"Why is Martha's picture in the paper?" asked Anna, our nine-year old. It was March, and high time my wife and I had a talk with our kids about Martha Stewart's trial. Isabelle, seven years old, became very upset when we explained the guilty verdict: "But Martha's nice. She's a good woman!"

Such a reaction was perhaps to be expected from a child nursed on little other regular TV programming than Martha's daily show and some children's videos. I had even argued—in this journal several years ago—that Martha offered a positive role model for my kids. At least she demonstrated more get-go than the sort of female leads found in the popular VeggieTales videos my daughters enjoyed. But what did my suggested role model roll me into? A discussion on insider-trading and obstruction of justice with a first-grader. Should we have stuck to our rule of no TV—aside from, say, value-rich Veggie fare?

Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I read an article in Christianity Today (May 2004) profiling Phil Vischer, co-founder and former CEO of Big Idea Productions, the company behind VeggieTales. I had heard of the company's difficulties but didn't realize how far it had fallen.

Coinciding with weakening video sales, rapid expansion, and the middling success of its feature film Jonah, Big Idea got slapped with a lawsuit for changing distributors. Bankruptcy and then buyout by Classic Media soon followed in late 2003. During the crisis, Vischer's health declined, he lost his fortune, and suffered an understandable identity crisis.

Over Sunday dinner, I told my wife about Big Idea's troubles. Anna interrupted for explanations: "What's a breach of contract? Is it like, I sell my videos at one store and then switch to another without really asking?" I could almost taste the irony: Martha Stewart's spotless living had been sullied in the courts, and VeggieTales had become a tale unto itself.

Through his company's bankruptcy, Phil Vischer discovered a clear sign from God pointing to the error of his ambitious ways. At the beginning of his career he felt he could choose between becoming an "empire builder" like Disney or a storyteller like C.S. Lewis. And he chose Walt, with the goal of developing a major Christian media company. "I was trying to be someone that God didn't call me to be and that God didn't create me to be," Vischer commented in the Christianity Today article.

I feel bad Vischer had to lose his shirt to discover his true vocation. But Disney over Lewis? It's like choosing Thomas Kinkade over Rembrandt, a painter of franchised, artificial light instead of an artist of the deepest shadows.

Article continues below

The fact is, my family has, for the most part, left behind Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber and ventured into Narnia. (In full family disclosure, I should note we made a rather lengthy detour via the American Girl series—a media and role model adventure in itself. I also do not mention Luc, our youngest, who came to Martha, VeggieTales, Dr. Seuss et al. much later and has his own story.)

I hadn't reread C.S. Lewis' seven-novel series since I was a child, and I now trip over his sometimes fussy style and dated attitudes—think of the tedious, stereotyped orientalism of The Horse and His Boy. My kids, however, are entirely taken by the novels' fantasy as well as the choices, good and bad, the characters make. Our discussion of Narnian villains got me thinking again of the media worlds presented by VeggieTales and Martha Stewart—creative worlds where evil is either attenuated or altogether absent.

First off, VeggieTales videos continue to avoid truly rotten apples. A Snoodle's Tale, a feature released this spring, stars not a vegetable but Snoodle Doo, a plump, bluish Q-Tip with wings, hands that float in the air, and a back-pack filled with paints and a kazoo (trust me). Other Snoodles mock his attempts to fly and draw, but Doo meets his Creator—on a high hill no less—and receives a true picture of his potential. The video shamelessly rips off its rhyme and village backdrops from Dr. Seuss, especially The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. At the tale's end, Bob the Tomato (voice of Phil Vischer) admits he has been to "over-used literary emulation camp" the past summer—a self-conscious jab at VeggieTales fondness for literary borrowing. What the tale forgot to borrow, however, is a Grinch-like villain. The snooty Snoodles who mock Doo's noodle are as unimpressive as the trite torments they invent. Despite the goal of helping wee ones fight nasty peers, the tale presents no credible nastiness.

The Veggie world revolves around sugar-coated childhood troubles and failings, problems easily resolved in the arms of a huggable God. Larry the Cucumber concludes A Snoodle's Tale with the VeggieTales' credo: "God made you special and he loves you very much," to which Bob the Tomato adds, "And he wants you to paint, he wants you to sing, and he wants you to soar." Penned by Vischer, the tale reflects his own difficult path through financial failure to spiritual self-discovery—making the sugary sweetness of the tale even more surprising.

Article continues below

By contrast, in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund represents the model rotter, so consumed by jealousy, greed, and ambition that he betrays his own siblings. And while Seuss' Grinch is saved through personal epiphany (on a high hill), Edmund must reckon publicly with the consequences of his crime, borne by the death of Aslan, the Christ-like Lion. His pride vanquished, Edmund subsequently soars to princely heights. VeggieTales may have a clever edge, but could cute vegetables and snoodles really cut the deeper edge Lewis suggests? With great cultural sophistication VeggieTales demonstrates a sophisticated lack of spiritual and aesthetic depth.

In her TV shows and various publications, Martha has always shown a sophisticated concern for finding the good thing, an aesthetic that is its own ethic. You find the right recipe, you have done right. Her company fought the evil of microwave meals and uniform suburbia with delicate dishes served on antique tablecloths to engaging guests. Tasteful and informative, her shows and magazines revealed little about the mess of living—burned casseroles, spills, mouthy kids, offended guests slamming the door. Stress, anger, sickness, poverty, all were washed away, secretly redeemed by good taste.

Whether you believe Martha is guilty as charged or persecuted to "set an example," the affair has undeniably heightened the contrast between her media products—her personal Narnia—and a real world of troubled human relations.

