Veggie Tales, Moralism, and Modern Preaching

veggie tales

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.

On this note, it was interesting to learn this week that in an interview with World Magazine the creator of Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer, has 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 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 longsuffering (5:7-8), to pray faithfully (5:16), and much more.  Moreover, this letter does not explicitly mention the atonement, the cross, justification, salvation by grace alone, or any core aspects of the “gospel” message.  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.  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.

Of course, this whole discussion is about more than just children’s videos. It also has tremendous relevance for modern day preaching.  The big push today in Reformed circles, and rightly so, is that we should always be concerned to “preach Christ” from every text.  And I agree 100%.   But, the key question is “What does it means to ‘preach Christ’?”  For some, this has turned into a requirement that every sermon must be about justification by faith alone.  In order to avoid the trap of moralism, we are told that we must find a way to turn every passage of Scripture into a discussion of how we cannot keep the law and how Christ has kept it for us.

Now certainly justification by grace alone is a foundational and wonderful topic. And it should be preached regularly with vigor. But, to suggest that every sermon needs to be narrowly about this topic is to misunderstand the biblical vision for preaching.  Our call to “preach Christ” includes all of his offices not just the priestly one.  Why should we limit our preaching to just this one office?  Can we not “preach Christ” by preaching about his kingly role? Or his prophetic role?  Can we not preach a sermon that primarily focuses on what our King requires of us and how we need to obey him? Ironically, by limiting our sermons to just the topic of justification we are actually working against the very thing we are trying to preserve, namely keeping Christ at the center of our preaching.  If we are really to keep Christ there, we must be willing to preach all his offices.  We must preach the whole Christ.

But, there are other problems with this approach.  If preaching Christ just mean preaching justification then whenever we come across a text that is focused on morals (James, Sermon on the Mount, Proverbs, etc.), then our tendency will always be to focus on the “second use” of the Law.  In other words, our tendency will be to just point out that our congregations cannot really keep this law and must flee to Christ to be justified and forgiven.  While that is true, that is not the only role of the law in the Christian life.  The law is also given to Christians as a positive guide to how we should live in obedience to Christ (known as the “third use” of the law).   We want to make sure that our preaching balances second and third use, and does not just automatically default to one.  If we default to third use, our temptation will be legalism.  If we default to the second use, our temptation will be antinomianism.

Also, and perhaps most problematically, this particular understanding of what it means to “preach Christ” can hamper fair exegesis.  If we feel obligated to preach only Christ’s priestly office, then we must find a way to turn every text to this issue even when it may not naturally go there.  Thus, we “find” Christ in the text in an unnatural way rather than a natural way.   This ends up creating sermons that sound almost the same every time, regardless of what the passage actually says.  This proves to be somewhat ironic in Reformed circles that have historically placed such an emphasis on careful exegesis and expository preaching.  In some ways we have failed to trust the text (and its sufficiency) and have replaced it with our own ideas of what it has to say.

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. Perhaps we should take a cue from the Scripture on this issue.  The indicative is the ground for the imperative, not its obstacle.

Comments

Veggie Tales, Moralism, and Modern Preaching — 27 Comments

  1. Amen! Preach it! ;)

    Good points in this post. We – as God’s work of art – are expected to do good works *after* we are saved by grace! And we are expected to encourage, exhort, and rebuke through the Scriptures so that we are rightly equipped for them.

    And I always enjoyed Veggie Tales – a great show, family friendly, and entertaining for adults and kids.

  2. This is funny, because I’ve been thinking the same thing, with specific application to VeggieTales, as we’ve been watching them a lot at the grandparents’ house this summer.

    I’ve heard the critique that they’re moralistic, but the more I watch the less worried I am– no, I wouldn’t use them as our Sunday School lesson, but as part of a balanced diet I think they’re great. And lots of them are actually about trusting God, how he always keeps his promises, etc.

    The Sermon on the Mount is a great illustration of the balance of 2nd & 3rd use. You’d never read it and think “oh, I can do all this, no sweat.” But neither would you come away without thinking “you know, I think Jesus actually does want me to live like this.”

    • Great thoughts, Jake. Yes, I think the content of these videos is normally quite good. Most of the time they are just retelling Bible stories. Hard to complain about that.

  3. “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”

    Dear Michael,
    The imperative, though important in Greek and the modern languages, proves to be “white”-“black” in resolving the matters. There is also, for instance a “double-negation”, “ambiguity”, not to mention (in terms of the recognition of diversity of methods and Ancient texts) the “rhetorical criticism” or even “pseudepigraphy”.

