As a show catering to the evangelical crowd, I can only imagine that VeggieTales had to follow a lot of rules from the outset. It’s not something I noticed as a child, but as I grew older and reflected on it, I noticed more parallels between it and the Lutheran school in which I was raised than there are parables in the Bible. They were mostly subtle things; its wacky, witty writing was underscored with the same sterile purity of any Sunday school, and its cast often attributed character development to be at least in part due to God. At least, unlike my school, they never punished kids for speaking Cantonese. But that’s a conversation for me and my therapist.
There was, however, one rule neither the Old nor New Testament could have predicted, yet one that guides VeggieTales studio Big Idea Productions to this day. Scottie May, the mother of show creator Phil Vischer, suggested what might as well be the show’s eleventh commandment: never portray Jesus as a vegetable. If I had to guess why, it would be that:
- It could be disrespectful to, well, any deity to be reduced to a food product.
- The relationship between God and Christians isn’t a direct one, at least not to the extent that they’d be talking to each other, like, on the street or something.
- What kind of vegetable would Jesus be, anyway?
It turns out May had a point, because the one time VeggieTales broke this rule, it…wasn’t great.
Let me be transparent here: I’m not Christian. I was, however, raised one in a somewhat traumatic environment, so I have a lot of complicated nostalgia for things like VeggieTales and an even more complicated understanding of the faith. Just keep my perspective in mind.
It’s no secret that VeggieTales is a critically and commercially successful franchise, often referred to as one of the only “good” pieces of Christian media. It was so digestible (ha) for a number of reasons — then-groundbreaking animation, sharp writing, surprisingly lovable characters, and catchy-and-not-quite-churchly songs — but its secret to bridging the gap between Christian roots and broad audience appeal was largely thanks to its treatment of God and its greater religion. Early VeggieTales was able to accomplish this by keeping its religious flavoring light. Its messages, such as forgiving those who are genuinely sorry and being kind to others, were uncontroversial and, most importantly for this genre, not heavy-handed. God’s presence was an unequivocal good; narratively, He was the intangible force pushing the cast to be better vegetables. While His omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent power was always alluded to, rarely was it used to push situations beyond reasonable belief, especially if the episodes were not already adaptations of biblical tales. My hypothesis for why this worked is because it struck the delicate balance between God’s all-encompassing presence and more secular ideas of human autonomy. It sure helps that everything was wrapped in a cute, healthy package that would make Michelle Obama proud.
As VeggieTales and Big Idea grew, though, it undoubtedly became more difficult to maintain its kinda-Christian-kinda-for-everyone identity. Big Idea underwent several acquisitions by larger companies — HiT Entertainment, DreamWorks, NBCUniversal, Comcast — and each tried to prune the franchise’s Christian side to grow mainstream appeal. All the while, God’s place in the VeggieTales universe became more and more unclear.
Then in 2008, along comes The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, the second VeggieTales movie after 2002’s Jonah. Unlike its predecessor, which was based on the biblical story of its titular character, Pirates isn’t rooted in any Christian origins. In fact, Pirates is devoid of obvious Christian themes in general, opting to plop misfit “pirate” actors George (Pa Grape), Sedgewick (Mr. Lunt), and Elliot (Larry) in an underdog hero’s storyline rather than anything explicitly related to any Jesus.
Pirates follows the three misfits attempting to save Prince Alexander and Princess Eloise of the fictional Kingdom of Monteria from mecha-gourd Robert the Terrible, the estranged brother of Monteria’s king. It’s a standard story that yields the same VeggieTales comedy one would come to expect, though what is perhaps a little unusual is its treatment of Christian undertones. I first noticed it when Princess Eloise talks about her father, commenting about how great and benevolent of a king he is and that he loves all his people.
Dusting off the cobwebbed recesses of my mind’s Lutheranism section reminded me that Heaven is traditionally referred to as God’s “kingdom,” with his unconditional love for all of “His people” being Christianity’s main selling point. Even when Eloise quickly uses this as a segue to talk about George’s fatherhood, the image of the Father Who Art in Heaven lingers. It is, after all, VeggieTales.
Robert later reveals that his goal is to usurp the throne out of vengeance for being previously banished from Monteria. I think it’s no accident that the king and Robert’s relationship is similar to that of God and the Devil, even if it isn’t one-to-one (Lucifer is suggested to have been one of God’s angels at one point while the king and Robert are brothers). Robert demands that he needs to know when the king will return (he’s away on some unmentioned business), only for Alexander and Eloise to refuse. “He didn’t say, but even if he had, I’d give my own life before I tell you,” the prince retorts.
