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The Hanna-Barbera Cartoons: Compounding Bible Ignorance?

by Helen Lee Turner, Jones & Blazer

Helen Lee Turner teaches in the religion department at Furman University. Amy E. Jones is a student and a Dana research assistant at Furman. Doris A. Blazer, who teaches early childhood education at Furman, is involved in the National Symposium on Faith Development in Early Childhood and coordinator of preschool parenting conferences at Kanuga Conference Center. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 1, 1989 p 231. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The series has already gained widespread home use through both rentals and sales (at a modest $19.95) at video stores, Christian bookshops, and discount stores like K-Mart, along with direct mail order. In fact, almost 45,000 units were "pre-sold" for The Nativity, one of the latest titles, before its release. And according to co-creator Joseph Barbera’s fan mail, many churches have purchased the videos for Sunday schools and youth meetings. Created by the producers of "Yogi Bear" and "The Flintstones," and winner of the National Religious Broadcasters’ Distinguished Service Award, Religion in Media’s Gold Angel Award, and the Film Advisory Board’s Award of Excellence, the series contains eight episodes. It includes the stories of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, Daniel and the Lion’s Den and other "real heroes" such as Noah, Moses, Samson and David.

It may be tempting to ignore this series because it is made for children, or blindly to bless it because we, like Hanna and Barbera, recognize in our youth a growing ignorance of even the most basic Bible stories and want to do something to remedy the situation. Though some may object to the cartoon medium on the grounds that children are not used to taking it seriously, that is the least of this series’ problems. More troublesome are the cartoons’ historical inaccuracies and inappropriate embellishments; the fact that the "heroes" have largely been robbed of their multidimensional biblical personalities; the way subplots overshadow the main story; the preponderance of images (including graphic violence) , words and ideas that are ill-suited for children; and the abysmal corruption of the stories’ theological significance.

For example, in The Nativity, when the viewer ought to be expectantly awaiting Jesus’ birth, an extended non-biblical espionage sequence involving two harsh Roman guards who are sent by Herod to follow the wise men takes center stage. Repeated scenes are shown of the soldiers chasing the Wise Men on horseback, spying on the conversations of the three kings, and wickedly chuckling to themselves about how much money they will receive, from Herod. The soldiers get as much attention as Mary and Joseph. The primary purpose of their escapades apparently is to sustain children’s attention and provide a dramatic vehicle to get the three modern voyagers to Bethlehem. In the same cartoon a melon vendor with whom Moki contends in a relatively long comic sequence is likely to seem more real than the baby Jesus, who is never shown close up. Consequently, the importance of the incarnation could get lost amidst the thrills and jokes.

In Daniel and the Lion’s Den, fictional circus entertainers Enoch and Kalil, along with their ferocious lion, Terribulis, are to children and probably most adults more exciting than the praying Daniel. It is they, after all, who get the foreign trio jobs as servants at King Belshazzar’s feast, enabling us to view their capers at the riotous party and only incidentally to hear Daniel’s prophecies and have a firsthand look at the handwriting on the wall. In the story of Noah and the Ark we are repeatedly distracted from Noah by Moki’s anxieties, which prompt his building a raft, and his craving for 20th-century food, especially pancakes. At the end of the story the recovery of an injured doe Margo has cared for throughout the film is likely to be more stirring and memorable to young children than the landing of the ark. Thus, even for those with prior knowledge of the stories, Hanna-Barbera’s traveler device is confusing and intrusive.

Furthermore, since the young travelers’ presence is pivotal to the recounting of almost all of the stories, it underscores the American sense of superiority and importance. Derek, Margo and Mold are the most memorable actors in the series, partly because they appear in every story and partly because their characters are more developed. As self-centered Americans might arrogantly tend to expect, almost everyone the young archaeologists meet accepts them unconditionally despite their unusual dress, names and vocabulary. And, as is the case with characters in Samson and Delilah who help Derek build a hang glider, the adult characters at times treat the modern young visitors as though they have superior knowledge. While it is true that the teenagers do not alter the outcome of the Bible stories, they certainly interfere with their communication, and in the eyes of young viewers the explorers’ influence always seems to be possible. In essence, the stories have come under the control of the modern tellers rather than exerting their own power over modern life.

