As someone who was raised in a Christian family, I grew up with Adventures in Odyssey and VeggieTales (and yes, I do have the theme song from the latter stuck in my head). When I was a kid, I loved them. But when I got older and learned more about storytelling, I started to see their many flaws. And the more research I did, the more I realized that these flaws aren’t limited to Christian kids’ stories.
So as an aspiring author who would like to learn how to be a good Christian storyteller, I took a look at aspects of both good and bad storytelling and decided to share them this month. Why? In order to keep good art alive and bad art in the gutter, we must learn from both.
Rule #1: Don’t Dumb It Down
In one episode of VeggieTales, the talking produce decide to tell the story of David and Bathsheba. How do they do this? By changing the story altogether. Instead of sharing the tragedy of a series of life mistakes, they tell kids how a lazy king with an obsession for rubber ducks learns how to share and lives happily ever after. First of all, David and Bathsheba isn’t exactly a bedtime story for five-year-olds. Second, the episode was supposed to tell kids about the importance of sharing. And ironically, neither the original story nor the heavily revised edition have anything to do with generosity. Third, dumbing it down like that takes away the spirit of the source material, and thus makes it next to meaningless even when the storyteller had good intentions.
What to do instead: Take what you’ve got and get creative with it
The idea of telling Bible stories in different settings is nothing new. And while their version of David and Bathsheba didn’t work, VeggieTales did find creative ways to tell other Bible stories. Some examples involve their take on David and Goliath, Queen Esther, and Joshua. Then there’s Jill Eileen Smith, who tells Bible stories from womens’ points of view (the Wives of the Patriarchs series, for example). Another great example is Dreamworks’ animated movie Prince of Egypt.
Rule #2: Don’t Hammer the Lesson
You may have heard people use the phrase “show, don’t tell.” We love stories because they allow us to have different experiences in the comfort of our own heads. And to make it effective, the storyteller is supposed to let the art speak for itself, not to speak for the art. Sadly, Christian stories geared toward kids don’t always do that. VeggieTales and AIO both have hosts that appear after an episode to explain the moral of the story. First, those hosts are sometimes like the mushroom guys from the Super Mario games. Second, would we love stories like Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings as much as we do if the authors paused between each chapter to discuss the significance of the character’s choices and experiences?
What to do instead: Let the story speak for itself
Need I say more?
Rule #3: Don’t Ignore Reality
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the best way to advertise God is by phoning in a happily ever after. AIO had two story threads that threw in happy endings out of nowhere simply because they made God look good. Sadly, this cliché isn’t limited to Christian stories geared towards kids. Books like Lori Wick’s Californians series and movies from Sherwood Pictures love to show how much better your life is when you follow God.
Here’s the thing: The statement “follow God, and your life will be happy” has never been true anywhere on Earth. We were created to honor God, not the other way around. Besides, we already have stories in the Bible that make God look good. We don’t need generic happy endings to do that.
What to do instead: Give the audience the appreciation of being challenged
Though AIO does have several problems, one of their good episodes is called “The Other Woman.” It focuses on the tragedy of mental illness—not just for people going through it, but also for those who know people going through it. No one says that God guarantees a happy ending for his followers; the characters acknowledge that life sucks even for Christians, and that the best way to get through it is to also acknowledge that God will set things right in the end, whenever that may be.