If you make it simplistic, they’ll end up with a simplistic faith,—
Phil: —which won’t survive high school. If you simplify it, actually, grownups can understand it too.
Phil: We often overestimate what a 40-year-old is capable of learning and underestimate what a 4-year-old is capable of learning. We forget that kids/elementary-aged kids are professional learners; it’s what they do for a living. Every day, they get up, and they go to school, and they learn. Forty-year-olds, for the most part, have said: “I’m done with that. That’s behind me. I want to watch the game.”
When I talk to pastors—I’ve spoken several times at pastors’ conferences—I say, “The gap between what a third grader can learn and what a forty-year-old wants to learn is much smaller than you think it is.” If you can present the gospel in a way that works for a third grader—that they can retain—you’ve probably presented the gospel in a way that works for everybody, without realizing it.
Dave: When I picked up the Laugh and Learn Bible, that’s exactly what I thought: “Every adult should read this.”
Phil: Yes; we haven’t even mentioned that yet.
Bob: We haven’t mentioned that. Tell everybody about this—I was going to say, “…this Bible that you wrote”; but that’s probably not the right way to say that.
Phil: Yes; that’s not a good nomenclature. Let’s phrase that differently. [Laughter]
Bob: Explain this project.
Phil: “Since we decided the real Bible is just not working anymore, I wrote a new one,”—No! That’s not it at all.
During the VeggieTales days, I remember publishers coming to us and saying, “We should do a VeggieTales Bible.” I was really uncomfortable with that idea: “I don’t think I want to rewrite the Bible.” But as I learned more when we did What’s in the Bible? series, I pretty much presented the whole Bible; so then the thought was: “Why don’t you just take that and actually turn that into a storybook Bible for kids?”—you know, a way to start.
What we do with the Bible and kids, unfortunately, tends to go in two different directions. Either we simplify it so much that we ended up only giving them snapshots from the Bible—you know, we’re just basically Noah’s ark, Daniel in the lions’ den—“Okay; we’re teaching kids the Bible”; but we’re actually just giving them slices of the Bible. They are not getting the whole narrative.
The other thing we do is: “Okay; now that you are six years old, here’s a full-text NIV”—you know?—“Look, we’ve put your name in it. So, good luck!” [Laughter] The Bible is a difficult book.
Bob: Substantive; yes.
Phil: It is substantive. You know kids—you just hand them a full-text Bible—even if they are ten or eleven, they are like the Israelites; they are going to die in the desert, somewhere around Leviticus; they are just going to drop like flies.
Ann: That is true of adults as well.
Phil: It is!
Phil: It is! What I wanted to do is: “Let’s make a kids storybook Bible that covers the entire narrative flow of Scripture, starting with creation; ending with new creation/new heaven and earth.” It has 52 stories going all the way through—you can read one a week, or one a day for two months, or whatever you want to do so that kids see the story. Because [if] we only give them snapshots from the Bible, they end up with a truncated version of the Bible in their heads; and it doesn’t come together as a narrative.
Kids want to be a part of the story; they want a big story that explains the universe that they can be a part of. If we don’t present the Bible that way, they will find a different story to be a part of—so it may be Star Wars; it may be The Avengers; it may be Harry Potter.
On one hand—gee—it shows they are still hungry for a moral code; they are hungry for a sacred text; but it also shows how poorly we’ve presented them the Bible that they don’t think it is one. It is either a book of rules, or it’s a book of improving your marriage, or it’s a book of managing your money, or it’s a book of how to vote when it’s political season. No; it’s a story. It’s a story that explains why the world is the way it is and what God is doing about it.
Bob: It is the story, actually.
Phil: It is the story.
Bob: All other stories come out of—
Bob: —this story.
Phil: There are echoes of the story in every story that you love.
Dave: We just did a series on the Bible at our church for adults. We’re doing this on Sunday mornings.
Dave: I open it up, saying: “You know stories of the Bible. Does anyone here know the story of the Bible—just the flow from creation?”—very few people.
Phil: It’s so big.
