I’m not a fan of Veggie Tales. I know a lot of work went into those pious peas and tomatoes. But the videos do nothing to inspire my three year-old daughter, Ellie, to connect to our faith. She’ll watch them if I put them on but never asks for seconds.
Meanwhile, Disney continues to produce stories Ellie wants to live into. We not only have about 27 different Frozen products in our house—the fruit snacks, the karaoke microphone, the swimsuit—but lately she has been posting up next to me at the breakfast bar asking me to “tell her the story of Elsa and Anna.”
Like you, I have a lot of my plate, metaphorically speaking. I’m a mom of two kids under four with an additional full-time job. So in these morning moments I’m usually tired and preoccupied with emails I need to send and lunches that still need to be packed. I often answer her on auto-pilot by narrating what I remember while simultaneously wolfing down my oatmeal next to her because I know I only have about 40 seconds to eat before she spills something, or needs more orange juice, or starts eating my food.
More than an “Animated Faith”
And then the other day, after a semi-descent night of sleep I thought to myself, “This is nuts. I keep hoping for ways to intrigue her with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but nothing shows. So here I am telling her about Olaf and Sven (who are both adorable, I’ll give them that) instead of recounting the Exodus.”
Which made me remember The Prince of Egypt. You know, from way back in 1998? It’s an animated film about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Val Kilmer is the voice of Moses, and Ralph Fiennes plays Ramses. Hans Zimmer also composed the score. I’m telling you all this to suggest that it is in a different category than Veggie Tales. It is a legitimate Hollywood production, and as such I thought it might captivate Ellie. So I decided to let her watch it.
As you can imagine, there are quite a few scary moments given its basic subject matter. And in addition to the plagues and the Passover, the studio beefed up the less dramatic parts of the story. For example, Baby Moses almost gets eaten by an alligator and caught in a fisherman’s net while he makes his way down the river. There were several moments when I wondered if it was a mistake to expose her at such a young age. But she was captivated when she wasn’t closing her eyes or hiding behind a pillow. And though I wish it hadn’t frightened her, letting her see it reaffirmed my belief in the power and importance of good art in service of the Bible.
The Big Picture
See, Ellie has been pretty good at welcoming Baby Olivia into our family. Yes, there was the time she dropped a heavy toy on O’s three month-old face on purpose, right in front of me, without batting an eyelash. But I chalked that up to more of an experiment in physics than an expression of jealousy. I’ve been waiting for something more, a clearer and more dramatic indication of how unsettling it is to be dethroned as the only child.
Then the other night I put both girls in the bathtub. When we were done with toys and washing, I reached down to get Olivia out. Immediately, Ellie pulled the drain and tried to get out, too. This irritated me, because it’s so much easier to dry them off one at a time; and the baby has to come first because she’s so much more susceptible to drowning. Exasperated, I asked Ellie, “Why can’t you wait until I get her out!? Just stay here while I get her diaper on and I’ll be back.” To this she burst out crying and said, “Mommy, I don’t want you to put me in a boat and send me down the river!”
I was stunned. Amazed, really. At age three, she couldn’t really grasp the epic confrontation between Yahweh and Pharaoh. And the plagues and Passover must have seemed like random and perplexing violence. But in The Prince of Egypt, Ellie found an image to express her emerging fear of abandonment. She saw Baby Moses in his basket and identified with him because she was feeling “pushed downstream,” too. I did my best to explain why Jochebed, Moses’s mother, put him in his little “boat” of pitch and papyrus. I didn’t say anything about the infanticide that surrounded her, though some day I hope to be able to explain that. But I did point out that God protected Moses from the alligators and the fisherman’s net. I also reassured her that I would never send her away from me. And I suggested that it was hard for us to make room for Baby Olivia in our lives, to which she nodded. It was an important moment for both of us.
True art, like Scripture and the God it discloses, meets us where we are. It reveals what haunts us and what we truly yearn for. It becomes our voice when we lack the vocabulary, when all we have are sighs too deep for words. I’m all for fresh ways to embody the biblical narratives, even through a cast of vegetables. But those cucumbers and tomatoes need to connect to our deepest questions and heartfelt desires. If they skip that, they are no better than a flannel-board Jesus who doesn’t at all resemble that stark and singular figure we find in the gospels. Truthfully, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses is a bit frightening and terrible, a bit awe-inspiring like Elsa’s magical powers. Only better.
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