April 20, 2012
Media, mission, and why the church needs to grasp the power of humor.
Back in the 1990s, Phil Vischer achieved success with the creation of CG Protestant produce. Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber were the stars VeggieTales, the kids video series that smashed sales records and taught a whole generation that God is bigger than the boogie man. The winning combination of CG, catchy tunes, and Monty Python-esque humor proved Vischer's company, Big Idea, could teach Biblical truth to a generation raised on NIckeolodeon and Mtv. But by 2003 the ride was over. Vischer lost his company and control of his farmstand friends. The story of Big Idea's rise and fall is told in his book, Me, Myself, and Bob.
Having learned the peril of seeking big impact rather than small faithfulness, Vischer began his next venture, Jellyfish Labs, just as the media world was being transformed by iTunes and digital platforms. He created a new stable of characters led by anchorman Buck Denver (think of Ron Burgundy as a Muppet), JellyTelly- an interactive website for kids, and a DVD series called What's in the Bible? that walks kids through every book of Bible. But now Vischer has his sights set on an older audience. Realizing his humor resonates with college students and older adults, next month he will begin "The Phil Vischer Show"--a talk show focusing on the intersection of faith with culture, politics, science, theology, and anything else that flows through his mind. Featuring guests and a live audience (and the occassional puppet?), Vischer hopes his show will bring some silliness to conversations about the serious topics of our day.
Skye: When did you sense that God was calling you to engage the media/entertainment world? How did this fit with the ministry legacy of your family?
Phil: My family legacy was all about missions and the pastorate. I had relatives who faced down cannibals. My great grandfather was a radio preacher, and I grew up at the missions conference he founded, hearing amazing stories about the amazing things amazing missionaries were doing for God. I couldn't figure out how a shy kid like me fit into that picture. I preferred playing with Super8 cameras and my Atari 400 computer at home in the basement. Then MTV turned on when I was a sophomore in high school. I loved the creativity, but was very concerned about the values. Definitely not what I had learned in Sunday School. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe God could use someone like me to bring biblical truth into creative media. Suddenly I had a picture of how I could be on mission with God without ever getting on a plane, or facing down a cannibal.
Why it is so important for Christians to participate in film and television?
These are the media our culture uses to transmit ideas. To abstain from these media is tantamount to abandoning the public square.
Is it better for Christians to create their own media outlets (channels, studios, radio stations, labels), or to participate in the mainstream stuff?
We need to do both. Equipping and encouraging the church is valid and necessary. So is engaging the culture. The trick is to know which you're doing, and be honest about it. We'll make a feature-length film, lob it into a few theaters, get our church friends to go see it, and then try to convince ourselves that we've engaged the culture. If no one shows up but us, we aren't engaging the culture. But worship music shows us that not all Christian artistic expression needs to be aimed at the culture. Much of what I've written in my life has been aimed squarely at the church, with the idea that a well-informed and well-formed body of believers will then go out and impact the culture. I am unabashedly "preaching to the choir" because the problems I'm trying to address are in the choir loft.
How has your understanding of God's calling on you changed since Big Idea?
Massively. My focus early on was to have as much impact as possible, as quickly as possible. That was my math for finding God's will. More, more, faster, faster. My quest for more/faster resulted in my having little or no personal joy, and, ultimately, a collapsed ministry. Out of that, God taught me that what he is really looking for is obedience, not impact. Little things done with joy are much more attractive to the world than big things done by cranky people.
What can the church do to help young people who feel called into the entertainment industry?
Validate the call. Pray for them. Find older Christians in entertainment that can advise and mentor. And help them make stuff. Our churches - especially the larger ones - have amazing media resources in-house. I was recently in a church that had its own green screen studio. My first comment was, "Do the high school kids know this is here?" We know kids love creative media, so we often think, "We grown-ups had better make media to entertain our church kids." That's the wrong way to think. Put the tools in the kid's hands, and let them make the media. We too often turn our churches into shows, and turn our kids into the audience. Our kids should be the producers. The audience is the world. Hand out some cheap camcorders and get out of their way.
You're now expanding beyond a children's audience. Why?
My goal was never specifically to focus on kids, it was really about families. The idea behind VeggieTales and What's in the Bible? was to make something a whole family could sit down and watch together. Then I started noticing that high school and college age kids seemed to like my stuff as much as younger kids. That was unexpected! We have a lot of great teachers in the church, but a serious lack of silly. We tend to teach like Walter Cronkite reported the news - in a deadly serious "voice of God" tone. But our culture has replaced Walter Cronkite with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. We like silly. The church is completely missing this trend.
Tell us about "The Phil Vischer Show." Will there be puppets?
I wouldn't be surprised if a puppet or two dropped by every now and then, but the Phil Vischer Show is really about finding a thoughtful yet humorous take on the issues facing Christians today. The goal is to bring a dose of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to a genre that has been dominated by very dour, older white preachers for far too long. There are too many important ideas that aren't being discussed in a public forum, and even if they are, aren't being discussed with the "spoonful of sugar" (read: humor) that can make them palatable to a broad audience. Someone needs to take a crack at this, and I've decided it might as well be me.