Video review: ‘VeggieTales: The Little House That Stood.’ Big Idea Inc. About 49 minutes. Not rated.
Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and the other edible folks from VeggieTales are back in another silly/cute story, hopping and singing and trading bad puns (meaning, of course, good ones). And, of course, weaving in moral and spiritual lessons.
VeggieTales: The Little House That Stood neatly merges two storytelling genres: a Mother Goose fairy tale and a biblical parable: in particular, the Three Little Pigs with the parable of the Two Houses.
In this deft blend, Bob stars as a building contractor who specializes in wood; Larry prefers to stack walls with straw; the gourdlike Mr. Lunt uses bricks. Only Bob, though, takes time to pour a solid foundation.
Into town drive the Three Little Pigs (including a prissy sow who says “moi” like the Muppets’ Miss Piggy). They each hire a different veggie to build a house, with consequences that show clearly when a flash flood hits the valley.
That story lasts only about 20 minutes; it’s followed by “The Good Egg of Gooseville,” casting Bob as Humpty Dumpty, a lazy mayor who doesn’t want to do anybody any favors. He doesn’t care if Goldilocks is hungry for porridge, or Bo-Peep has lost her sheep, or Jack and Jill fell down the hill. Eventually, of course, Humpty’s selfish façade cracks, along with his shell.
The story mashups are enough challenge for most people, but try doing it with computer animation — and characters that lack arms and legs. But Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki have been doing such things since their first VeggieTales in 1993.
An advantage of going direct to video is being able to mention Jesus and Bible verses by name. When NBC bought VeggieTales episodes for Saturday morning TV in 2006, the network started snipping out such references — even the innocuous VeggieTales slogan, “God made you special and he loves you very much” — getting a well-deserved black eye in the media. NBC and Big Idea parted ways in 2009; the latter now majors in DVDs and streaming via Netflix.
Other features on the DVD are familiar with VeggieTales fans, including singalongs and Larry’s requisite Silly Song. And you can find still more on the video’s website, including a .pdf discussion guide and four pictures to download and color.
Also available are some free games on the homepage. Try “Find the Penny.” I thought I did good at 6,800 points, until I saw that a lot of players maxed the score at 14,400.
Oh yeah. The promoters of the video still say I have to add this paragraph . . .
“Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: ‘Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.’ “
… as if I’d recommend something I didn’t like.
James D. Davis
Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.
As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?
One answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.
With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.
There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.
A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.
More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.
Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.
And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.
Even departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.
The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.
Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”
One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.
More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?
And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.
But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.
James D. Davis
So many people are dividing us — even on the Web, which was supposed to connect us. Then there are others like my friend Mike Schwager, with his site Enrichment.com.
“As the world converges technologically, so is the time also ripe for a convergence and new integration between people, races, genders, religions and cultures . . . coming together and finding common ground through dialogue and heart-felt expression,” the site says. Mike’s language may be flowery, but imagine if he and his contributors can pull it off.
And you could hardly find more variety among the writers, and their topics.
There’s an essay on love as a nutrient by Thich Nhat Hanh, leader of a Vietnamese version of Zen Buddhism. There’s a nugget by philosopher Joseph Campbell on myths as “the dynamic of life.” Other quotes come from motivational guru Wayne Dyer and metaphysical philosopher Eckhart Tolle.
Enrichment helpfully groups its many topics into broad clickable categories:
Spirituality, including intelligent design human treatment of animals (a topic close to Schwager’s heart).
Human Potential, including the teachings of Ernest Holmes, the founder of Science of Mind.
Humanitarian Issues like hunger, microcredit and combating world poverty.
Dialogue, such as the open letter from Muslim leaders to Jews in the wake of the 2009 attacks on Jews in Britain.
The categories are loose, though; a piece on the blessings of solitude is under Human Potential when it could just as well been under Spirituality. Fortunately, many of the articles are crosslinked.
There’s a bonus in the right-hand siderail: a list of “Great Documents.” These include the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There’s even a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, from a British group called Uncage. (I told you Schwager paid close attention to treatment of animals.)
Enrichment is a site of good will, but its presentation is, well, rather retro: two siderails, no pictures, lots of words in long paragraphs. This is understandable for a site, as Mike tells me, that hasn’t been updated in awhile. That the articles are still current is testament to his skill in choosing foresighted writers. But the site still needs updating.
Some ideas to update it might include Flash animation and flyout links to related articles inside the site. Photos of the contributing writers would help visual appeal. So would a slideshow of various religious art, architecture and such that brought out the themes. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University is a good example of such a site.
