A number of years ago, my kids were into Veggie Tales. And, truthfully, so was I. It was actually quite enjoyable to watch these charming videos, cataloging the journeys of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, et al. Indeed, I could probably recite the opening song word for word.
The other day, my daughter Emma (who is now 16) told that she had heard some folks critiquing Veggie Tales as just “moralism” and not something Christians should let their kids be watching. So, she asked me what I thought about that.
This sort of critique reminded of an interview several years ago with World Magazine in which the creator of Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer, expressed regret over the “moralism” of Veggie Tales:
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.
Now, there is much to be commended in Vischer’s realization. Certainly Christianity is more than simply behaving in a certain way. Christianity, at its core, is about God’s redemptive work in Christ to save sinners by grace.
Moreover, when it comes to proclaiming the Christian message, we always need to present the imperative (here’s what you should do) within the context of the indicative (here’s what Christ has done). The latter is always the foundation for the former.
However, that said, I wonder if Veggie Tales can be so quickly swept aside as non-Christian.
Vischer declares, “You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so’…But that isn’t Christianity.” Well, it depends what he means. In many ways, such a statement is definitively Christian. It calls God’s covenant people (kids in this instance) to obey the authoritative word of their covenant Lord (regarding forgiving others). Sure, it is a call to a certain moral behavior. But it is a moral behavior that is in a biblical, covenantal context because it is based on God’s word.
If I said in a sermon, “be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” would that be considered non-Christian? I hope not. Surely Christians need to be more forgiving. And surely the fact that God says so in his Word is a compelling motivation (though not the only motivation).
At this point I suppose one might object and say that we are free to give moral imperatives as long as they are always given alongside the gospel message. But, again, it depends on what one means by “alongside.” I would certainly agree that any moral imperative must always be rooted in the gospel message of grace and forgiveness in Christ. But, does this mean that it must always be stated immediately in the very next sentence? Does it always mean that it must be stated expressly every time you give a moral imperative?
I would argue that the gospel is the foundation for moral imperatives, the context for moral imperatives, and the backdrop for moral imperatives. But, we must be careful about insisting that there is a magical formula for how that must be expressed in any given proclamation of Christian teaching. Indeed, I think a number of biblical examples bear this out:
1. The book of James. When one reads the book of James it is clear that it is a letter of morals. We are called to not show partiality (2:1), to help the poor among us (2:15-16), to watch our tongues (3:1-12), to stop our coveting (4:1-2), to be patient and long suffering (5:7-8), to pray faithfully (5:16), and much more. Moreover, this letter does not explicitly mention the atonement, the cross, salvation by grace alone, or any core aspects of the “gospel” message (though it is implied in passages like 1:18; 1:25; and 5:15). Is James therefore moralism? Not at all. You have to take James in context of the entire New Testament and the fact that the core aspects of the gospel message are explained elsewhere. No doubt James wrote already assuming that his audience understood the basic truths of the gospel.
2. The Sermon on the Mount. Although it is obvious to anyone who reads it, it is often overlooked that Jesus’ most famous sermon is composed of almost all moral imperatives. Jesus covers an impressive list of moral topics: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, fasting, worry, and more. Indeed, Jesus even warns his listeners that God’s judgment will fall on those who righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees (5:20), and for those who fail to keep his word (7:21-26). And, once again, there is no express mention of atonement, the cross, justification, etc. (though, again, it is implied in passages like 5:3 and 6:12). Does this make his sermon moralism? No, once again, the sermon has to be taken in the larger context of Jesus’ teachings, and the teachings of the NT as a whole.
3. The book of Proverbs. Once again, here is an entire book that is fulfilled with moral wisdom on how one should live their life. It tells us how to act, think, feel, on a variety of critical issues. And, there is no express discussion of atonement, justification, salvation by grace, etc. Does this make Proverbs moralism? Not at all. These exhortations, once again, need to be understood within the larger context of the Bible’s teachings.
These are just three quick examples designed to make a very simple point: sometimes it is ok to take large blocks of teaching and focus on Christian morals. One should not have to stop every five minutes to give a “gospel presentation” out of fear of being accused of moralism. The key issue is whether there is a larger context around those moral teachings that adequately provide a gospel foundation for obedience.
