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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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God as a Bearded Zucchini: Phil Vischer on the New Veggie Tales Movie

Last week, ReligionWriter reviewed the new Veggie Tales movie, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, which is out in theaters today, Jan. 11, and shared her conversation with Phil Vischer, co-creator of Veggie Tales.

Today that conversation, originally held in September in San Antonio, continues. (And RW wishes she had prepared this as a podcast, because the transcript doesn’t capture Vischer’s witty sense of timing and delivery and the laughter that went along with this interview.)

RW begins by asking about the magical ball that appears throughout the movie, offering guidance to the three bumbling veggie-protagonists. Since Vischer commented in the earlier conversation that the movie is an allegory, like Jesus’ parables, RW wanted to know what the ball represents.

RW: Can we talk about the ball? Is the ball the Bible?

Vischer: No, it’s God’s call. Some people say, “Is it the Holy Spirit?” No, not really. It’s just a device of beckoning. It’s the tap on the shoulder, the instrument through which God reaches out and says, “Pssst. I’ve got something for you.”

RW: I was guessing it represented something more concrete, since you can hold the ball in your hand, like the Bible.

Vischer: Once it’s clear you’re being allegorical, there’s a danger, because people will try to apply that to everything: “Who’s that character? Is that John the Baptist?” Whoa.

That’s what happens with Jesus’ parables too, like the parable of the talents. [People say,] “The owner is God, right, and yet he sows where he did not plant, so he’s kind of a bad guy. Does Jesus think God is a bad guy?”

A parable is going to teach one thing, just one thing. When pastors try to pull three-point sermons out of a one-point parable, you are always in danger. It’s like you’re making stuff up. Like in Narnia or Tolkien, you get in trouble when you try to find a biblical character around every turn. You have to look at it very simplistically: What’s the big picture? What are they trying to say?

RW: So your simple message is, everybody can be a hero.

Vischer: Yes. It’s about God’s call and about service. It’s about: Stop being a consumer and be a producer, because our culture is so much about consumption. Even churches have become about consumption: “I go to this church because the chairs are more comfortable and the coffee is better, and they’ve got really good lighting and a good sound system.” Wait a minute.

That’s the mentality we raise our kids with: That they must be entertained every moment of every day. So we’re now piping Nickelodeon into our minivans over Sirius satellite radio. If you reach adulthood under the impression that the world exists to entertain you, you are going to be on the couch your whole life. And that’s not what God is telling us to do. The world is burning. He wants us to jump in, grab a bucket, and start putting out fires.

RW: Some people who are not religious spend their life trying to get over the idea that God is a bearded old white man. In your movie God is a bearded old white man. Is that problematic at all?

Vischer: He’s green. He’s kind of a zucchini. So he’s actually a green man.

RW: But he’s old and he’s bearded, and he’s a man: He’s an old bearded man.

Vischer: He is. It would appear to be the case.

RW: Do you think that’s problematic in reinforcing-

Vischer: That may be an issue for 0.7 percent of the audience I guess. People have different hot buttons. Some people would [fault the movie,] saying “Oh, he’s European.” Other people would say “He’s a man.” Gandalf is [an old bearded white man] and he could be a god figure or a leader figure. It’s the same thing. It’s part of our European heritage that we paint [characters] in European terms.

RW: It’s interesting that you mention Tolkien, because he is sometimes criticized for the role women play in his stories. In the movie, the princess’ main job is encouraging the three guys, rather than taking any direct action herself. Is there something about gender roles you are trying to express here?

Vischer: No, because the story is about three pre-existing characters. The story is about the pirates who don’t do anything, and so the [story] arc is their arc. The message is: You think you’re broken, and you think you can’t do anything. One of the pirates is scared, one has no backbone, and the other one is lazy. You can overcome that and accomplish something. Because we decided at the outset to write a story about these three characters, it had to be about them. Could I have done better in addressing [gender]? Probably.

Although, I can get tired of being overly politically correct. In every action movie of the last ten years now, the girl kicks somebody’s butt because that’s politically correct. So I ‘m a little sensitive to the knee-jerk criticism.

RW: I hope you don’t mind some personal questions. Tell us about your children; how old are they?

Vischer: Seventeen, fifteen, and ten.

RW: What church do you belong to?

Vischer: Blanchard Alliance Church. It’s a Christian Missionary Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois.

RW: What kind of Christian faith were you raised in?

Vischer: CMA. My great-grandfather was one of the founders of that, which didn’t start out to be a denomination. It was actually a missionary-sending organization in New York City back in the 1880s. Then of course, as things always happen, it ended up becoming its own group over time.

My great-grandfather was a radio preacher, actually one of the first radio preachers. He went on the air in Omaha in 1923. The Reverend R. R. Brown, called Radio Brown by some. He had an audience at one point of more than 100,000 people every week across ten Midwestern states, because radio signals carried so far in those days. Radio was commercialized in 1922, and this was 1923. So it was a year after you could have a commercial radio license. He started preaching, and he preached every Sunday on the air from 1923 until he died in 1963.

RW: So you not only come to the CMA honestly, you come to the media honestly.

Vischer: My mom was playing the piano live on the radio when she was five accompanying her little brother who was singing his first solo at age 3. It was a very strange kind of religious/show biz family. They were always up front. Always. It would have been easy to rebel against actually, because it produced in my family line some performance—

RW: Anxiety?

Vischer: Not anxiety, but the need to always look good, because they were the Browns of Omaha, and things were expected of the Browns of Omaha. Some kids rebelled against them very strongly in the generation before mine; just kind of wandered off the ranch and never came back because they didn’t want to have to live up to great grandpa’s legacy.

In my generation it’s produced something very different. My brother is a Harvard Law grad teaching law and religion at St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He’s presenting a paper at the Vatican on Catholic legal theory. So we’re really engaging this stuff again. My mom now teaches children’s ministry Wheaton College, the grad school.

RW: That’s a very interesting part of your story.

Vischer: My mom was the one who stepped in at the very beginning [of Veggie Tales] and said “Rule Number One, you will not portray Jesus as a vegetable.” Her final point was: Regardless of what you teach, always remind kids how special they are and how much God loves them, which is the closing line on every Veggie Tales video ever. It’s like Mr. Rogers: Repeat, repeat, repeat so you can reinforce. She saved us from getting in trouble for portraying Jesus as a vegetable.

RW: Yes, because what vegetables would he be? Broccoli? He would probably have to be broccoli.

For more coverage, see Christianity Today’s Todd Hertz’s interview with Vischer, “The More You Preach, the Less You Teach,” as well as Vischer’s 2007 memoir, Me, Myself and Bob: A Story about God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables.

There Is 1 Response So Far. »

  1. To who it may concern. I am a God fearing women, who believes that
    what God has for me is for me. I have created a christian cartoon.I would Like to persent it to Phil Vischer. Children is our
    focus, the furture ministry in these last days. Question, Is there
    any way I can get in touch with Mr. Vischer?

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