Phil: “I just read/you know, I read Philippians once a year.” Does that give me the flow of the entire Bible?—
Phil: —not quite. [Laughter] No; the goal is: “If a kid goes through this—
Phil: —“then, when they sit down with the full-text Bible when they are a little older—you open it to the Psalms/you open it to the Gospels—you know where you are in the story, because you’ve already experienced a condensed version of the entire story.” It’s like having a map; so that when you actually go out into the whole world, you can find your place in the story. When they can find their place in the story, their faith can take root as a foundation for their life.
Bob: I’m reading here about John baptizing Jesus—John the Baptist; right?
Phil: Yes; I’ve heard of that.
Bob: Here, for example, is how Phil tells the story. “If you met John the Baptist, you’d probably think to yourself this guy is a little weird. John the Baptist wasn’t like most Israelites. He didn’t dress like they did. Instead of clothes made from soft wool or cotton, John the Baptist made his clothes from itchy camel hair. Instead of eating food that most folks ate, John ate honey: yum! and bugs: yuck!”
Okay; so that’s how Bible stories get told by Phil Vischer. When you tell them with a little humor and with a little—kind of: “Hey; kids, this is real. This is what it feels like…”—kids are right there, hanging on every word; aren’t they?
Phil: Yes; it’s the Mary Poppins’ “spoon full of sugar” technique that helps the medicine go down, because there are hard topics in the Bible. I mean, the fall, and sin, and death—you cannot skip those topics and have the story make any sense. It’s like trying to tell the story of The Lord of the Rings without Mordor.
Bob: Then you get to the end of the story, and you have these family connection moments, where you talk about the tricky bits—so, “What is baptism?” is a tricky bit—“Let’s understand that.” Then things to talk about: “What made John the Baptist stand out from the crowd?” “Why do you think Jesus asked John to baptize Him?” Those are good conversation starters.
Then there is a prayer at the end that a family can pray together that, in this case, is three lines: “Dear God, we want to stand out for You like John the Baptist did. Please show us how to boldly point people to You. Amen.” That’s achievable for any parent—
Bob: —once a week—
Bob: —to sit down and read that.
Ann: You’re saying these stories take five minutes.
Phil: Yes, it does.
Ann: It doesn’t take very long.
Phil: That’s the goal: it’s after dinner/before bed. So many parents hear in church, “You need to be discipling your kids”; but what we forget to ask is, “Did anyone disciple you?” And if no one discipled you, how on earth are you supposed to disciple someone else? What we’re trying to do here is make easy wins for parents—say: “Alright; here is how you present a chunk of the Bible to my kids,” and “Here, then, are questions that can spawn conversation.”
I don’t have to be the expert; I can actually learn along with my kids without having to admit that I’m learning along with my kids. When a family learns something together—that’s why it was so important to me that VeggieTales was enjoyable for adults; because people sometimes say, “Why are you putting in so much stuff that kids don’t get?” It is because if mom and dad find it humorous, they will sit down on the couch with their kids; they will all learn the lesson together, as a family; and now, mom and dad can reinforce it to their kids; and the kids can reinforce it to mom and dad.
To get a letter from a mom saying that she was complaining about something and not being very grateful; and then her five-year-old daughter said, “Mom, remember Madame Blueberry.” [Laughter]
Phil: If mom hadn’t seen Madame Blueberry—because it was boring—and she just put it on for her five-year-old, that means nothing; but now, you’ve got a moment for a family. That’s what I’m hoping this Bible will do for the whole family.
Bob: And if mom breaks into “I’m so blue-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo.”
Dave: Bob, you’ve been waiting the whole show to do that. [Laughter]
Bob: I have been waiting the whole show. [Laughter]
Dave: I know you have.
Bob: Are you going to give this to your kids, or are you going to keep this around for when the grandkids come to your house?
Ann: I just told Dave, “I would like to have three copies of this so that I can give them to our kids and have one at home.”
Dave: Yes; I mean, the first thing I thought, when I read the intro that says I can do this in five minutes, I thought, “Every”—at least, in my opinion—“dad is this guy, going, ‘I know I’m supposed to lead my family,—
Dave: —“‘I don’t know how to do it. Can somebody help me?’” Here it is!