If Veggie Tales were used as a supplemental teaching tool to parents who were adequately explaining the gospel to their children, I could see it as very useful (and very Christian!). Veggie Tales were never intended (I hope!) to be a complete Christian curriculum for kids, even though some parents may unfortunately use them in that fashion.
All of this, of course, is not designed to downplay or deny the real threat of moralism in many churches today. To be sure, many pulpits lack the gospel message entirely and simply preach a “do this” version of Christianity. But, the solution is not to impose a “one size fits all” version of preaching where any extended moral exhortation is immediately labeled moralism. Indeed, the Bible is filled with extended moral exhortations.
We must always remember that the indicative is the grounds for the imperative, not its obstacle.
Timothy Joseph says
Yeah, I agree that the moral teachings of the Bible are not only true when expressed immediately in close connection with Gospel imperatives. Yet, it is also been obvious to me that “Veggie Tales” is Christian only within the context of the Gospel imperatives taught by either the parents or the local church. Unfortunately, my observation has been that parents use these videos to promote moralism without the Gospel.
Veggie Tales is certainly not evil or immoral. I am just not sure your critique is accurate in most homes where these videos are played.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Tim. Appreciate the comments. Two thoughts:
1. You mentioned in your “observation” that these videos are used for moralism. I am not sure how helpful that is given the small sample size of your observations. My observations are the opposite. Most people I have seen use them are very clear with their kids about the Gospel. That leads to my next point:
2. I think you are confusing how these videos are *used* and whether the videos are, in of themselves, moralistic in nature. After all, couldn’t someone use the stories in the Bible itself to promote moralism? But you don’t therefore conclude that the Bible is moralistic. Instead you would conclude the Bible is being *misused.* In the same way, Veggie Tales are basically retelling of Bible stories. In as much as they do that, they are no more moralistic than the Bible itself.
Timothy Joseph says
I would agree that how something is *used* does not determine its value or intent. As to sample size, I am not sure why your sample would be bigger or broader than mine, but even granting that, when the creator recognizes the item as moralistic that should be a warning that maybe as users we should be wary.
In any case, I appreciate the article and the follow up.
I think his point is that any sample size that can’t be considered indicative of the population, or segment of the population, as a whole is not suitable to draw broad conclusions from.
A couple thoughts. Speaking of “the gospel” and “the Bible says” depersonalizes or objectifies both. The gospel is Christ dying and rising for us. The Bible is God’s word to his people. When we speak of obedience, it is not merely obeying “the Bible,” it is obeying Christ … because we love him. Faith and love are the missing covenantal elements of veggie tales (which I did not let my kids watch). Moralism replaces gratitude with conformity to a (sub)culture. Moralism comes from a horizontal outlook, there’s no vertical dimension. In other words, it’s in the power of the flesh (unbelief) which Paul combats in Gal.
Salvation by grace is in James’ letter (1:18; 2:5; 5;15,20) and 2:1 is loaded with significance. James exhibits a Godward perspective (4:15; 5:7). Luther’s problem with James is ironic as Luther understood the theology of the cross and the wisdom of James is nothing but a theology of the cross (glory through suffering, etc).
When the world appeals to Matt 5-7 in a moralistic fashion, they misread it because they fail to come through the entry way which is 5:3-12 where Christ is teaching faith alone. Apart from saving faith in him, there is no following him by keeping his word.
Ed Dingess says
Paul spoke of “the gospel” and “it is written” quite often. Did Paul objectify and depersonalize the gospel and Scripture?
Who keeps Christ’s word apart from saving faith?
It’s tricky. I would say VT is good TV as it sets good examples as it expresses edifying content in contrast to worldliness which is often based on self. If anything I have reservations about talking vegetables.
The law has many facets or applications & can speak in a pre-salvation & post salvation context as well as be solid things for a society to build upon (Jonah?).
I get the regret or shortcomings but even a sermon built on a text can fall short in many areas yet can address kingdom issues & speak to the heart as God wills it. Also the Bible is so vast on many topics & the kingdom as a whole is like a library of resources & the kids should be attending church & growing up & putting it all together, asking questions etc.
It’s intent would not be to undermine the gospel but to support it I would of thought. Many songs do this too.
Thank you, Dr. Kruger. I very much appreciate your perspective on the larger issue surrounding the specific issue of VT.
