1. The Gospel According to Phil Vischer

To understand VeggieTales as an artifact of American evangelicalism and to understand what its creator believed about our media, we’re going to have to start from the beginning. Specifically, let’s start from the beginning of the relationship between Christian evangelism and the American media which will take us back to the beginning of America itself.

The United States Constitution protects our freedoms of speech and press in the same amendment that promises us that our government will never privilege one religion over another. Consequently, you have to be willing to compete in the American marketplace of ideas if you are a religion or denomination that wants to stay relevant in America. The Christian tradition has certainly always been up to the task of competing. Unlike ethnic or regional religions, going “into the world” to “preach the Gospel to all creation” has been part of the deal as long as Jesus has been on the scene (Mark 16:15). Undoubtedly, historical atrocities have been committed in the name of expanding Christendom, but it’s important to remember that the Christian tradition has long had a focus on expanding the borders and membership of the church.

To compete in that aforementioned marketplace of ideas would be nearly impossible without participating in popular media. As early as the 18th century, revivalists like George Whitefield understood that secular media could aid Christian evangelism in new ways. By intentionally drawing the attention of the press with novel ways of preaching and gathering, revivalists could also draw the attention of any who were more likely to pay attention to the news than be found in the pews. Preaching in the streets did not gain revivalists traditional ecclesial power, but the media attention that a ministry could garner was its own kind of power and exactly the kind of power you need to remain relevant and expand the church. The Great Awakening laid the foundation for later evangelists who relied on popular appeal through the media as an organizing base instead of traditional systems of religious hierarchy.

Christians were not merely interested in co-opting the influence of secular media to win converts. Literacy was a Protestant virtue because it allowed for private and individual reading of the Bible, and high literacy rates among Protestant Christians also created markets for Christian newspapers, tracts, and printed sermons which flourished especially as theological battles between fundamentalist Christians and modernist Christians heated up in the early 20th century. Having media about you, as it turns out, is as good for rallying your troops as it is for recruiting new ones.

Technological innovations in the 21st century created new markets and subsequently new media appetites. As radios became essential to American homes, radio ministries of varying sizes and denominational affiliations were established and soon began fighting over airtime. More airtime meant a bigger audience, and a bigger audience meant cultural and theological dominance. As competition heated up, independent fundamentalist groups were often shut out of airtime on major networks by mainline denominations who were able to claim a national constituency or audience for their programming.

The monopoly of radio held by theologically liberal or “mainline” denominations was one of the animating forces behind the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. The N.A.E. was established to unify and promote the interests of previously independent fundamentalist groups that wanted to engage with American culture without capitulating to modernist theology. While the N.A.E. was home to more than 150 previously independent radio ministries at the time of its formation, the next decade would see an even faster rise of a new media: television.

“Television,” evangelist Billy Graham would later write, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man.” Graham, a touring evangelist who eventually aligned himself with the N.A.E., was a nationally known figure by the 1950s due in large part to enthusiastic coverage of his preaching and revivals in the press. Once he began creating content specifically for television, Graham would preach to more people in a single telecast than Christ did in his lifetime. Similarly, Pat Robertson, host of The 700 Club, said “to say the church shouldn’t be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change.” Christian broadcasting was to be a major cornerstone of evangelicalism. With the growing media presence and influence in America, how could they survive without it?

Source: Department of Commerce & Nielsen Home Technology Report

In 1966, Phil Vischer was born in Muscatine, Iowa. When looking at Phil Vischer’s childhood, two things are immediately clear; his family was deeply religious, and he loved movies. In fact, his great-grandfather was a pioneering radio evangelist by the name of R.R. Brown. Phil would later attend St. Paul Bible College, the same school where his father studied. As Phil would describe it, “I grew up in and around churches and Bible conferences. I knew lots of missionaries, and they knew me… I also knew that overseas missions was the best thing you could do with your life… but I didn’t want to do it” (Vischer, 8).

Phil found a unique passion for movies and television at a young age. He was making his own films by age 8 and was set on filmmaking as a career by age 14. It was in his teenage years that Phil also discerned a purpose for his filmmaking. As thrilled as Phil was by the technical and creative implications of sophisticated television networks like MTV, he was put off by the brashness and crassness of much of its content. Could this, what young people wanted from their entertainment, really be so different from what they needed in their lives? This led to a realization.

“Someone had to do something about it. Someone had to show the world how family entertainment could be freed from its hopelessly antiquated modernist trappings and reenergized with biblical truth — with a Christian worldview… I quickly decided that someone was me” (Vischer, 122).

This is the gospel or “good news” for Phil Vischer: the same media that could be wielded irresponsibly and to the detriment of young people could also be redeemed. Mainstream entertainment (i.e. videos, television, and film) could be constructive for people and glorifying to God if they were in the hands of Christian stewards. This idea — that each new media came with it the ability to be an evangelistic tool — had been seemingly proven by the likes of Billy Graham, by radio evangelists, and by revivalists for generations before him.

Phil would later go on to produce the first computer-animated series in the country which would spend several years as America’s best-selling children’s video franchise. The first VeggieTales video wouldn’t be released until 1993, and the technology that created it didn’t exist in Phil’s teenage years. However, he was already determined to make something big, and that something big was going to make a difference.

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Jack Tucker

Jack Tucker

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