Review of “What’s In the Bible”
I trust that many of you know who Phil Vischer is. He founded Veggietales in 1990 and built the company into a wildly successful venture. Phil left the company in 2003 (though he continues to voice characters in the movies). Phil wrote about the whole adventure in a series called What Happened to Big Idea? After a couple of other ventures, Phil started Jelly Fish labs and Jellytelly in 2008 as a revolutionary way to reach children with the gospel of Christ.
The Jellytelly website started as a subscription site, then went to a free format (which is when I found them) and now appears to be subscription based again with some free content. With puppet based characters like Buck Denver, Sunday School Lady, and many more combined with interviews with kids and The Fabulous Bentley Brothers (check out Old Testament…New Ideas (Jelly Telly’s Books of the Bible Series)), Jelly Telly offers internet based programming to teach kids about Christianity.
In 2009, Phil Vischer and Jelly Telly announced that they were joining forces with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House Publishing to produce a new 13 part series for kids called “What’s in the Bible” to walk kids through the Bible. An ambitious project to walk kids through the entire Bible, I was excited to get my hands on it when it was first announced. I was lucky enough to receive a preview copy of the first episodes – “In the Beginning” to review on this site.
Synopsis of the Episode and My Thoughts
The video features many of the characters (puppets) of Jelly Telly in a quest to learn about the Bible. I presume that characters not included in this first episode may very well be added in later episodes. The first episode was divided into two 30 minute segments. The first segment starts with the character of Michael (an elementary aged child) riding in the back seat of his mother’s minivan trying to show his mom how to start a DVD. We then cut to Buck Denver, the resident “Man of News” who hosts each episode with Phil Vischer. Phil talks about the influence of the Bible throughout history. He is interrupted by Clive & Ian a pair of explorer brothers whose principal role seems to be to provide comic relief. As the characters argue over the subtitle “with Buck Denver,” we are introduced to Chuck Wagon – a blue singing cowboy. Next, we meet Sunday School Lady with her magic flannel graph and Agnes & Winnifried.
Following the introduction, this episode cuts to the opening number where we first meet the piano playing Pastor Phil and jazz enthusiast Brother Louie. Following the introduction, we are introduced to a running bit in which Clive pushes his idea that the episode should be based around ponies. As much as I liked the video as a whole, there doesn’t seem to be much point to this diversion.
Buck Denver explains that each episode will answer one big question from the Bible in a segment called “Big Questions with Buck Denver.” In this episode they tackle the question, “What is the Bible?” These segments include some very cute kids answering the question and explain what they think the Bible is. You’ve gotta love cute kids!
Next Buck turns to Dr. Schniffenhousen to see if he can use science can explain the Bible. Sounding a lot like Arnold Schwartzeneger, the good doctor attempts to explain the Bible scientifically, but he is unable to give a satisfying answer.
Buck Denver turns to Sunday School Lady next who proclaims “Never send a scientist to do a Sunday School teacher’s job.” While this line is intended to be humorous and fits the character’s personality, I hold to the view that real science and the Bible are perfectly compatible. After all, they were both given to us by God, so they have to be consistent. I worry a little bit that “throwaway” lines like this feed into the popular notion in secular culture that Christians are required to give up their intellect to believe in God. That said, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you not purchase this DVD, or calling for a boycott, or even implying that it somehow diminishes from the value of the DVD as a whole. I try not to get too caught up in one line from a children’s video, but I thought this one in particular was worth noting.
Sunday School lady next explains what is in the Bible using the magic flannel graph. By the way, I find magic flannel graph to be one of the more compelling parts of the show. I think it is a unique and inventive way to include visual information for kids to soak up, and I love the graphics they use magic flannel graph to display. Using magic flannel graph, Sunday School lady covers the number of books, types of books, and authors and introduces a new song to reinforce what she has taught us about the Bible. Anyone familiar with the Veggietales series will not be surprised to hear that the music in this episode is quite good. It is both catchy and educational which is a great combination.
We then cut back to Phil Vischer who offers a brief summary of what Sunday School Lady has taught and turns to other characters to ask them what the Bible is about. The characters recap some of the well know stories from the Bible and then ask why all of these stories are put together in the Bible. All of the characters seem stumped except magic flannel graph who explains that all the stories put together tell one story – the story of God and what he’s done for us. Many of the characters seem to know very little about the Bible which put me off a little bit the first time I watched the video. Upon further reflection though, I realized that this will allow kids watching the video (who often find the Bible very daunting) to relate to the characters in the show. What, at first blush, appeared to be a negative to me I think will actually be a great positive throughout the series. Especially if the characters begin to exhibit growth as the series continues.
Next, Phil explains the overall plan for this series and cuts to back to an unprepared Buck Denver to begin an episode of Jelly News. The characters debate where to start then settle on starting in the beginning but seem confused about what the start of the Bible is. After they find the table of contents, they cut back to Sunday School Lady and the magic flannel graph for an explanation of how the Bible is organized. This is another well put together and informative segment of the show. This section even tackles the Apocrypha and why different versions of the Old Testament include extra books. For this we cut to “The Pirates Guide to Past History” with Captain Pete and his Pirate Parrot Reginald who explain the likes of Jerome, Luther, the Septuagint and the origins of the apocrypha. The apocrypha is explained as a series of “interesting books” but not an official part of the Jewish Bible. I found this segment of the show to be very interesting. I appreciate that this series doesn’t seem like it is going to shy away from topics like church history which most children’s videos would shy away from. I appreciate any series which does not shy away from certain topics because they underestimate the ability of kids to understand and learn. This segment also covers the different types of literature and why they are grouped into the old and the new testaments.