I have been concerned for a while with the growing tendency, including in Reformed churches, to downplay the teaching of the law. Yes, legalism is a problem and an error. However, it is not the only problem. Antinomianism and the failure to properly and forcefully exhort, rebuke, and instruct the church regarding right conduct in accord with the law (conduct that glorifies God and Christ our Savior) are also problems.
Yes, we are saved not of works, but it is also true that we have been saved to do good works, as Eph. 2 states. And it is certainly biblically acceptable to have the law applied to our lives as Christians without needing to hear a “gospel message” after every imperative sentence in a sermon or bit of biblical teaching, as you say.
When we understand the redemptive context that you describe, we should then be able to delve deeply into the specifics of the law and discuss their application to our lives as Christians. This seems rather obvious from Scripture, and I’m puzzled why so many recently are having such trouble with it.
God has given us his Word so we know how we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light by grace through faith, but his Word also instructs us as to how we should walk by the Spirit in that kingdom. We do need teaching on both of these things.
John S says
good article! I enjoy VeggieTales as well, though I’m not up to speed over the last 5 years or so.
My concern is more with the theme/purpose/summary statement ‘God made you special and He loves you very much!’ at the end of most (all?) videos.
To me this is a step further, unlike the moralistic teachings that are true as far as they go, rather this theme statement itself contains error, at least on one level. At a common grace level God loves everyone universally, but God hates sin and the sinner and his wrath rests on them. The Veggie teaching is, pretty clearly in my view, aimed at each individual child. That God personally and actively loves you individually ‘because you are special’ apart from repentance or faith, and apart from Christ (which to my recollection none of those teachings are in the body of any of their videos either). It proposes in itself no need for Jesus Christ in order to receive God’s love (again I would suggest a child in particular would understand this as his full love no just some part of it). That’s a doctrine that needs something more than supplementing in my view. (Perhaps we could give each child a copy of Carson’s Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God? Ok maybe not…)
They could easily include the gospel as a summary statement if they wanted by adding on to their statement, or instead of the one they use. In any case as always parents are the gatekeepers and shepherds for their kids!
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, John. You make some good points. But if you are speaking to a children’s Sunday School at your church couldn’t you say, “God made you special and He loves you very much”? I certainly would be comfortable with that. Again, if these words are uttered in a covenantal context then I think they are fine. As I said in my original post, if these videos are used as a teaching aid/supplement for God’s people, I see no problem with them.
John S says
Yes I agree, thank you for replying to my comment. I guess my concern is ultimately with the Church, some (much?) of which has adopted the VeggieTales theology and goes no further.
If I was able to talk with someone about this I would probably next ask if there is any application to be made from ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’. Or to call on Spurgeon ‘Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel.’ I know VeggieTales are not sermons but they are spiritual teaching, with little or no Christ and Him crucified in my recollection. I’m hopeful in their more recent videos they have Jesus.
Paul DiBenedetto says
The issue that isn’t addressed is that VT has a much broader audience than Biblically-minded families. The question that needs to be asked, and I believe this would be the context the creator of VT was speaking to, if the content of VT were the only material ever shared with an unbeliever, would you feel the Gospel had been adequately communicated to them? If our interactions with those around us boil down to “only” encouragements to live morally could we say we have gone out into the world and preached the Gospel. The question isn’t whether VT is OK in a very particular set of circumstances, but on the whole. I believe the creator of the series was communicating regret that there has never been a clear communication of the Gospel, ONLY moral teaching. And for that he is evidencing regret. May God forbid that we should do the same with our family, friends, and neighbors.
Arthur Cook says
Hi Michael, thanks for this article. I would say that while it is true that all moral imperatives do not need to be followed immediately with a gospel statement, it is also true, at least in my church where the majority come from a Roman Catholic or strict legalistic background, preaching the “do this because the Bible says” is so quickly misunderstood by people that it is detrimental to their faith. There should be a very strong gospel culture in the church and the gospel should be oozing out of people and all the various teaching ministries of the church before I would say that a mere “duty” based sermon could be preached without rooting it in the true foundation of our faith. However, I am not really sure what the motivation behind such a sermon would be. That being said, I agree that antinomianism is a very present danger in many churches including mine. It probably is best to have a sermon faithfully knock down nomians and antinomians alike in the same sermon, because both are always present in a congregation, sometimes in the same person, sometimes myself. I am sure that this looks different in each church, and that every pastor probably knows best as to which error has a stronger pull on his congregation. We should be encouraged to know those to whom we preach and preach accordingly. Thanks so much for your ministry and teaching, you are a great blessing to the church! …and watch out for Federal Visionists infiltrating RTS!!!
