I am a liberal Episcopalian now, and I was raised Unitarian in small-town Oklahoma, so I’ve never felt like part of the mainstream of what’s called Christian in America. I’ve seen a lot of “Christian” media productions that were painfully hokey, heavy-handedly moralistic, hateful, and/or boring. I never in a million years expected that I would someday be sitting down to watch Christian TV with my young child every Saturday morning and loving it! Cornerstone Television (WPCB here in Pittsburgh, with affiliates in several states) shows programs I think are just as good as PBS Kids and better than anything else on basic cable on Saturday mornings.
In fact, the way we found Cornerstone (when my son Nicholas was three years old) was that I was channel-surfing in hopes of finding him something good to watch, something that would entertain him without frightening or disgusting him or me. I have fond memories of childhood Saturday mornings watching “SuperFriends” and other relatively innocuous cartoons, like that one where the Fonz traveled through time with “a future chick named Cupcake.” But we couldn’t find any good Saturday cartoons on our TV, only “those fighting turtles” and “too much hitting,” as Nicholas described them, and some show about annoying rich girls who love to ride horses and hurt each other’s feelings.
Now, I also have childhood memories of occasionally watching a Christian show that aired before “SuperFriends”, when I was awake early enough. It was called “Bible Bowl” or, in the host’s thick Okie or Texas accent, “Baaahbul Bowwl.” Two teams of kids, blue shirts and red shirts, answered dull questions about Bible trivia until the winning team got to come on down and eat the “ahhse craym,” which I think was ice cream that the guy had left at room temperature during the show–it was very runny–while the other team stayed in their seats looking sad. So that’s what I figured Christian children’s television was like.
Well, Cornerstone has shattered my stereotypes! Nicholas and I wake up almost as early on Saturdays as on school days, and from 7:30 to 9:00 Cornerstone gives us three good programs in a row:
The Sugar Creek Gang is a drama about some kids having adventures in the country in approximately the 1940s, the era when the books on which it’s based were written. (We haven’t read any of the books.) There are only five stories, but for television each one is divided into several half-hour episodes with suspenseful endings. Although we’ve seen almost all the episodes now, we still have fun during the week trying to recall what happens next!
This is mainly just a well-done show, with beautiful cinematography (it is shot on location in Georgia) and pretty good acting. Direct references to Christianity are few. I mean, the story that’s set at a tent revival is mainly about the mystery unfolding there, with the hymns and preaching sort of in the background. But the kids treat one another kindly, grapple with moral issues (truthfulness, obedience, forgiveness, etc.), experience clear consequences of right and wrong decisions, and learn that an enemy kid can become a friend. “The Sugar Creek Gang” teaches about morality without preaching.
The “gang” is all boys plus one girl (this is a change from the books) who is treated as fully equal. She even gets to come along on an overnight fishing trip. Her gender has been an issue only once that we’ve seen, when a boy teases her about her physical fighting ability and she fiercely declares that she’s honed these skills “so that no man will ever dare raise a hand against me!” . . . in contrast to her long-suffering mother.
“The Sugar Creek Gang” can be a bit scary. The gang deals with a threatening teenager, an unreliable alcoholic dad, various near-injuries, and lots of suspenseful moments in darkness. Nicholas likes me to sit right by him and sometimes hides under a blanket! But he also likes thinking through the scenarios and (during the commercials or during the week) discussing what the gang could do.
Kingsley’s Meadow is a cute 15-minute show (Cornerstone airs two episodes in a row) centered around a Bible story and one virtue it demonstrates. Kingsley is a lion in sneakers who hangs out with his animal pals in the meadow and always winds up telling them a story. While he narrates, the story is mimed by kids in costume. My favorite things about this show are the kids’ acting, the minimal yet effective costumes and sets, and the very clear way the Bible stories are presented, without over-interpretation or cutesying up the ugly parts. It’s like My Own Book of Bible Stories (see my #3 lesson from Lent) brought to life. It gives Nicholas yet another way to learn these great stories that have enlightened and instructed people for thousands of years.
Each episode also includes two songs about the virtue. One is sung by some flower puppets that resemble our Happy Flowers (Nicholas sometimes makes them sing along) and sing like a 1950s girl group; many of their songs are very catchy, and we sing them around the house–I particularly like the one about obedience! The other song goes with animation that I don’t much care for, but it does a pretty good job of relating the virtue to kids’ everyday lives.
“Kingsley’s Meadow” is produced by the American Bible Society, so we also see Kingsley on TV during commercial breaks, talking about ABS’s mission, which is simply to make Bibles available to everybody in the world who wants them. They don’t push any specific agenda, just make the Bible accessible and let it speak for itself. I like that.
Dr. Wonder’s Workshop is a highly unusual genre: a children’s show about adults who work in an office–and not only that, they speak in sign language! The dialogue is dubbed, too, so those of us who don’t know sign language can follow it. (You’d think we would learn sign language from watching, but in fact Nicholas has picked up only a few signs, and my Saturday-morning brain tends to perceive it as a show about people who gesture a lot!) I can only imagine how wonderful it is for Deaf children who can’t yet read closed-captioning to have a television show they can understand. Not only that, but it’s a really enjoyable show, combining pleasantly taught values with comedy, Bible stories, and for the hearing audience, a very catchy theme song!
