Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Penniless Princess: A Review, Plus Some Other Stuff

Okay, before I begin:

Personally, I think that creating Christian resources (books, DVDs) for kids has got to be one of the hardest jobs on earth. Creating Christian fiction is tough. I mean, it's really really tough. It's tough writing for adults, and a thousand times harder writing for kids because hey, are you preaching the gospel to these kids or are you teaching them how to live as believers? So your target audience is, say, eight years old, and their parents go to church. Really, that tells you nothing about who this child is, where they might be spiritually. And maybe that's why most kids Christian resources seem to fall into six categories.

The first is a kind of junior prosperity gospel. The message here is: trust in Jesus and your life will be okay. Things might be hard at the beginning, but if you trust in Jesus you''ll be picked for the team / pass your test / get a boyfriend, depending on the age the book is aiming at.  As if the point of coming to Jesus is to make our lives better, rather than to save a people for himself.

The second is straight-up moralism. A lot of sunday-school type fiction goes into this category. Jesus loved his friends, therefore you should love your friends. The End, as if Jesus' primary purpose was to show us how to live rather than to sacrifice himself for us exactly because actually, we never will be able to live like him.   As if the point of Christianity is learning to live by a set of rules for their own sake, rather than living in a restored relationship to our creator and redeemer.

The third is probably my least favourite of all. This stuff doesn't really have a message at all - it's just milky and sappy and fluffy and its only virtue is that its not offensive. It's like aspartame for the soul.  The characters might go to church, they might mention Jesus a few times, they might pray a bit, but if you took all of that away the story would be exactly the same. There are no meaty themes, it's just the Disn*y Channel with Christian sauce.  There's nothing to wrestle with.

And hey, I have nothing against the Disn*y Channel, or against mindless entertainment. (Maybe I should, but I don't). But ugh, what a waste if we're trying to engage our kids with the meaning of life, and what do we, as Christians, think that Christianity is if not the meaning of life? Why are we buying them Christian books and DVDs if we aren't trying to teach them about God, to shape the way they think? (Personally, I think that we can be a bit too apologetic about that. I believe I've found the truth in Christ - of course  I want to teach my children that same truth. Their spiritual life is their own, of course, but I would be bemused by anybody who had any kind of deeply held faith and didn't want to share it with their children). Christianity that is merely cultural is nothing but a waste of time.  My point is this: Christianity is the meatiest subject in the whole universe. Hello, justice, atonement, sacrifice, redemption, everlasting love, restoration and justice.  Do themes come any bigger than that? Christianity is the meatiest subject in the whole universe. There is no excuse for Christian fiction to be sappy or fluffy. Not for kids, not for anyone (and most of what I've said on this third point covers a huge, huge chunk of women's Christian fiction too, unfortunately).

The fourth and fifth tend to be much better, I think. The fourth is re-told bible stories. I'm a fan. Done right, these have all the meaty themes missing from Type Threes, lots of opportunity for discussion and also some truly fun ancient Hebrew names.  The fifth is allegory - a genre that can go horribly wrong but also very, very right. I really think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe did as much for me spiritually as any other book I read as a child (and yes I know CS Lewis said that it wasn't strictly allegory but does this look like a literary analysis blog?)  The interesting thing about Type Fives is that they don't ever actually talk about Jesus - instead, they have a story that runs sort of parallel to the gospel story. There's usually a character who is pretty much perfect, who engages in some kind of act of sacrifice, who redeems one (or more) of the other characters, who often follows the riches - humiliation - restoration arc. That can get verrrry messy, but again, to see it done right: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. 

The sixth, elusive, category is set in the real world and deals with real characters grappling with the real-life implications of what it means  - or what it would mean - to follow Jesus. I hardly read any of these when I was a kid, because of the aforementioned elusiveness. If you know of some good ones, please let me know.

All that to say: good Christian resources for kids are really hard to find. So when, a few weeks ago, I was approached by the people at Veggie Tales to review their new DVD, and I was really happy. I really like the idea behind Veggie Tales - Christian stories for kids. Told by vegetables. Okay, when I write it out it just sounds silly. But I like that they are funny (hello! Vegetables with foreign accents! I love it!) I like the idea of all the re-told bible stories, I like that they are genuinely amusing and kids really seem to enjoy watching them. I haven't bought any for my kids yet (thinking they are probably a bit young) but nieces / nephews / little friends have been watching them for years. I've been eyeing up Silly Songs and trying to work out when my kids will be old enough to start really enjoying them. (Now, probably. I'll get on that).

And all that to say - I really wanted to enjoy The Penniless Princess, but I didn't. It's a re-telling of The Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (which I read many years ago, but can't remember in too much detail). In the book, a little girl (whose mother is dead) is placed in a boarding school by her very rich father. After her father dies, the headmistress goes back on her promise to treat the little girl well and turns her into a servant. She remains steadfast and befriends some difficult characters.  Eventually it turns out that her father's best friend has been looking for her all along and she is restored to her rightful place as the rich kid.

