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Monday, March 15, 2010

What's In The Bible - new children's video series from Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer

336336: What's in the Bible? DVD Series, Volumes 1 & 2
I've been excited about the What's In The Bible video series for months... ever since the first time Phil Vischer mentioned it in his blog. When Tyndale House Publishers agreed to forward me a complimentary review copy ahead of the release date, I was so thrilled I could hardly stand it! We are big fans of VeggieTales at my house; I have a 9-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, and we started buying VeggieTales videos for him when he was a baby, before they were even making DVDs of the show. Now we have every episode (except Pistachio, which just came out), and my little girl asks for VeggieTales by name. When Phil Vischer's book about the VeggieTales days came out a few years ago, I read it with sadness and hope. Phil has been working on a few things since then (most notably Jelly Telly), but this is a big one. In a 5-minute introduction to the video series, Phil explained that this is a return to basics for him, going back to his "...original call to lead kids through the Bible and bring it to life for them." And I would say that this series is likely to fulfill that call even better, dare I say it, than VeggieTales ever did.

So far, two videos have been released in the planned series of 13 total. Each video is just under an hour long, and that hour is broken up into two 30-minute "episodes" which would be a perfect length for a kids' class at church (or a TV segment on Saturday morning!) The idea is to cover the basics of the whole Bible through the course of the series. Here's Phil explaining it:

I took the review copy home so the first time I watched it was with my wife and kids. We had a great time watching it, and I was pretty impressed with not only the content, but also the production quality. I spent a few years working in television back a decade and a half ago; I wouldn't consider myself an expert, but I worked at it long enough to understand a few basic things about TV production. And I can tell you that these shows are well thought out and executed. One of the first things I noticed was how bright and vivid the colors are, not only of the puppets and the animated segments, but even of the live set that Phil is on. The puppet sets have clever details in them, like a cowboy hat hanging on a hook on the wall behind the country music singing cowboy, or the silly "A is for Abraham, B is for Babel, C is for Caesar" signs on the wall in a Sunday school classroom. There's even chalk & erasers for the puppet's chalk board! Often the set is virtual, with the puppet performance over a cartoon-animated background, which makes for some surreal moments like a black Gospel song where the soloist is a puppet and the choir members backing him are an animated cartoon... of puppets! There is even a pirate character who is a puppet, but who has a parrot sidekick who is animated. Fun! And a clever and fresh use of the technology.

The editing style is fast and interesting; often puppets on different sets converse with one another, so what you're looking at on the screen is constantly changing, but it's not frenzied enough to be distracting to anyone who grew up in this YouTube/music video/sound byte era. I loved the camera work, particularly the fact that during some songs and segments the camera is never still... it is always slowly moving to the left or right, so it gives the scene some movement, even when the background isn't actually changing. It all contributes to giving the show its own personality and setting it apart from other kids TV shows out there.

The puppet characters themselves are a lot of fun. Most of them are instantly recognizable to anyone who has been watching Jelly Telly. See for yourself:

Jelly Telly fans will already know Buck Denver, Clive & Ian, Sunday-school Lady, Chuck Wagon, and the couch ladies, Agnes & Winnifred. I don't remember ever hearing Brother Louie's name on Jelly Telly (although he does appear in the Jelly Telly theme song), and I don't remember seeing the vaguely Shrek-voiced Captian Pete (the pirate with the animated parrot) on Jelly Telly at all, but they well may have been there. The puppets are fun to look at and listen to; each one has a very distinctive voice (which apparently are all supplied by Vischer... the man's a kid-show machine!), and they all have fairly specific roles to play on the show. In general, they have their own "home" sets... Clive & Ian are in a jungle, Sunday-school Lady is in a Sunday-school class, Buck Denver is on his news set... but occasionally they will go to a new set for a song or to visit another character (Buck's news set seems particularly prone to invasions by other characters). Phil Vischer is himself a character (not a puppet), and he sort of acts as a ringmaster for all the craziness. My kids loved it all - my little girl cracks up every time she sees Buck riding the space bike in the opening segment, and my little boy loves the jokes and gags.

Familiar references to kid culture are scattered through the videos... there's the mention of several children's books that you saw in the clip above, for example, and there are also mentions of Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer and Disney's Finding Nemo (used as an illustration but not mentioned by name). And the references go beyond secular culture; in answer to the question "Why do we put all of those Bible stories in one book?" the puppet characters fire off the names of a bunch of stories children are probably familiar with from church lessons and coloring pages, and in one spot where Noah's Ark is mentioned, a child voice says the animals came in "by twosies" (a phrase from a well-known Sunday-school song about Noah), The Sunday-school lady replies that that is correct "...except for the ones they used as food... those came in by sevensies." (Phil has been known to throw in fairly obscure Bible details from time to time... remember in Dave and the Giant Pickle where Archibald/King Saul's recommendation for Dave was "Couldn't you just play your harp, and I'll throw things at you"?)

