World Mag recently did an interview with VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. If you don’t know the backstory, Phil had enormous early success with his Big Idea studio. A series of bad business decisions eventually lead to the company’s bankruptcy, and consequent sale to Classic Media.
Vischer had some interesting things to say about his experience with Big idea, and how he wants to do things differently with his new project, Jellyfish Labs.
“After the bankruptcy I had kind of a forced sabbatical of three or four months of spending time with God and listening to Him. I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.”
“…And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.”
Vischer is on to something here. We have this ethos of “maximizing our impact,” and this normally means developing slick marketing and programs. It normally means having the coolest music, the most comfortable seats, and the funniest preacher in the neighborhood. But then, we look at Jesus, to the apostles, to Paul, and we see people focused on their calling. As far as I can tell, none of them were particularly concerned about impact, but about faithfully preaching Jesus wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Vischer understands just how radical his ideas are in the current business model in which Evangelicalism operates.
“I no longer use the word dream as a noun describing a goal. We misinterpret passages from the Bible like, “For lack of vision the people perish.” From that we run off and go, “Oh, we’ve got to have vision, we’ve got to have dreams!” But it was Henry Blackaby who first pointed out to me that when we interpret that verse to apply to our ambitions, we’re completely misinterpreting it. A better, contemporary translation is, “For lack of revelation the people throw off restraint.”
I would go a step further, Proverbs 29:18, the verse Vischer is quoting, is best understood the way it is translated in the NET…
“ When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he!” (Proverbs 29:18, NET)
I think he is right to say that we Evangelicals have often used this verse to defend our whims and ambitions, but mustering up a “vision” to inspire followers is not even close to what this proverb is saying. The point is that without a revelation of God, from God, about God being continually put in front of the people, they will put aside obeying the Law (keep in mind the OT context), or following their Creator, and simply do whatever they want.
So, I applaud Phil Vischer. I know too well the temptation to pursue “bigger and better”, but we are called to faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified. I’m excited to see where his new project takes him.