Like “Kingsley’s Meadow”, each episode focuses on a specific good-for-the-soul kind of trait, but “Dr. Wonder’s Workshop” tends toward interpersonal skills: building up one another, not teasing, keeping promises, doing your best when serving others. You never lose sight of the message, yet it’s an entertaining show that seems very realistic despite its eccentricities.
The main story of each episode takes place in the Workshop, where Dr. Wonder is the boss, Billy is the electrician, Paula Beaker is the chemist with bright blue hair, Lisa Beancounter is the administrator with bright pink hair, Pops the elderly puppet advises that everything “needs a few small adjustments,” and in later episodes Edwin Crunchnumber is the accountant. (The colored hair and puppetness are never explained, nor are the foreign accents of many of the characters. A lesson in diversity, I guess?) They’re all working together to invent some inventions, but the actual details of their work are vague; most of the plot is about the people and their interactions. Each character has flaws and bad days. Their interactions are much like you’d see in any office–including arguments about time-sheets and who messed up the microwave–but sometimes they speak openly about God or Jesus, which is not cool in most offices . . . but it’s nice to see television characters treat faith as a normal, discussable topic. Sometimes they also talk about experiences of growing up Deaf in a hearing family. Segments of the main story are interspersed with the show’s other components, all of which also are in sign language:
- Some kids answer a question, like, “What do you do when somebody teases you?” or, “How do you serve others?” These are very honest (that is, not every one is a “good” answer like they’re parroting what adults want to hear) and often poignant.
- Another group of kids does sign language along with a song and, sometimes, computer animation. These vary in entertainment value, but every song has at least one good line that sticks with us.
- A Bible story or inspirational passage is presented by either a typical sign-language interpreter guy against a black background or (inexplicably) an old Italian pizza guy who interjects a lot of, “Alleluia! Praise-a da Lord!” We were delighted to see two episodes in which characters in the Workshop go out to his pizzeria, though–the only connection between the Workshop and the rest of the segments.
It sounds like a strange hodgepodge, but somehow it all comes together into a very charming half-hour that leaves us feeling uplifted and humming!
Even the commercial breaks on Cornerstone are preferable to those on other TV stations! Instead of screaming ads for the latest junky toys and foodlike substances, we see public service announcements about brushing teeth and preventing forest fires, and ads for non-profit organizations, Bibles, local churches (including some that are unintentionally funny, like the preacher who says, “Jesus is coming! I can feel him breathing down my neck!”), local businesses like restaurants and summer camps, and occasional “as seen on TV” products like steam-mops and foot-softeners.
Some of these ads spark discussion. For example, despite my environmental concerns, I had refrained from lecturing my child about extinction or global warming until we saw the PSA in which a little girl asks, “Mommy, will there still be penguins when I grow up?” Yowch.
Another ad shows one boy bullying another in school, and then when the bully has forgotten his lunch, the victim offers him a sandwich, saying, “Sorry it got smashed,” and the announcer notes how the lessons of the Bible apply to real life. Nicholas immediately recognized this as a demonstration of loving one’s enemies. I’m kind of blown away by it every time because it is so true to the actual message of Jesus–not some watered-down version to make us feel good–don’t just care about the person who hurt you, don’t just share your food with him, but even apologize to him, yet you also get to aim a zinger at his conscience!
Letting my kid watch Christian children’s television on Saturday mornings works for me! Not only is it acceptable entertainment, but it’s educational in both a directly religious way and a more general moral way. Watching the shows (and commercials) together gives us opportunities to talk about our specific beliefs: When Nicholas asks the meaning of a catchphrase like “plan of salvation,” I can tell him what it means to me and what The Episcopal Church says about it. But even if a parent were to park a child alone in front of the television as his only form of religious instruction, I think the above three programs would do a pretty good job of setting him on the road toward being a good person and serving God.
There are programs on Cornerstone on other days that I disagree with, and there are some other Saturday kids’ shows that we avoid, which I’ll briefly summarize:
- Donkey Ollie is computer animation that hits the uncanny valley for me (the human characters have the glazed skin of people about to vomit, and the donkeys have disturbingly large eyes) and also uses “contemporary praise music” that grates on my nerves. But I’ll occasionally let Nicholas watch this while I’m two rooms away making breakfast.
- Kamp Kreatures is a mix of puppets and people that Nicholas likes well enough, but it’s so corny and simple-minded it makes me want to run away screaming. Not to mention the inexcusable spelling of the title.
- “Cowboy Dan” is a singing guy on a horse who means well and takes interesting field trips, but the episode we’ve seen repeatedly is the Mother’s Day one, in which he sings (twice!) a song about all your mama does for you with a verse about the day your daddy took care of you and did everything wrong! Nicholas, who knows that a daddy can pack a good lunch and wash your hair and find socks that match your shirt and lots more, was appalled! He felt even more strongly about it when he realized Cowboy Dan is a father: “Why does he think such bad things about himself? Does he really not know how to take care of his kids?! He could learn!”
- “Worship 4 Kids” is a hodgepodge of condescending cheezy stuff. The worst part is when some kids reciiite a Biiible verrsse iinn the mosst booored voooices eeever.