And the 'Christian' DVD is.... pretty much exactly the same. This is one of my two major issues with the film. The protagonist (a stick of rhubarb, of course, named Sara) talks about Jesus, talks about praying, but it all feels very pasted on top of the 'real' story (which, I guess, it is). It feels sort of like a cross between a Type Two (moralism - in this case, even when people are nasty to you you should be nice to them) and a Type Three (a story with Jesus bits that isn't really about Jesus at all) and a Type One (if you trust in Jesus, in the end you'll be rich again).  To make it even more confusing, there are elements of Type Five in there too.  In a way, I think the Christian themes would be more successful if the whole thing was treated as allegory, and since the source novel was written in 1905 (thank you, Wikipedia) I wouldn't be surprised if it was read that way, at least partly, when it was first published.  The whole riches - humiliation - restoration formula is sort of Jesus-ish, and the protagonist is entirely perfect the whole way through- again, she seems more like a Jesus allegory than anything else.  Is Sara the saviour or the saved? In short, it feels a bit like a genre-bending mashup and I think it's actually all a bit confusing, or at least not particularly helpful. I know I can be prone to overthinking things (cough *understatement* cough) but this really does feel fundamentally flawed at the story / message level. All the words sound Christian-ish but I really wouldn't recommend it as being particularly helpful in understanding the gospel.

My other big issue with this is that the strapline is 'A Lesson in True Worth'.  All through the middle section, when Sara is banished to the attic to work, she says to her friend: "Even if you look like a servant on the outside, you can still be a princess on the inside". On one level, okay, yes, that is absolutely true. Man looks on the outside appearance, but God looks on the heart. No matter what our position in life is, if we are Christian women and girls, we are daughters of the King. If that makes us princesses, I guess we are princesses.

However:"Even if you look like a servant on the outside, you can still be a princess on the inside". Personally, I feel like this is entirely missing the point. What does it really mean to be a daughter of the King? Does it mean sitting around all day in tulle? No. (Unfortunately). Servanthood isn't the opposite of being God's girl - it's the reality. The absolute reality. Here's what Jesus has to say about that:
Matthew 23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant.
Mark 10:43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
Mark 10:44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
Luke 22:26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

Follower of Christ = servant. Being a daughter of the King, a princess, means being a servant. This is not a trivial point.  Particularly because - have you met little girls? I have yet to meet even one who doesn't truly believe that she is a pretty special person. Barring abuse or neglect, I think that most little girls have no trouble at all believing that they are worth it, they are special, they are definitely a princess on the inside no matter what anybody else says. Maybe this isnt' the case all over the world, but this DVD is... well, it's a DVD. Any girl who is going to watch this is probably in the top 10% of the world, economically speaking. I do not think that most little western girls are struggling for Christianity to tell them that they are worth their oxygen.

Quite the reverse. I think the real shock of real Christianity for little girls (and big girls, and boys and men too) in our uber-privileged society is that that it is not all about us. It is not about how great we are. Instead , it tells us that we can't save ourselves, tells us to put our trust in a man who died and rose 2000 years ago then calls us to a life of service. Not really very much like a fairytale. Jesus' little sisters are not going to have an easy life. That's the real deal. If we are telling our kids that Jesus is coming to save us from a life of servanthood, well, I'm afraid we're lying to our kids.

And it's this second issue that means I won't be playing this DVD for my kids again. They enjoyed it the first time, and Pink particularly liked the peas (I did, too).  But I don't want her ever hearing "Even if you look like a servant on the outside, you can still be a princess on the inside" again. She can wear all the frilly dresses she wants (and oh, she is adorable in a frilly dress) but I don't want her thinking that means she gets a pass on service.  I don't want her thinking that servanthood is something to be avoided, something for Other People.

Instead, I'm going to wait for something where the frequent quote is: "Even if you look like a princess on the outside, you can still be a servant on the inside".  Now that's a message worth teaching. That would be a film I would like my daughter to see.

That would be a lesson in true worth.


  1. I like your analysis of the types of kids' christian resources. Very spot on. Speaking of kids, have fun with my little brother and sister-in-law tomorrow. You're a gem.

  2. I am SO not a fan of most veggie tales, which I think miss the mark, which is the short version of your awesome review. :)

    1. I have only briefly seen Veggie Tales, long before I became a parent, but they made me want to throw up. I seem to remember they fell into the whole "you can't show your children anything that isn't based on the Bible" category that I was trying really hard to escape. So we won't be watching them. I'd rather watch/read something that isn't supposed to be Christian but does have allegory about the world/people/relationships.

      We were given (by Baby Spouse's otherwise lovely and delightful and very right on foster carer) this very very cheesy book. We've kept it but I don't know if we'll be reading it any time soon:


  3. Ugh, I haven't looked into Christian fiction, but that line about princesses and servants sounds as far off the mark as you can get. I had a tough time finding a children's Bible that wouldn't send my son off the deep end with trauma. (A little more love and a little less banishing and smiting for the preschoolers please. I'm not trying to scare him into believing.)

    But seriously, can we co-write a book called Aspartame for the Soul? That is the best book title ever.

  4. YOU ROCK! I have not been a fan of Veggie Tales for a while. My Christian friends try to give them to my kids. I refuse to let them watch. I loved this review. LOVED IT.

  5. I guess I'd better not post that copy of Max Lucado's "You are Special" I got for your kids for Xmas then... Veggie Tales are terrible. Except for the non Bible ones - THEY are hilarious!

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