I believe your admonition that churches ought to be steeped in the gospel is most certainly true. Our churches ought to be proclaiming and coming to know more and more “the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-19).
However, if I may humbly say so, I do think your comment represents a bit of an overreaction against the preaching of imperatives.
I would say that if someone reads or hears a command from Scripture that ends up being detrimental to his faith, the problem lies with the one hearing, not with the proclamation of that truth per se, and does not constitute a reason to cease or wait to preach imperatives. We need the whole counsel of God, and the Bible does tell us to do things. The law is useful for driving us to Christ as the only hope of being free of our sin and as a guide for our conduct as believers.
In addition, many of the Reformed church fathers who knew more deeply the truths of the gospel than most in the church today (I most definitely include myself), also preached sermons exclusively on our duty as Christians. I would say it is very possible to do that and still be a “gospel-steeped” church. A church should desire to gain a deeper and deeper understanding of the whole counsel of God, and instructions regarding our conduct as redeemed saints is very much a part of that counsel.
I think we have largely lost an embrace of the uses of the law that “do sweetly comply with the grace of the gospel”.
I would highly recommend this article by Richard Barcellos for a great explanation of these uses:
Bill Hand says
So many Christians will sit and chuckle warmly and admiringly over the most amoral sitcoms, but then we all eviscerate anything a Christian puts out, condemning it for every real or perceived doctrinal error — no matter how trivial. It’s always condemn, condemn, condemn instead of using them as starting points for thoughts and conversations. Christian artists don’t dare go deep because someone will be always be offended. It’s why Christian art can never be anything more than simplistic and corny messages that the world ignores and offers fellow Christians no more growth than what comes from gazing at an Andy Warhol soup can. John was wise when he obsessed on that command of loving one another. We’ll never have relevance in the world so long as we watch everything our brothers do with a cold, condemning eye.
Isn’t your response here “watch[ing] everything our brothers do with a cold, condemning eye”? We judge so-called “Christian” cartoons and such because Scripture calls us to be discerning and is full of judgments against false teaching. John’s admonition to love one another as Christ loves us is not at odds with our responsibility to judge what is out of accord with the Christian faith. The reason we do not condemn immoral entertainment from the world is because of what Paul says in 1 Cor 5 (note esp. vv.12-13).
I can’t say that I’ve ever been a fan of VT… and while I get the point that they can be supplementally helpful when presented in the correct context for kids already steeped in the gospel, I would still prefer to give them something that is still gospel inclusive. Gospel saturation for my kids is ok in my book. At any rate, I think Phil’s more recent offering (What’s In the Bible) is a better alternative.
chris hutchinson says
Thanks, Dr. Kruger. Always compelling, thoughtful stuff.
Veggie Tales lost me when they had an asparagus (Esther) attempt to sing a serious, sad song. But pretty clever, funny stuff before that.
What is not mentioned in this article is the First Use of the Law. It assumes that these moral imperatives are given after the Gospel has been presented by the parents. Fair enough.
But the main reason we forgive is not just because the Bible says so, but because if we do not, then we have not understood grace at all (cf. James 2, Romans 2, Mt. 6:14-15). So yes, one can teach the Law Alone from time to time in the overall context of a Gospel ministry, but I would humbly challenge the assertion that large portions of moral instruction exist in the Scripture, esp. the NT, without Gospel motivations being extraordinarily nearby, and that includes James and Proverbs. So, for example, in the imperative section of Ephesians, Paul says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, AS God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4;32).
The key is to have the eyes to see the Gospel motivations within these passages, cf. I Cor. 2.
After all, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands us to “be perfect (telios) as our heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48). Apply that as well, and you can only end up at the Cross.
That was the kind of thing that Veggie Tales failed to do consistently, and so I think Vischer exemplified a godly repentance here that we ought to honor.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Chris. Appreciate the comments. Overall, I have very little disagreement about what you said. Yes, grace is the primary motivation for obedience. But surely it is not the *only* motivation for obedience. The Bible offers many motivations.