    Greek carries a wide array and various kinds of yielding the reality, therefore one must first of all set oneself in the context of the literary text, including the texts of the NT.

    There is also „optative”, „subjunctive”, “conditional structure”, namely some other tenses and moods, which in the Ancient World as well as in the NT (i.e. Rom 3,31 – Paul’s “me genoito” discussion about the Law) are always signs of elegance, literacy and an acquaintance with the good style – extremely important in the Antiquity (also in resolving problems, such as the relationship between the Law and new morality graces).

    Greetings,
    M.Galka

    • I don’t think Dr. Kruger was attempting a strict grammatical argument. It is simply a clever phrase intended to say that our obligations flow from what God has done, rather than the opposite — our actions obligating God (i.e. works righteousness).

  4. As people exercise their creative talents & gifts I would be pretty sure their ideas would be mulled over time & again before they came to a conclusion & said done… finished. Further down the track though, on revisiting or revising projects, I would be pretty sure they would say I could have done this bit or that better or differently. It’s the way we are…it’s all part of a process. Some of our regrets are justified at times others are vein & serve no real purpose, some things are better left just the way they are…wisdom alone will pick the best option.

    Some sermons have left me wondering at times; some books also…there are so many angles & pathways. Hymns & spiritual songs can also follow a particular Biblical theme….Sin, Confession, Forgiveness, Praise, Obedience, Jesus the King, Jesus the Servant, The Spirit, The Church, Salvation, Trust. I have learnt so much just from reading an old Psalter Hymnal that was jam packed with creeds, confessions, prayers, liturgy etc…

    The micro & macro, the wide angle, zoom & close up….as long as the theme is clear & consistent & the context is provided in an overall scheme of things, knowledge & understanding should follow…it takes time to develop… & is very dependent on the blessing of God.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Kruger. There was an article akin to this over at the Gospel Coalition a while back where Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of the wonderful Jesus Storybook Bible, recounts how she read the story of Daniel to some children in Sunday School, and then (italics mine):

    At the end of the story there were no other teachers around, and I panicked and went into automatic pilot and heard myself—to my horror—asking, “And so what can we learn from Daniel about how God wants us to live?”

    While we love her children’s Bible around my house, this represents what I would consider an extreme of exalting biblical theology (aka redemptive history) above the other valid perspectives that Scripture brings to us — including exemplary behavior of how we should live.

    John Frame criticizes the exclusively redemptive-historical approach (as Ms. Lloyd-Jones seems to advocate) in several places and defends “moral” and “exemplary” uses of Scripture as proper in their place. Here’s a quote from ch 16 of his Doctrine of the Christian Life:

    “[I]t is simply wrongheaded to deny the importance of concrete, practical, ethical application. Such application is the purpose of Scripture itself, according to 2 Tim. 3:16-17. And since Scripture itself contains many practical ‘how tos,’ our preaching should include those too. To say that this emphasis detracts from Christocentricity is unscriptural.

    “Christ is central in Scripture as the Redeemer. But he is also the Word, Wisdom, the Lawgiver, the Lord of the Covenant, the Lion of Judah, the Shepherd who leads his people into the right paths. It is wrong to assume that an emphasis on Christ as Redeemer (redemptive history) excludes an emphasis on Christ as norm and motivator.

    “When a preacher avoids concrete ethical applications in his sermons, he is not preaching the whole counsel of God, and he is not adequately edifying his people.”

    Frame’s view, and mine, is that a redemptive-historical approach is valid and edifying, but that it is also valid to look from other perspectives, including finding ourselves in Scripture’s pages via moral examples (and bad examples).

  6. Pingback: Moralism and modern preaching « The Wanderer

  7. Pingback: What I Read Online – 06/16/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  8. Pingback: Veggie Tales, Moralism, and Modern Preaching

  9. I also enjoyed watching Veggie Tales with my kids years ago when they were lots younger. I still remember the Veggie Tales interpretation of the Good Samaritan story and thought the “I’m too Busy” song was hysterical. You make some excellent points in your post.

    Speaking of kids, my oldest (who is grown now) gave me Canon Revisited for Father’s Day and I started it last night. I really enjoy the way you write and your approach to considering theology an indispensable factor accounting for our knowledge of the canon.