The cultural references aren't just for children, either. Their parents will appreciate references to one of Carrie Underwood's hit songs, and comic book hero The Green Lantern (kind of a crossover dad/kid reference there). There's also a very blatant rebuttal of the book/movie The Da Vinci Code which, at this point almost 4 years after the movie came out, may not be that topical for the kids, but I wouldn't be too surprised if some of their moms and dads weren't still wondering about it!

And what's more appealing to kids and their parents than silly gags? There are running gags, like the way Buck Denver always says " of NEWS!" whenever someone says his name, or Ian's obsession in the first episode with "PONIES!!" Then there are more subtle jokes, like Dr. Schniffenhausen's answer to the question "What is the Bible?" ("wood, black oil, & cow" ...when he says it, it actually sort of makes sense!) and car-trip-boy Michael's question why his breath didn't get fresher when he licked a "testa-mint". And there are plenty of sight gags, too; my favorite is the extreme double-take Abram does when God taps him on the shoulder. Hey, when you have wacky lines like "A sofa doesn't have metaphors!" and "There's a newsman on the floor! What's he reporting on, ants?" you know that you're going to find something to laugh at eventually!

VeggieTales has always been known for having great songs. The What's In The Bible series is clearly not going to be upstaged by vegetables! Give a listen to the ultra-catchy theme song (be forewarned: you will be singing about whether the "Bi-a-ble" is "reli-a-ble" and whether Buck Denver's "hair is pli-a-ble" for hours after you listen to this):

(That's "...Who knows our names and numbers hairs," by the way. I had probably heard it nine or ten times before that sank in.)

Songs are scattered throughout the videos. Sometimes they are brief and silly, like Pirate Pete's song about the canon of Scripture: "Oh, I've got a canon and I like to shoot, it's really big and black but I think it's kinda cute..." (yes, he's standing on his pirate ship next to a two-N cannon!) Sometimes the song is a major part of the content of the lesson; Chuck Wagon's song about Exodus/Moses not only covers pretty much the entire book of Exodus, but it also contains the funniest Country music description of the plagues of Egypt I've ever heard! Sunday-school Lady sings a song about idolatry that explains that anything we value more than we value God is an idol to us, and the specific things she mentions in the song are surprisingly grown-up things: money, credit, romance, cars, sports and travel are all named off one by one in a space of not more than 15-20 seconds. A little something for Mom and Dad to chew on, there!

I think my favorite song on the two videos is (Louie Armstrong-clone) Brother Louie's black Gospel number "Hallelujah, Look What God Can Do." If you loved "Second Chances" from the VeggieTales Jonah movie, you'll love this one too.

I have to say that the books of the Bible aren't approached exactly as I expected. I was expecting "In The Beginning" to be a straight-out summary of the book of Genesis, and "Let My People Go" to be a summary of Exodus. Although the raw Bible-story material does appear there, it's generally not attacked head-on right at the first; in fact, you're twelve minutes into the first show before you even get to the beginning of the Bible, and even then it's not Genesis 1:1... it's the Table of Contents! Instead, in general these videos approach the Bible from a thematic standpoint. The idea is to point out the lesson that the Bible is trying to teach us, rather than myopically focusing on the details all the time. Sort of like a Bible Overview course for third graders. They talk quite a bit about important Theological words like "covenant", "salvation", "redemption", and "patriarch"; terms for Bible-related things like "Septuagint", "testament", and "canon", and the origins and meanings of the names of each of the books. They also talk about things like the different categories of books in the Bible (the Pentateuch, the Historical books, Prophecy books, Gospels, Epistles, and so on) and why different Bibles may have different numbers of books (Bibles containing the Apocrypha vs. Bibles that do not). They ask and answer a number of "big questions" like "What is the Bible?" and "Who Wrote The Bible?" (my favorite answer, given by a child: "nobody") and "Who is Moses?" and "Who picked the books to be in the Bible?" Often there is a short segment in which kids (with lesser or greater degrees of success, depending on the question) try to give answers (some of those kids are pretty smart!)

Sometimes they stop and explain a detail that a child might ask about: in a puppet show about Creation, God is represented as a cloud, and they stop to explain briefly that we don't know what God looks like, so a cloud is a pretty fair placeholder. Ever wonder why the Bible calls God "He"? Why God created people? Those kinds of questions are addressed, and often in a way that your pastor could preach in the adult service. For example, Sunday-school Lady teaches us that God created people because God is three things: creative, personal, and relational, and God wanted a relationship with us! In the discussion about sin, we find out that God wanted to save us from three things: the "stain" of sin, the "power" of sin, and the "presence" of sin. If that seems about as clear as mud to you, watch the video and you'll see how well those three categories cover things!