Again, we cut back to Phil for a recap of the segment and a lead in to part two of the DVD which covers the very first book of the Bible. Part 1 of this episode concludes with another creative song from Chuck Wagon about “God’s Amazing Book.”
Part 2 of the episode starts like the first part with Michael trying to help his mother play a DVD in the family minivan. Phil introduces the show with a recap of the last episode and an introduction of Genesis as the first book of the Bible. After the title sequence, we cut to the news room of Buck Denver who is conspicuously absent (asleep).
The big question for this episode, complete with interviews with kids, is “Who wrote the Bible?”
Next we cut to Sunday School Lady who explains that the Bible was inspired by God but not written directly by him. Pastor Paul explains what it means that God inspired the Bible. Sunday School Lady explains who most Christians believe wrote the different books of the Bible and even asks how we can trust the books where we don’t know who the authors were. Phil explains that we believe the Bible because God decided which books would be included and indicates that the process by which books were included in the Bible will be covered in a coming episode. Like other segments, I found the level of detail included in this segment well done and far beyond that which would be included in most videos for kids. I think that is a major selling point of this series.
Next, we are introduced to the Fabulous Bentley brothers who sing their Genesis song. This was far and away my favorite part of the whole DVD, and the song is actually packed full of information. I featured many of the Fabulous Bentley Brother songs in a post last year called Old Testament…New Ideas (Jelly Telly’s Books of the Bible Series). Sunday School Lady then explains the parts of Genesis, and Phil provides additional information about each section of Genesis. The first eleven chapters of the Bible are explained by Chester Whigget (who sounds a lot like Father Guido Sarducci) in a new segment called “Popsicle Stick” Theater. This segment covers some deep theological principals like the fact that God is neither male or female. There are some evolutionary undertones to this particular explanation which concerned me a little bit until Phil explained that many Christians disagree on the issue of the age of the earth in the “Tricky Bits With Phil” segment which acknowledges the differences in people’s opinions about the Bible. I appreciate the willingness of this series to directly tackle controversial aspects of the Bible in an informative way.
This segment of the video also answers the question, “Why did God create us?” including an explanation of why God gave us the free will to choose to love him. Like other theology covered in this first video, the concepts covered in this section are generally avoided in many children’s ministries and videos where they are deemed to advanced for kids to learn.
The next part of this segment explains the story of Adam and Eve and the temptation of Satan followed by Chuck Wagon with another original song/lesson called “Who Do You Trust?” further reinforcing the story of Adam and Eve. Chuck Wagon explains that sin is when we tell God we are going to do things our way instead of his way and answers many direct questions from kids during the course of his song. He also covers Cain and Able and Noah and the Flood. Chuck also moves on next to the next major story in Genesis – the Tower of Babel and sets up the story of salvation.
Phil concludes the episode with a recap of what we’ve learned in this lesson and a preview of the next episode which will cover God’s plan to save us.
Following the credits, Michael provides some personal application when he wonders why Adam and Eve would have listened to someone else when someone who loves them already told them what to do. He concludes, “I’m feeling very convicted about my moral decision making.”
This project is very ambitious and represents everything I believe in when it comes to Children’s Ministry. The goal of the series is to take the Bible from cover to cover and reduce it to something that kids will understand without shying away from difficult doctrine and presenting it in such a format that kids will be excited about their Bibles. I appreciate the goal of this series, and if this first episode is any indication, I think they will meet that goal. I am amazed by the level and amount of information that they can fit into these short episodes.
Phil Vischer is a seasoned storyteller, and these videos (packed full of information) still reflect that storytelling ability. From the beginning title screen where Buck Denver encourages us to start the movie to the last line of the credits “No puppets were harmed in the making of this video” this episode is packed with plenty of humor. There are even outtakes following the credits. In addition to the humor, this first episode was packed full of contemporary references ranging from American Idol to Green Eggs & Ham to Carrie Underwood’s Jesus Take the Wheel. These videos will undoubtedly keep the interest of children and maybe even distract them from the fact that they are learning something.
I have to admit, the first time I watched through the video, I was fairly disappointed. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but it didn’t seem to meet those expectations. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of puppets and this video is all about the puppets. Regardless, upon further reflection, I realized that my disappointment may not be the fault of the series itself but some sort of false expectation on my part, so I decided to watch it again. I’m glad I did. The second time through, I started to notice all the positive things about the video, and it really started to grow on me. By the time I was finished with it the second time, I was a certifiable fan of the series.
I think these videos will be great for use in churches for children’s ministry. The way they are set up, you could use selected segments the reinforce your lesson, or sit down and let the kids watch the whole video. I also think the videos will be great for families. I know the second time I watched it, I sat down with my 2 year old son, and he was captivated by the entire thing. I know I plan to make them part of my library.
I understand there are new FCC Regulations about bloggers writing about and reviewing materials they receive for free. I don’t even know if I am subject to those regulations, but for the record I was lucky enough to receive one of fifty free preview copies of What’s in the Bible. As you can tell, the fact the video was provided to me at no charge did not affect my review. While I greatly admire what Phil Vischer is trying to do with this series, and I hope they succeed in their goal of teaching kids about the Bible, I do not let that (or the free copy of the video) affect the content of my review in any way. That said, I have the utmost respect for Phil Vischer. In fact, his autobiography is the only book included in My 2010 Reading List that I still need to purchase. Maybe if Phil’s not to mad at me for this review, he’ll send me a signed copy of his book, and I can review that as well!
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