Church kids: do you remember what it was like to suspect that something you did would turn out to be a sin that God hated all along without you knowing it?
I remember. That was before I learned of this good news:
- If: God is neither an idiot, nor is He cruel. He is in fact fully capable, and He is love.
- Then: He would capably, lovingly communicate to us exactly what counts as sin
Of course then I was led to consider that this is also bad news. In fact, it’s much worse than having a loophole to plead ignorance of the Law that He reveals in Scripture. Thank God that because of Christ’s life and atoning death and resurrection, it’s His sacrifice for sin that pays my debt and His righteousness that covers me and powers my own righteousness.
Alas that this greatest Story of Scripture is missing in some Christian children’s stories.
At Christ and Pop Culture yesterday, Dr. Alan Noble explores one 1980s evangelical series that is very familiar to former church kids of all decades hence.
Watching McGee and Me as a kid did not turn me into a legalist, but it did help shape my vision of what it meant to love God and seek forgiveness.
As Noble says: this understanding was not that good. The rest of the piece explains why.1
If you’re like me and watched this video series, you especially enjoyed the animated bits featuring McGee, who plays a goofier Jiminy Cricket to regular-kid protagonist Nicholas.
McGee breaks a window unintentionally because some city planner thought it was a good idea to put a baseball diamond across the street from a glass shop. The authorities swoop down with swift and absurdly disproportionate justice to drag a small boy off to prison. Since the story ends so abruptly there’s no trial and no chance for McGee to admit to his lie, so in the world of the parable McGee must spend eternity with the guilt of his crime. The injustice is suspended indefinitely with no hope for redemption.
That’s the animated segment. Noble describes more of the live-action tale in which Nicholas talks with his father about how to undo the consequences of a rumor Nicholas has spread.
The “biblical” lesson is that no matter how trivial a lie might be, once spoken, it begins a web of destruction and evil, consuming innocent people, cutting us off from God, and making an already-crucified Christ cry. Oh, wretched man that Nick is! Who or what will rescue him from this body of death? What can he do?
The only answer given: “What do you think?”
Some parents are much like Nicholas’s well-meaning father. They think they can simply ask, “What do you think?” and then leave.
Or they might give their children a Christian children’s product that tries to teach morals.
But that results in another big lie: a lie by omission of the Cross.
As terrible as this show was for me as a kid, it did get the consequences of sin right. Sin is unimaginably destructive. We are all blackout drunks who’ve no way of knowing what great tragedy we have caused. We are inescapably weighty in our existence. But that’s only half of the story. Not even half.
Reading this, I wonder two questions.
First, doesn’t this strong-sounding objection — Product X “lies” by omitting the Cross — actually deny the fact that Christian art need not show/tell the whole Gospel every time?
On Facebook that was author Adam Graham’s challenge about Noble’s column, and I understand where he’s coming from! One response:
A rallying cry for Christian storytelling is that you don’t need to include the full John 3:16-Gospel in every representation of sin and its consequences. Not every book of Scripture itself does that. You can have a story/book that is part of the revealed Word of God (such as Ecclesiastes) that might confuse the heck out of us, but still fits into the narrative.
But with this there’s a difference. Creators, know thy audiences. The audience is Christian and evangelical kids, not those outside the Gospel. The audience is, presumably, folks who exist within the covering of Christ’s salvation. In that case, if the story is about sin and consequences, you need to emphasize grace more. But if in fact the audience was nonbelievers, then you need to emphasize sin more!
I agree with Alan’s contention that this particular episode fell uncomfortably into that middle ground. The story did say, “Your sins aren’t that big a deal, in fact they may be closer to simple accidents, but OH LOOK AT THE PAIN THEY CAUSE.” All the consequences of total depravity (Biblical) but with little emphasis on man’s actual willful sinful nature (American “gospel”) = cognitive dissonance.2
Second: given the chance, would the makers of “McGee and Me!” in retrospect ask similar questions about their own stories? I am certain that occurs to all of us long after the thing is in its eleventh printing or filmed and locked on VHS. Sure, it’s far easier to look back at a story with 20 years’ hindsight than it was to try making the story in the first place.
Christian behavior without Christianity?
But specifically about the “morals over the Gospel” question, at least one Christian children’s storyteller, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer, has been blessedly direct about how he regrets moralistic emphasis in those stories.
After the bankruptcy [of Big Idea Productions in 2003] 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.3
What evangelical children’s stories have you needed to peel apart? How have you done it?