The videos cover some touchy subjects, too, and I think they cover them well. There is a discussion about the inspiration of Scripture, centering around the difference between God's "words" and God's "Word" (synopsis: the "words" were written by Men inspired by God, and the truth they contain is God's "Word"). I've read quite a bit about the differences between a "literal" word-for-word style of translating the Bible and the more paraphrased thought-for-thought style, and this discussion comes close to that territory without actually saying anything that should offend either camp. There is a discussion about how long Creation took... 24-hour days or figurative "days" that could be much longer periods. I think Phil handles the topic quite well, presenting ideas from either side of this hot-button issue (again, without actually taking a side, allowing parents or teachers to discuss it further with their children) and concluding that "Genesis isn't about 'how' but 'Who'" (essentially, it isn't a book about science, but a book about God). I'd say those hard topics are handled quite well, and I see no reason why any children's church class or home should object to the open and honest way that they are approached, allowing teachers to provide further information if they so desire.

It is also helpful that each show starts out with a quick summary of some of the high points of the previous show, so if a class used these videos for several weeks in a row, for example, there's something to jog memories right at the start.

Will the VeggieTales set like these videos? I would say probably yes, although there is very little in common content-wise. To me, VeggieTales might actually work best with a little bit younger audience. The "lessons" in VeggieTales are generally pretty basic; the lessons in this series are cornerstones of Theology. These videos are probably less useful as entry/exit video for a Children's Church... I've seen VeggieTales and other vids used before and after service to keep kids entertained until parents arrive. These videos are more in-depth and build on themselves throughout each episode; kids would watch them in snatches before and after the service, but they are better watched as whole 30-minute "shows".

Would these videos be good for a Sunday-school or Children's Church class? Yes they would, but you would have to make sure that the rest of your class materials covered the same concepts and ideas as the video (I would love to see some curriculum developed to complement the videos, as a matter of fact [edit: since this was written, the curriculum I was hoping for has been announced!]). Who will learn something? You know, I'd say that almost anyone who happened to be paying attention will likely learn something. I had just completed reading and studying the books of Genesis and Exodus when I watched the videos, and even I picked up a tidbit or two here and there. So although the eight-year-old might be the one who gets excited when the theme song plays, the 15-year-old or the 35-year-old might just accidentally leave the room afterward with something to chew on too.

This is a great series. I'm pushing 40 and I had a terrific time watching it (several times!), and I'm sure you and your children will too. We can't wait for the next episode (topic: "Are the stories in the Bible fables?") If you've never been taught the Bible by a Sunday-school lady and then immediately been taught Church History by a pirate, it's a must-see. With nary a vegetable in sight, the puppets have taken over and are changing the way kids see the Bible!

Click here for a PDF of pictures of the "What's In The Bible" puppets to color!

We have a copy of each video to give away! To enter the contest, simply leave a comment on this blog post (use an actual identity or at least click "Name/URL" and put in your name, so I'll know who you are) and then immediately send an email to me at so I'll have your email address. Make sure your comment and email reach me before March 31, 2010. On March 31 I will randomly choose two entries, and each of those winners will receive one of our free DVD certificates, redeemable at Christian bookstores or direct from Tyndale. (I would wait until April 1 to choose winners, but then I'm afraid the winners wouldn't believe me!)

Official Stop On The What's In The Bible Blog Tour


Amy Shoemake said...

I am so impressed. What a fabulously fun way to instill bible basics in kids. I wish I'd had my hands on something like this when my kids were growing up. Rest assured I will be investing this series into my grandkids lives. I don't have any yet, but I'm starting now so that I'll be prepared. ~Amy

Neptone said...

What an awesome review of What's in the Bible. We have all 3 DVD's. The team that Phil V put together is amazing.

I don't know how they come up with this stuff - making anything rhyme with Pentatuch - GENIUS!

Trevor from Excellerate Childrens Church Security Software said...

Wow, that's an in depth review, and I'm excited to hear about this series. I've always been impressed with the quality of VeggieTales, so I'm happy to hear that same skill is being applied to teaching kids the foundations of theology as well, because that's certainly one topic that is important and fascinating, but is also hard to explain to kids in a fascinating way.

Steve said...

I've always loved Veggie Tales and it's cool to see him working on this project. The couch ladies remind me of the two old geezers on the Muppet Show that always made comments about the show. I'll be he was inspired by them.

Also check out BibleRhymes, which retells bible stores for kids entirely through poems. Animated and interactive for the kids to play around with, and loads of Sunday school resources for those of us that teach classes.

book for children said...

This is wonderful post. Children are taught with the words of God in the Bible. In this case, they will grow mature, responsible, caring, with a big heart,peacemaker, and many other good things. I have notice these with people who have really read the Bible and applied it into their lives. This is a VERY WONDERFUL POST. Thank you so much!!