    • Thanks, Mike. Great to hear from you. Glad to know we share an affinity for Veggie Tales! I hope Canon Revisited proves to be useful for you. Thanks for the kind note.

  10. Pingback: What the Bible Actually Says | βλογάπη

  11. Dr. Kruger,

    Thank you for your insightful words on preaching Christ. It has given me much to consider. I recently read an article by Pastor Doug Wilson on his blog that essentially makes the same case that you do (without reference to Veggie Tales. His article was written before Phil Vischer’s comments came out I believe.) I have two questions. 1) Is the article of Justification by faith alone only a product of Christ’s priestly office or is does it also include the Prophetic and Kingly offices as well? 2) If we are allowed to teach the stories of the bible as moralism then what are the guard rails for our moralistic interpretations? How do we know when the story about is about Jesus and when it is about us? By way of distinction I think that there is a huge difference between the three examples you gave (the sermon on the mount, James and Proverbs) and the story of David and Goliath. The “imperatives” are grammatically clear in your three examples, but not so clear in the stories of 1 Samuel 17. So where are the stops? What guides our exegesis?

    Thank you for your consideration.

    • Thanks, Kelly, for these helpful questions. A few comments:

      1. I would agree that Just by Faith is not just about Christ’s priestly office. In fact, I think all three offices are always in play, to some degree or another. That does not mean, however, that certain doctrines do not emphasize a particular office. In that regard, Just by Faith does tend to focus on Christ’s priestly office because it emphasizes his sacrifice for our sins.

      2. You said, “If we are allowed to teach the stories of the Bible as moralism…” Just to be clear, I am not advocating that we teach the stories of the Bible as “moralism” (given that moralism is defined as a religion of good works). Rather, I am arguing that there is nothing wrong with teaching the morals of the Bible without always giving an explicit gospel presentation. E.g., the sermon on the mount.

      3. You said there is a “huge difference” between the three examples I gave and the story of David and Goliath. Not sure what you mean by that. If you mean they are different genres (the latter being historical narrative), then I grant that. But, it seems you might be implying we cannot use historical narratives as moral examples. In other words, it would be wrong to preach the story of David and Goliath and say “be like David.” If so, I would have to disagree with that approach. The main reason I disagree is because the Bible itself uses historical narratives as moral examples! In fact James 5:16-18 does this with Elijah. We should pray fervently just like Elijah. Indeed, Hebrews 11, the great “hall of faith” lists example after example of how we are to faithfully follow God and appeals to numerous historical narratives in the OT. Of course, we can also, even in the same sermon, remind people that Christ is the ultimate warrior like David. But, I see no problem in preaching the text both ways. Once again, I don’t think there is a biblical requirement to preach it just one way.

  12. Dr. Kruger,

    Thank you again for considering my questions. I don’t intend to mire you in a long discussion of these matters but they are fresh on my mind. I have been preaching through 1 Samuel for the first time and I am struggling with this very issue. I am assuming that genre should affect the application of the scripture. So that as I read the story of David and Goliath I see it primarily as a pattern of salvation for God’s people. And I suppose if there is a moral of the story it is to follow and trust God’s chosen one(Faith). The way that this story is often taught is that we need to be like David. And I suppose that I am like David in some ways. I’m short and have fair complexion. But in other ways I’m not like him at all. I’m more like David’s brothers…shaking in my boots hoping someone else saves me; all the while rebuking the one who can. And yet at the end of the story David’s brothers get to share in their brother’s glory. It just seems to me that if I am going to spend time dwelling on something in the story it the fact that God provided the better David in his Son, Jesus Christ and through his victory we are “more than conquerors”. In other words David was uniquely qualified to save Israel, just as Christ is uniquely qualified to save the elect.

    It may be a matter of first and second importance. If I am going to spend time talking about something I want to spend my time talking about what God has done for us through his Savior versus the application of imperatives derived from but not explicitly stated in historical narrative. Unless of course there is Biblical warrant for it as you pointed out in James with Elijah. But even in that case isn’t Elijah’s faith in God the focus? Isn’t Hebrews 11 about the object of Faith, namely Jesus Christ? Does that make sense.

    And again, when you get to the “teaching” sections that are direct imperatives its hard to not teach those as “moralism” (not justification by works, but as the work of the Spirit in those Christ has redeemed).

    Thank you again for helping me think through these matters. I hope that I am not coming across as snide or condescending. I appreciate your time and your ministry.

