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After Big Idea, the animation studio he started in his basement, went bankrupt, Phil Vischer had an epiphany (see "It's not about the dream"). He looked back and realized that while his immensely entertaining VeggieTales characters delighted kids and sold by the millions, they only taught children how to behave Christianly-they didn't teach them Christianity.
"For some kids being good comes really, really easy, and for some kids it comes really hard," Vischer told me. "And until you really explain to them the entirety of the faith-that we all mess up and that it's the Holy Spirit at work that helps us to be forgiving, that helps us to be kind-until you unpack the whole thing, you haven't helped them much at all."
So for his next venture Vischer set out to unpack the whole thing and explain "God's great rescue plan and how stories like those of Moses, David, and Jesus fit together to tell one big, redemptive story." He created What's in the Bible?, an ecclesiastical smorgasbord of instruction ranging from standard Sunday school fare like Noah and the ark to considerably less well-trodden territory like the 313 A.D. Edict of Milan, taught by, of all things, puppets.
If it sounds like a strange concept, it is. But it's also sort of wonderful in its strangeness. Every year a new Barna Group study shows biblical illiteracy growing to epidemic proportions. The responses of regular churchgoers reveal that many understand little of what they profess to believe, and even the most sincere believers have trouble defending their faith against challenges. Into this gap steps What's in the Bible?, a light, witty primer that sets the trees of Christianity into a contextual forest and provides answers to some of the toughest questions believers can expect their culture to ask.
Having cuddly, cartoonish characters like cowboy Chuck Waggin and daffy Dr. Schniffenhousen cover religious doctrine is also not as novel as it seems. For inspiration, Vischer drew on a four-part series Disney produced in 1957 about how man would reach the moon. "They brought in German rocket scientists, they had Donald Duck demonstrating weightlessness, and they did re-enactments and had models. They were highly entertaining and hugely impactful," says Vischer. He says the ratings were so high that one executive at NASA said Congress probably wouldn't have approved its budget if Disney hadn't gotten Americans so excited about space travel. Thanks to those specials, Vischer says, "When I first started thinking about [What's in the Bible?], one of the things I wrote down was 'What if Walt Disney produced Carl Sagan's Cosmos for the purpose of teaching historical Christianity?' What would that look like?"
What it looks like is a mock news program where a host of eccentric fuzzy reporters walk families book by book from Genesis to Revelation, tackling some thorny theological issues along the way. For example, in a segment called "A Pirate's Guide to Church History," the Scottish-sounding Captain Pete and his parrot Reginal explain why a Protestant's Bible has fewer books than a Catholic's Bible. (Answer: Protestants follow the 100 A.D. revised Judaic Septuagint whereas Catholics use an older Greek Septuagint. Yeah, somehow Vischer manages to convey that in language a third grader can understand.)
Given how much serious teaching Vischer packs into each 25-minute episode, it's unlikely kids will demand constant replays the way many do with VeggieTales. The silly songs here aren't titled "Where Is My Hairbrush" or "Pizza Angel," but rather "The Cycle of Apostasy." But while the wry, often laugh-out-loud funny videos aren't a substitute for serious biblical education, they are a good jumping off point that will likely teach mom and dad almost as much as they teach the kids. As one blogging mom described them, "they're like remedial Bible 101." Only with pirates.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss Phil Vischer's new venture, What's in the Bible, on The World and Everything in It.