Though this might seem like a logical progression of the God/Devil dynamic, it is actually here where Pirates begins to muddle its message. The Devil might be “manipulative” and “the source of all that’s wrong with the world”, but if there’s one thing he isn’t, it’s “concerned of God’s return.” I mean, why would he be? Technically speaking, God and the Devil already exist on the same plane, just in different theological depictions of the afterlife; God or Jesus “returning” wouldn’t be relevant to the Devil because, according to Christianity, they duke it out every day in our moral conflicts. So, one might ask, who is concerned with this return? If not the Devil, who is this maligned mechanical gourd representing now?
Content warning: the following contains references to gun violence
Here’s a slight tangent. When I was still going to that Christian school, one of my teachers (we can call her Ms. A) posed to us this ethical dilemma:
“Let’s say we’re in church one day when, all of a sudden, a gunman walks in and threatens to kill us all. He puts the barrel to our head and says he’ll let us live if we answer no to this question: ‘Do you believe in God?’ Would the right decision be to say no and keep our lives, or to say yes and keep our faith (albeit at a fatal cost)?”
The correct answer, she said, was the latter. If it’s any consolation, my parents passionately disagreed.
The situation Ms. A posited to our seventh-grade class that day was likely inspired by the story of Cassie Bernall, who was tragically killed in the Columbine High School massacre. What makes Bernall’s story so poignant to evangelicals is that shooter Eric Harris asked her the same question as the shooter in Ms. A’s hypothetical; as the story goes, her “yes” is what led to her death. Her martyrdom became the national sensation to define Columbine, sparking articles, a New York Times-bestselling book, and award-winning songs. Bernall’s story was the call for the United States’ Christian populace to rise up against the attacks on their faith.
The most important part of this story? It didn’t happen.
Cassie was reportedly never the one to mention her faith. It was Valeen Schnurr, who would survive the shooting and later reveal that she only professed her belief in God after she was shot. Her attacker, Dylan Klebold, asked her if she believed only after she began to pray. These facts alone debunk the martyrdom and indicate that there was no attack on Christianity at Columbine.
But even after the truth came out, the narrative remained. The pastor at Bernall’s church, Dave McPherson, insisted that her story would never change regardless of the evidence lined against it. “The church is going to stick to the martyr story,” he said. “You can say it didn’t happen that way, but the church won’t accept it.” Indeed, from the hilariously-awful God’s Not Dead movies to whatever the H-E-double-hockey-sticks Ms. A told my class, this fascination with — and near commitment to — persecution is very alive today.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but I believe Pirates perpetuates this martyrdom. Robert shifts from being the allegorical Devil to a greater secular attack on Christianity, and both positions are juxtaposed against Alexander and Eloise’s trust in their father being framed as indisputable integrity. This, without question, has little application to real life, especially considering that VeggieTales targets the already Christian-heavy American crowd. What’s more concerning is the presumptuous alignment of the secular crowd with literal evil, or how a lack of faith in this supposedly long-unseen king is interchangeable with the Devil. Pirates’ message leans towards a “stand up for what’s right” angle, but the ways in which it delivers its message and the personifications of its sides can come off as slightly biased at best and dangerous at worst.
Which becomes all the more complicated when God Himself is thrown into the equation, and to be frank, I fully expected the king in this story to never appear. The references to God were already so strong, and knowing VeggieTales’ “no Jesus vegetable” rule, I suppose I extended that thinking to the Big G, too. So the biggest plot twist for me was seeing a massive vessel appear in a literal ray of sunlight and bear the king himself. With the ship’s winged figurehead and white-and-gold livery, the God charts skyrocketed into the Eternal Kingdom itself. During the final battle, God — er, the king — and his army sink Robert’s ship in, like, less than a minute, and he thanks the pirates and retrieves his children.
As George confesses to the king that they weren’t the best heroes for the job, the king comforts him by saying, “I made sure you had everything you needed to complete the task.” He then lists off several seemingly unrelated pieces of the world that pushed the heroes in the right direction, like a crab that showed them the way. “The adventure I call you to may not be easy, but you’ll never journey alone,” says the king. “My help is always there.”
This last monologue clearly attempts to channel God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence into this holy vegetable (turns out God would be a cucumber, by the way), and I certainly can’t speak to how successful it is as everyone has their own interpretations of God’s work. To some, it’s probably inspiring. To me, it feels like a cheap justification for a bunch of otherwise outlandish plot devices and straight-up doesn’t make sense (who sets up a quest that involves his children getting kidnapped?)
With the sudden appearance of this king, Pirates’ message evolves into “stand up for what’s right, and God will always help you.” This is a takeaway that I emphasize isn’t bad in itself; the problem is that it’s being used in a story that drifts dangerously into the “us vs. them” rhetoric that evangelical America already worships. You don’t need to be a philosophy major to know that “right” is far less objective than what people might think, a problem that’s amplified when it’s integrated into a faith whose very foundation is deciphering “good” from “evil.” If Pirates tells us that God will help us with what’s right, then we must subsequently ask, well, what is “right?”