Dave: You know, I read the first one about creation, and already—you saw this; right? We’re talking about the Trinity in creation. It’s like: “Wow! Who would have thought, with a children’s book, you would go there?” but you do.
Phil: It’s so easy for kids to say—that is specifically why I did that—it’s so easy for kids to say: “Wow, God must have been lonely. That’s why He made us because He was lonely.” “No; He wasn’t lonely, because He wasn’t alone.
Phil: “Let’s talk about what that means—that God wasn’t lonely—because He wasn’t alone,”—and how that theme: “So He didn’t create us because He had a need. He created us because He loves creating, and He wants to invite us into an adventure with Him”—that’s a whole different thing. We are not worshipping a needy God.
Phil: We can’t conceive of why He wouldn’t have been lonely until we realize He wasn’t alone!
Bob: Okay; okay.
Dave: There is something about families having that conversation—
Dave: —every night, or once a week, or whatever they want to do—that is genius that families are going to sit around and do this; and it’s going to start when they are kids and never stop.
Ann: I love that it’s called the Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids because you don’t always put that word, “laugh,” with the Bible.
Phil: Yes; and I’m not trying to make the whole Bible funny; but I try—when I tell Bible stories, I try to make them engaging. If it’s engaging for kids, it’s engaging for parents. If parents see their kids—so, we have had people say, who have already gotten the Bible, “We read two stories to our kids last night; and this morning, we found them reading more on their own.” You know, if you can do that, like, “Okay; now, you are creating an understanding.” Like the Trinity—when I say, “It should be simple but not simplistic”—
Phil: —that’s not simplistic—
Phil: —to explain the Trinity before you explain creation; but it’s done simply so that it makes it sticky.
Bob: Okay; go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; get a copy, or two, or three like Ann’s going to do of the Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids from Phil Vischer. In fact, let me just say this right here—you know, we, here at FamilyLife®, we’ve got a group of people—Legacy Partners—who make this ministry possible for all of us. They make it possible for us to tune in every day and hear practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family. We’re grateful for those of you who are Legacy Partners. Thank you, guys; yay for you!
We want to see that number of Legacy Partners increase this year. We’d like to send you—if you become a new Legacy Partner, we’ll send you the Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids as our thank-you gift for becoming a Legacy Partner; and we’re not done. We’re going to send you a certificate to attend a Weekend to Remember®marriage getaway as our guest. We’ll cover the registration fee for you or for a couple you know. If you want to give it as a gift to your kids or to somebody else, you can do that; and we’re still not done.
You sign on this week to become a Legacy Partner—we’ve had some friends of the ministry, who know that this is a need for us; so they’ve agreed they are going to match the donations we receive from new Legacy Partners—this week when you sign on as a Legacy Partner and agree to monthly giving—they are going to match your monthly giving for the next 12 months up to a total of $30,000.
You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and order Phil’s book; or you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and say, “I want to become a Legacy Partner—support the ministry of FamilyLife; keep it on the air in our community/help more people hear this—and I want to take advantage/I want to get a copy of the Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids; I want to get the Weekend to Remember certificate; and I want to make sure that my donations are matched, dollar for dollar, for the next year.” Pretty good deal for new Legacy Partners.
Those of you who are regular listeners—you’ve been listening for a long time—you know the need. Would you join us and help make FamilyLife Today possible in your community as one of our monthly Legacy Partners? Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. The information about becoming a Legacy Partner is right there, or you can order the Laugh and Learn Bible for Kids. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. If you need any help with any of this, call 1-800-FL-TODAY; and we can take your order, or we can get you signed on as a new Legacy Partner.
Let me just say, “Thanks,” in advance, to those of you who are regular listeners and you say: “Okay; I’m/we’ve thought about doing this. Now is the time. We’re going to do it. We’re going to become Legacy Partners.” Thank you for partnering with us in the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We appreciate you.
We hope you can be back with us, again, tomorrow. Phil Vischer is going to be here again. We’re going to continue talking about how we press the big story of the Bible into the hearts of our kids in a way that’s engaging, that’s fun, that connects with them. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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