Yes, the Sermon on the mount, and any Bible story that has moral implications, should be viewed through the first use of the law (I typically use the 2nd use language, but I know numbering differs).
But, why can’t this same point apply to the Veggie Tale videos? After all, they are basically just telling Bible stories. So, in as much as they tell Bible stories, why can they not be viewed as an application of the 1st/2nd use of the Law?
And this gets to my main point. If people object to Veggie Tales as “moralism,” and Veggie Tales is simply retelling Bible stories, than that comes pretty close to charging the Bible itself with moralism. And that is where my concern lies. Believe it or not, my concern here is defend Bible stories against the charge of moralism!
In fact, when speaking of the Bible’s moral passages, you say, “The key is to have the eyes to see the Gospel motivations within these passages.” Yes! But, again, why can’t this same thing be said about Veggie Tales videos when they are simply retelling Bible stories? Can’t we see the Gospel motivations there as well?
In the end, I simply see nothing wrong with telling Bible stories to kids. No one has ever argued Veggie Tales is an *exhaustive* curriculum for parents. It is not able to accomplish everything, nor is it intended to. But, that alone doesn’t make it moralism.
chris hutchinson says
Thanks for the quick response. No disagreement, really — just a matter of emphasis and knowing where Veggie Tales would fit in to one’s over all system, which is precisely what you have done. I just can’t resist jumping into discussions on Law and Gospel in the Christian life…. a “pet” topic for me.
Just for clarity, I was trying to use Calvin’s enumeration of the three uses of the Law:
1) First — convicting, driving us to the Cross
2) Second — civil use for society
3) Third — Christian imperatives in response to grace
The Book of Concord switches 1) and 2), and so some folks use that order instead.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Chris. Yes, for some reason I have always used the second use language (not sure why).
Dean Ruddy says
2 Tim 3:16-17 seems to give credence to the fact that we can learn about godliness from all of Scripture. Both the OT & NT church were/are called to live by faith which is expressed in walking in the light which is walking in godliness & trusting in the promises.
Christ was the key in the OT & embodied in the law I would say. In as much as the Bible speaks about God’s glorious grace it also speaks about reward & yielding not to temptation & loving God’s precepts. I forget which book it is in the OT, maybe Esther, but it doesn’t mention God once.
In this sense it was always grace, wether Abraham or Noah or Moses, David or Israel even though the Christ was yet to be revealed in human flesh.
One thing is for sure, children & adults need to be taught that Salvation only comes through Christ & that He calls/commands us to to trust in Him & walk in obedience & conform to His ways. And like most things upon reflection, we could always have done this or that better. God is indeed the God of all Grace, as we too are like children in need of good guidance.
Cheryl M. says
Although I was never a fan of the Veggie Tales (partly from seeing up close and personal the shallowness of the church from which they sprang–I had two housemates who were from that church while they were being filmed), I’ve managed to see two or three of them. I never particularly objected to the storytelling to teach a lesson, for example “The Rumor Weed.” That has an honorable tradition in storytelling. Having seen few of the videos, and none of them more than once, I can’t say whether they did it well or poorly overall, but that doesn’t seem a problem in itself.
The ones I objected to were the ones using biblical stories, replacing the people with vegetables, and putting in a new kid-friendly “moral.” Surely you can tell a story about covetousness without making the story of David and Bathsheba CUTE. I’ve known way too many church kids confused about stories in Scripture because the Veggie Tales rewritings were what they knew. If you want to make films about vegetables, let them be vegetables in their own made-up world; don’t take the Bible into it and rewrite it to tell whatever moral lessons you wish to tell. That IS improper moralizing, and it misses the point of the Bible.
Great article! As someone who practices expository preaching in the reformed tradition week in and week out, I find it unnecessary to ground moral obligation in gospel motivation every single time to basically the same people every single week. For instance, I am preaching through Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I made certain that my first sermon addressed the uniqueness of his experience as the son of God and son of Adam messianic ministry and how his conquering temptation has struck a deathblow to Satan on our behalf. At the same time, I have spent a few weeks dealing with the nature of Satan’s devices as they apply to us. I found some way of reminding people of Jesus is unique experience and I bring the gospel back in but I challenge folks toward “morality” without feeling that I need to make the very next sentence a gospel motivation.
David Campbell says