Simple. If “wrong” is one end of the moral extreme, then “right” is the other. Same with “evil” and “good.” Applying that binary thinking to Pirates leads us to the clean and easy solution: Robert is wrong because he’s literally called “the Terrible.” The king is good and right. But if we are to apply these conclusions to the real-world concepts they represent — secularism, evangelical persecution, and all the people involved — they start falling flat. Implementing a God-like figure only exacerbates the problem; the distinction between “right” and “wrong” is drawn much more sharply, and in many religious circles, is a boundary that cannot be crossed by either side. In Pirates, the king promises that, no matter what, his unlimited power will help the trio in their journeys. Robert, meanwhile, drowns on-screen. I can only hope that he was not representing the non-Christian world at that moment.
When I was in eighth grade, everyone in my class received a book called How to Stay Christian in High School by Steven Gerali. It wasn’t long at all, but it convinced me that, as soon as I left the comfort of my Lutheran K-8, I would be ostracized, degraded, sometimes even attacked for praying before meals, thanking God for His blessings, and whatever other efforts I took to stay, as the book says, a “good Christian.” It’s no surprise that I became endlessly paranoid of high school after that.
But How to Stay Christian didn’t accomplish this alone. It accomplished this with the help of my social studies teacher, who lambasted the multi-faith church at Stanford University for sullying the sanctity of Christianity. It accomplished this with the help of my seventh-grade science and religion teacher, who ungraciously taught us most of the transphobic slurs I know today. It accomplished this with the help of my third grade teacher, who said that God put dinosaur bones in the ground as a joke because the Bible doesn’t mention dinosaurs. It accomplished this with the help of niche news outlets calling the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami “God’s doing,” my teachers’ fetishization of flash mob culture with Christian flavoring, and the weird collective stigma around the word “atheist.”
Amidst all of this, VeggieTales was always the anomaly. In its simplicity was a beautiful core recited by hosts Bob and Larry at the end of each episode: “God made you special, and He loves you very much,” and it’s perhaps a miracle that it was able to escape the pervasive myth of evangelical persecution for so long. The way Pirates dips its toe into religious complexity almost evokes the efforts of Prince of Egypt, a film that doesn’t shy from depicting Moses — and, to a degree, even God — as ethically complicated figures operating in an equally complicated context.
But though Pirates complicates its messaging, it doesn’t extend that same grace to its characters. There are stand-ins for Christians, stand-ins for non-Christians, and stand-ins for God and the Devil (with some overlap, in the case of the latter), but they remain such laughable cardboard cutouts of their counterparts that the film only perpetuates the toxic martyrdom that pervades American evangelicalism. Said martyrdom can only exist through fearmongering, which itself is achieved with gross oversimplification of people, history, religion, and morality, and coupling this with the supposed unconditional support of an all-powerful deity results in insecure yet overconfident attitudes for members of the “in” group and towards those of the “other.” This mentality manifests itself either as offshoot concepts, such as supposed rightful ownership over a nation, and forms of systemic oppression including racism, sexism, and queerphobias. The obvious extreme is Trump cultism, itself formed out of false ideas of supremacy and villainization of all “other” populations, which has (so far) culminated in a fascist attack on Washington D.C. that was ultimately tolerated — if not supported — by the institution. In case you were wondering, the majority of Trump’s fanbase comprises evangelical whites.
I don’t know what exactly could have improved Pirates, because after watching it, I’m worried that I was wrong and its veggie predecessors might have carried the same messages all along. That probably isn’t the case; I get the impression that Pirates only subscribed to this idea because it had to deal with the behind-the-scenes battle between external pressure to cast a wide demographic net and internal pressure towards its Christian roots, which I can only imagine strained the production team and their vision for the series. But perhaps The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything is another reminder that even that I once cherished can and should remain an artifact of my problematic past. Perhaps Pirates is a wake-up call to those who are still enamored with protecting a faith that faces what can be politely called an exaggerated attack. Or, what I’m afraid is most likely the case, Pirates will only exacerbate the unfounded fears instilled in evangelical America. It certainly won’t do this alone; it’ll need the help of sketchy education and teachers, books like How to Stay Christian in High School, invisible threats, unbridled praise of one belief system, and unyielding criticism of any other.
But that hurts because I know it can be so much better than that. I know it could rise above its contemporaries and prove its worth across divergent demographics, embodying Christian philosophies without excluding non-Christian audiences. It is, after all, VeggieTales.