Enrichment also suffers from the same flaw of other websites of the type: sectarianism. Now, that may seem an odd name for a site that tries to bridge borders. But in my experience, interfaith groups attract mainly those who are interested in interfaith relations. So do human potential organizations. If Enrichment is meant for people who are interested in human potential and interfaith relations, it will appeal to a minority of a minority.
How to bridge this particular gap? One way would be to draw people into the conversation from the more conservative, inward-turned wings of religious groups, rather than just the liberal, outgoing wings. They could address topics of common interest.
All that said, Enrichment is worth your attention. It’s a sad fact that many websites get attention for negative reasons: hate, fear, prejudice. Sites like Schwager’s deserve a look. You might see something there that you’ll find, well, enriching.
James D. Davis
Pity the child of a famous person, like a singer or religious leader. She’ll walk forever in his shadow.
Except for the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach, the groundbreaking singer who pioneered a revival of Jewish music in the 20th century — and, some say, fostered the return of many young Jews to the fold.
“I’ve never felt in his shadow — I’ve felt in his light,” says Neshama Carlebach, who will sing for the first day of Hanukkah in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s never a burden; it’s a great gift. He’s the voice in my head.”
Carlebach will present “A Celebration of Light and Miracles” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, 9901 Donna Klein Blvd. She’ll offer the contemporary religious style of her late father as well as some of her own interpretations.
With her will be longtime friend Josh Nelson, a versatile Jewish rocker who also weaves folk, jazz and classical sounds into his work. They’ll perform both their own repertoires and each other’s.
Together, the two will cover much of the Jewish spectrum: Carlebach’s Orthodox background and secular outreach with Nelson’s Conservative / Reform upbringing and modern popular relationship.
The mix illustrates the goal of the concert, which will be their third together, she says in an interview from her home in New York.
“I feel like it’s a fusion of worlds — he’s from one side, I’m from the other,” Carlebach, 38, says. “We both believe the world has to come together, and that can come with music. You have to look outside your own world, and yet look within.”
That bridge-building was a lifelong theme also of her father, who died in 1994. Born into a Hasidic dynasty in Berlin, he came to America in 1939 and helped run his father’s synagogue in New York.
But he expanded far beyond the tight-knit Orthodox communities in the late 1960s after he moved to San Francisco and founded a mission to reach disaffected young Jewish hippies. Though he couldn’t read music, the “Rock Star Rabbi” wrote thousands of songs and even performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.
Some see in his exuberant concerts and worship gatherings the seeds of the so-called baal teshuvah movement, the phenomenon in the 1970s that saw thousands of young Jews turn more fervent and observant. His story, and 30 of his songs, are in the stage musical Soul Doctor, which his daughter helped create.
His daughter carries on his legacy, introducing audiences to Jewish leaders and teachings through her music. She often draws from pop, soft rock and even gospel, with a longtime musical partner, the Bronx-based Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir.
“Music wakes people up,” Neshama says. “Music is a place of access to help you begin to feel. In so many moments in life, we should be feeling, and we’re not. The healing starts when you acknowledge what is going on in your head and heart.
“Yes, [the concert] should be entertaining and sound great. But it should carry a deeper meaning. We are all sparks of godlness. And we can reflect that everywhere. If we’ll allow it.”
The Carlebach approach, both father and daughter, is part of the revival of Jewish contemporary music paralleling Christian contemporary music. Concerts and playlists often include names like Matisyahu, Ray Recht and Dr. Laz. Neshama Carlebach even regards Josh Nelson “the reiging king of the movement.”
Nelson, 35, adds his own head-spinning beliefs on the way music can foster an experience that is at once mystical and social.
“The very existence of music is a miracle,” he says in a separate interview. “You pull it out of the air. That we can experience it together happens on a level that we have only the surface of understanding.
“People feel like [music] is both an introspective and vibrant community experience, in one evening. That’s really what everybody wants. They want to sing with other people, and with that still, small voice.”
Carlebach comes to South Florida after a year that has taken her to venues like Los Angeles, New Jersey, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Her Hanukkah concert will be one of her first after a hiatus of several weeks to deal with a divorce.
She says the divorce gives her a chance to practice what she preaches: learning to feel through music.
“We’re all tested in the world and given the opportunity to heal,” Carlebach says. “My blessing is that I have the opportunity to do it through music.
I’m praying that this new experience will make me compassionate in a new way.”
Tickets for the concert are $36 or $40 at the door for adults, $20 for students. For information, visit shaareikodesh.org or call 561-852-6555.
For more on Carlebach herself, visit her website.
James D. Davis