    • Thanks, Kelly. Appreciate your continued thoughts on this. My question for you is a simple one: If the NT writers can draw moral implications from OT historical narratives, why can’t we? You seem hesitant to do this, but I am still uncertain of why. I agree that a story like David and Goliath points to the redemption of Christ. But, it can also be a model of what it looks like to trust God. Why can it not be both? I don’t think we are forced to choose.

      As for the Hebrews 11 chapter, I encourage you to read it again. Of course, the chapter focuses on their faith in God. But it praises their actions of faithfulness also. It praises Abraham’s willingness to leave his homeland, Moses’ willingness to be mistreated, Rahab’s welcoming of the spies, and more. And then it is followed in Heb 12:1 with “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also…” Is this not obviously looking to these historical saints as a good examples for us to follow?

      Also consider 1 Cor 10:6: “Now these things [OT stories of Moses/Israel] took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” How is this not using the OT as a moral example?

      Keep in mind that drawing out morals from these texts is preaching Christ. It is preaching how we follow Christ our King faithfully.

      • Dr. Kruger,

        Thank you for your charity and warmth. I suppose these are the types of things that one should have settled prior to leaving seminary but it is a honest struggle for me. Thank you for assuring me that to preach faithful following is preaching Christ. I am thankful that Christ mediates for my preaching as well so that I don’t have to rest on my righteousness the righteous judge.

        • It may help to know that I don’t have an affinity for the Veggie Tales. When they were created I was too old to care and to young to see any value in them. When the Lord decides that my wife and I should have children we will watch the Veggie Tales with them I’m sure.

  13. Are not the examples set spiritual though, more than moral, exercising ones faith? They seem to go hand in hand…inseparable.

    At the end of the day believers are saved by Grace & that is where our hope is fixed, not in our moral example as much as that should be evidenced in our life. So I guess if Salvation is the focus of a sermon it should come back to Grace. If doing good works & obedience may be the focus then a focus could be on the examples from Scripture & the Spirit that enables.

    I haven’t really watched vegie tales although I got a glimpse of it once…I think there were some French accented guards up on the wall of Jericho…I am sure there is heaps of application in them.

  14. A couple of thoughts:

    In my neck of the woods, many people think that it is up to their power to obey Christ and his commands (3rd way). As a result, some become very discouraged and think the Bible is worthy for salvation, but not for living. Because of this, I always bring in three ideas from Scripture to combat the thinking that it is up to them to obey.

    First is Titus 2:11-12 which essentially says the God’s unmerited favor continually gives us the strength to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.

    Second is the indwelling of the Spirit. He dwells inside us and advocates on our behalf. The same power that spoke the world into existence resides in us. Let his power carry us to obedience, for it is the Father’s will, not ours.

    Lastly is reflecting on the ascension of Jesus. He is alive and intercedes to his Father on our behalf. He our King, the King of Kings, ruling and reigning from above and will be with us until the end of the age.

    I have found that these three idea allow people to recognize that to obey Christ is something attainable even it seems the furthest thing from them.

  15. I’ve had the privilege of working with a close associate of Mr. Vischer’s as they collaborated to create the “church edition” of his new show, “What’s In the Bible?” and I’ve asked my colleague about this. I don’t think Phil Vischer ever expected someone to think that Veggie Tales ought to be “a complete Christian curriculum for kids.” But for Vischer, I think he was looking at it and saying “Have *I* been preaching the Gospel?” Obviously, Vischer must either be an incredible hypocrite or he must see *some* value in Veggie Tales, or he wouldn’t continue to voice Bob the Tomato in the most recent videos. But he also clearly felt strongly about his personal call to do more than what he could do with Veggie Tales.

    But I could be wrong. I’ve never met or spoken with Vischer.

    On a side note, “What’s In the Bible?” is a really great series of videos for kids. Far and away better than Veggie Tales. His aim is to expose children to the whole canon of Scripture from a redemptive-history approach. It’s still silly (Vischer’s a great puppeteer!), but he always brings it back to the seriousness of sin and the need for redemption. It’s really, really good.

  16. “God shows us the righteousness that is His gift to us by faith, deliberately leading us away from ourselves to the foot of the cross, to the forgiveness that flows from His merciful heart.”

    That’s from my pastor’s daily devotional blog.

    None of us are up to it…but He is, and He will complete the good work that He has begun in us.

    Thank you.