Something that you might not guess about me (or maybe you would; you ‘re an exceptionally clever bunch) is that I loves me some Jesus. I try not to be an asshole about it — I’ve got no use for WWJD wristbands or cruciform bling or “John 3:16” bumper stickers, and I regard faith and science as, in Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely phrase, “non-overlapping magisteria.” But I do spend time thinking about virtue, and about living with kindness and humility, and I find my Christian practice to be a useful roadmap in that regard. No big deal.
Obviously, I’m not one of that stripe who shun “secular media” out of some need or desire to exist within a bubble of cultural product that only confirms my religious beliefs. It’s fair to say, though, that I have a pretty high tolerance for overtly Christian content in pop culture, and that a lot of my favorite movies and much of my favorite music tend toward the overtly spiritual. The Mission, for instance, still moves me to tears after 23 years and countless viewings.
That being said, I’m a little outside the target demo for Veggie Tales, the immensely popular (and profitable) TV show and DVD series that mixes middlebrow humor with Bible-inspired morality; but I’ve watched earlier installments like Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space with my own kids, and the content has never given me pause. The show is pure corn, if you’ll pardon the pun — and to watch a Veggie Tales DVD you must be prepared to pardon many — but it’s self-aware corn; the low-budget CGI is bright and cheerful, the silly songs and off-the-cuff jokes keep everything moving briskly, and the preaching, for the most part, doesn’t get much more dogmatic than God made you special, and He loves you very much — hardly a message to traumatize even a sensitive child, or to offend heathen parents.
That’s changed, though, with the latest release, Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Noah’s Umbrella. Though it’s subtitled “A Lesson in Confidence,” the disc seethes with undercurrents of distrust, fear, and division; the Veggie Tales franchise has caught up with the paranoid style that has long pervaded American right-wing politics and bled from there into Evangelical Christian circles.
For the uninitiated: the Veggie Tales cartoons center around a crew of ambulatory, talking vegetables. Most of the screen time goes to the Ernie-and-Bert-style double act of Bob and Larry, who host the bumper segments framing the story proper. Bob is a sensible, level-headed tomato, and he acts mainly as an adult straightman to the more childlike, insecure Larry, who is an anthropomorphized cucumber. Above all things, Larry hates to be laughed at, which makes his resemblance to a big green penis particularly unfortunate.
(A digression here — and I know this is a minor quibble, but it’s irksome to someone like me, who loves both gardening and cooking — Bob and Larry are just about the only recognizable vegetables on the show. There are a couple of cameos by asparagus spears and a head of broccoli, and I think the bad guy’s minions are meant to be potatoes — but most of the characters are indistinct, primary-colored blobs. This guy, for instance; the dialogue indicates that he’s a gourd of some kind, but I’m not seeing it. Padding out your backgrounds with unspecified melons and marrows defeats the comedic purpose of making your characters vegetables in the first place — especially when there’s so much humor to be mined from that premise. Think of an onion, doing a striptease! Okay, that’s inappropriate for a kids’ show, I guess. How about a watermelon who hawks and spits on the sidewalk — and when he spits, it’s a watermelon seed! No? Okay, I’ll stop.)
Anyhoo, we open with a bumper wherein Larry the Big Green Cock-Cumber tells Bob of a recent embarrassment he suffered, when a couple of kids razzed him for reciting the Romper Room grace over his Happy Meal. Now, my sympathies here are mixed. I believe in the value of gratitude, and I was raised to accept blessings with a humble, thankful heart; but I was also raised to NOT MAKE A FUCKING SPECTACLE OF MYSELF IN PUBLIC, and I would no more dream of praying aloud in Taco Bell than I would of ordering the Bacon Cheesy Potato Burrito. (In this, I happen to have Scripture on my side, although to be frank the principle of Not Making Other People Uncomfortable For The Sake Of Asserting My Own Superior Piety is really all the moral justification I think necessary.) To buck Larry up, Bob presents a story starring Larry’s alter-ego Minnesota Cuke, a globe-trotting archaeologist in a rather familiar-looking leather jacket and fedora.
The first few minutes of this segment are actually pretty funny, parodying the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with ample lashings of absurdist humor. In fact, I got more enjoyment out of this five-minute chunk of Veggie Tales than from the entire two-plus hours of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The fun, and the pop-culture savvy, disperse immediately upon the clanking arrival of The Plot, which finds Min commissioned (by an old dude who looks to be a Hubbard squash, or perhaps a warty zucchini) to discover the resting place of Noah’s ark — and, with it, Noah’s umbrella, supposedly an artifact of unbelievable power. Clues to the ark’s location are contained in an ancient guidebook, whose secrets can be divined only be obeying the book’s instructions to the letter — no matter how embarrassing it might be to follow them out.
Along the way Minnesota Cuke meets up with an old girlfriend, who I believe is a leek or ramp of some kind, or possibly a slender green chili. He almost blows the mission a couple of times because of his unwillingness to expose himself to public ridicule. In the end, though, good prevails, Noah’s umbrella is kept safe, and Minnesota Cuke learns a valuable lesson in confidence. The confidence to shut the fuck up and do as you’re told, no matter how stupid it is.
No, really. That’s the lesson. The story cedes some of its moral high ground by making most of Min’s tasks utterly pointless. See, Minnesota Cuke is contrasted throughout with Noah, who faced the disapproval of his neighbors for following God’s commands; in the context of the Bible story, though, what God asks of Noah is actually the most effective and practical course of action for the situation — whereas the author of Min’s guidebook seems simply to be fucking with him. In one scene, he’s required to trigger a particular sequence of pressure-sensitive floor panels to reveal a secret door. Fair enough; but there’s no actual reason why he has to do it by performing an excruciating song-and-dance routine to the tune of “Arise and Shine,” is there? No reason except to embarrass the poor bastard. As if looking like a warty green dildo weren’t enough.
Look, I can see the value of learning to humble oneself to live by God’s precepts — even though, as a Christian progressive, I may disagree with Christian conservatives as to what those precepts actually are. But really — teaching kids that the best way to follow God’s commands is by rote, pro forma adherence to a set of empty gestures, the true value of which is only incidental to the specifics of the ritual? Didn’t we settle this during the fucking Reformation, people?
Then again, the Reformation and the rise of Christianity to the world stage don’t seem much to interest these guys. There is, in much of the Christian Right, a sort of perverse nostalgia for the days of Nero. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, and Evangelicals have risen to power in great swathes of both the public and private sectors — in many cases reframing the mission of traditionally-secular organizations in starkly religious terms — Christian conservatives still cherish the image of themselves as an oppressed people, and are forever ginning up opportunities to portray themselves as martyrs (cf. the “War on Christmas,” school prayer, the Ten Commandments kerfuffle). And Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Noah’s Umbrella aims to inculcate this paranoia upon young minds, which to my mind is unforgivable.
There are millions of kids — my own children included — who would never imagine that living their lives as believing Christians in America might make them targets of ridicule. The religious tolerance on which this country was founded for granted, they take largely for granted — and that’s great. It never occurs to them that religious differences might be grounds for persecution until good ol’ Bob the Tomato helpfully points it out: God made you special, and He loves you very much — but you’d better not trust anybody else, ‘cause they’re all gonna laugh at you.
My message to the kids of the world: Eat your vegetables, before they try to teach you any more morally-dubious “lessons.”