In my personal Narnia, I envision a wiser Martha Stewart, back at work with a sense of proportion. I'm not suggesting she create a Martha Stewart Humdrum Living magazine. But after all her tribulations, perhaps she will promote a measured lifestyle—with a social conscience? As for Phil Vischer, I see his name appearing as the screenwriter for a Nemo-like, Shrek-sized success that makes funny profound by facing life's spiritual bankruptcies and trials.

Ridiculous, you say? Improbable, I admit. But then who was predicting the sudden downfall of these media titans?

Otto Selles is professor of French at Calvin College.

Related Elsewhere:

Otto Selles also discussed Big Idea's video series in "What's Cooking When Martha Stewart Meets the VeggieTales?"

The Christianity Today article referred to is Running Out of Miracles | Big Idea creator Phil Vischer had his dream crumble, but he's no longer s-scared. (May 14, 2004)

Article continues below

Other Christianity Today articles about Veggie Tales and Phil Vischer include:

VeggieTales Born Again | Big Idea primes itself for recovery with a new owner. (Jan. 21, 2004)
Weblog: VeggieTales Sold for $19.3 Million (Oct. 31, 2003)
VeggieTales Creators File for Bankruptcy | Bob the Tomato and friends sold to company that already has Lassie, Lone Ranger, and Rudolph. (Aug. 04, 2003)
Weblog: Veggies for Sale | Big Idea Productions says it's looking for a buyer (Jul. 16, 2003)
Big Idea Loses Suit | Jury says creator of VeggieTales owes $11 million to ex-distributor. (June 20, 2003)
Big Idea Responds to CT Article | Phil Vischer, CEO and founder, issues a statement regarding company's financial status. (Oct. 4, 2003)
Big Trouble at Big Idea | Former workers worry that Jonah could sink the company. (Oct. 4, 2003)
The Top Tomato | Phil Vischer's tenacious campaign to dominate family entertainment. (Oct. 4, 2003)
Runaway Asparagus | Big Idea's Jonah is both wholesome and hip. (Oct. 4, 2003)
(The Voice of) Larry the Cucumber Speaks | "Nobody thinks growing up that they're going to be a cucumber." (Oct. 4, 2003)
The Serious Business of Silly Songs | The director of music for the VeggieTales talks about bringing musical depth to the score. (Oct. 4, 2003)
The Serious Business of Silly Songs | The director of music for the VeggieTales talks about bringing musical depth to the score. (Oct. 4, 2003)
Jonah Bags Boffo Box Office | But Big Idea lays off 30 in 'heartbreaking' cuts. (Nov. 01, 2002)
(The Voice of) Larry the Cucumber Speaks | "Nobody thinks growing up that they're going to be a cucumber." (Oct. 04, 2002)

Other Christianity Today articles about the C.S. Lewis's Narnia series include:

C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan | The author of A Field Guide to Narnia says Lewis wove pre-Christian ideas into a story for a post-Christian culture. (June 28, 2004)
Mere Marketing? | Publisher, estate under fire for handling of C.S. Lewis's identity. (August 6, 2001)
Aslan Is Still on the Move | There's too little evidence to prove that anyone is 'de-Christianizing' C.S. Lewis. (August 6, 2001)

Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

Insect Theodicy | Who sent the locusts? And who exterminated them? (June 22, 2004)
Telling Lies, Telling Stories | Lars Saabye Christensen's The Half Brother reveals imagination as escape. (June 15, 2004)
Article continues below
The Art of Political War | A veteran columnist urges his fellow liberals to take a lesson from those nasty conservatives. (June 07, 2004)
Thou Shalt Not Swap | The uses and abuses of copyright. (May 24, 2004)
Mystery and Message | Must they compete? (May 10, 2004)
Celebrating Faith in Writing | A dispatch from Calvin College's biennial event. (April 26, 2004)
Shabbos, Sheitels, and Yarmulkes | A novel set in the world of Orthodox Judaism. (April 19, 2004)
The Naked City | The story of the 1977 blackout in New York-the occasion of widespread looting and destruction-has some surprisingly timely lessons for America in 2004. (April 19, 2004)
A Curious Contingency | Confessions of a wordsmith. (April 05, 2004)
"Trust but Verify" | Ronald Reagan's faith. (March 29, 2004)
Baseball Preview 2004 | Plus a look back with some Negro League veterans. (March 29, 2004)
How Do You Live with a Torturer? | A novel of Haiti by the brilliant young writer, Edwidge Danticat. (March 08, 2004)
God Is in the Details | A scientist affirms his faith. (Feb. 23, 2004)
History Repeats Itself, Sort of | How the fate of Eugene McCarthy's insurgency against LBJ sheds light on the 2004 presidential campaign. (Feb. 16, 2004)
The Worst President Ever? | Former Nixon aide John Dean attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Warren G. Harding. (Feb. 09, 2004)
Wholly, Wholly, Wholly | Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (Feb. 02, 2004)
The Doom of Choice | Fate, free will, and moral responsibility in Tolkien. (Feb. 02, 2004)
A Rose Among Thorns | A new novel by the author of Father Elijah illumines the spiritual consequences of our simplest decisions. (Jan. 26, 2004)
Baptized in Fire | A new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasizes his spiritual transformation. (Jan. 19, 2004)
O'Connor v. the Antichrist (Jan. 12, 2004)
Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism | A cautionary tale. (Jan. 05, 2004)
A Few Coming Attractions from 2004 | Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks. (Dec. 29, 2003)