In contrast to the three Americans, the biblical characters are reduced to caricatures that represent one quality -- good or evil, right or wrong. This is clearly the case with Moses: Let My People Go. Here the pharaoh is absolutely diabolical, and Moses is the very picture of godliness. Yet, according to the Bible, Moses was afraid and reluctant to answer God’s call to lead Israel, confessing that he did not speak well in front of people. The cartoon Moses, however, is strong-willed, persevering and confident. He is a very large, distinguished, almost regal figure dressed in a red robe, alt he is described as having a "noble bearing."

Such portrayals lead to a flawed interpretation of the biblical stories. In Hanna-Barbera’s stories, as in Rambo, the strong, or at least the brave, are victorious. In Samson and Delilah, Samson is the biblical version of the Incredible Hulk, a huge, friendly giant who is nevertheless tough and, in his case, a bit arrogant. Though it is admitted that Samson has a weakness for beautiful women, this has come to be an accepted foible in our society’s macho men, so for all practical purposes Samson remains one-dimensional caricature. The biblical interpretation of Samson’s strength as a gift from God, which, although associated with the Nazarite vow, had virtually no relationship to any ethical quality of his own, is not adequately explained either. Thus, while the story of Samson found in Judges was intended to portray him as a negative religious leader and as an example not to follow, the Hanna-Barbera series presents him in an admirable light as the sole defender of the Israelites. The heroic scene where Samson goes to his death as he pulls down the columns of the temple of Dagon on a host of Philistines is the Cartoon’s lasting image, stripped here of much of its tragic irony. The cartoon Samson is a nice, brave superhero -- which raises another moral issue: Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesizes that children in the pre-conventional state of moral reasoning believe that might makes right. Hanna-Barbera’s conquering Samson may serve to perpetuate that perception.

The effort to make the cartoons entertaining, which the producers readily admit as a goal, at times obscures the deeper meanings of the stories. The concretization involved in making the stories exciting diverts the attention of children between the ages of seven and 11 who, though still in the concrete operational stage of thinking (as psychologist Jean Piaget calls it) , are beginning to be able to grasp deeper meanings. This feature may also limit their future understanding of the stories to the powerful, immediate images of the cartoon.

While some of the memorable images are simply preposterous -- like the scene in which the young trio escapes attack by surfing on an underground river or the one in which Derek travels by hang glider to warn Samson -- some of the strongest of these lasting images are very violent. Frightening scenes of horror, destruction, brute force and pure gore are generously scattered throughout the films. Indeed, the opening vignette of all the films, in which the terrorized modern trio are trapped and fall through quicksand into the time tunnel, may be quite disturbing to young children who fear separation from their parents. From that point things mostly get worse. In Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, we hear men cry out and see them fall amidst debris as the enormous walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Just as horrifying is the scene in which Samson pulls the temple of Dagon down onto a screaming horde. In Noah and the Ark, people are graphically depicted drowning as their rafts sink beneath the, water. An outstretched hand is the last thing remaining above the water until it, too, disappears. We also see pharoah’s army sinking to the bottom of the Red Sea in Moses.

The producers defend the violence on the grounds that it is part of the biblical portrayal. In fact, Bruce Johnson, Hanna-Barbera’s vice-president in charge of the series, asserts that the cartoons’ literal interpretation is the key to its success. The studio, however, has exaggerated the Bible’s descriptions of violence. For example, all the films show close-ups of the wicked characters snarling or making threatening gestures. The hissing, forked-tongue serpent in The Creation is so fearful that one wonders why Eve didn’t run instead of allowing herself to be tempted. Goliath is also far more intimidating than necessary. He is, in the words of th& Hanna-Barbera studios, a "tremendous giant who makes He-Man look like a wimp." While a literal reading of I Samuel would lead us to believe that Goliath was only about ten feet tall (six cubits and a span) , the cartoon giant is so big that David appears only about as tall as Goliath’s ankle. In Moses, the scene illustrating the plague of blood is graphically presented. Unforgettable expressions of horror and revulsion overcome the Egyptians’ faces when they draw buckets of blood from their wells and when their rivers course with streams of blood. (Even the fundamentalist Criswell Study Bible suggests that this plague probably did not literally involve blood.)

Perhaps most frightening to children, however, is the scene in Moses in which a black pall of death creeps through the air toward small Egyptian infants, one of whom we see sleeping unaware in his bed. How could such a representation help children develop a religious concept of death? Such scenes are more likely to produce recurring nightmares than theological understanding.

Hanna-Barbera has even gone so far as to add some violence of its own invention. David and Goliath, for example, opens with two unnecessary scenes: one in which Philistines burn and loot a village, and another in which a lion nearly attacks Derek, Margo and Moki. Noah and the Ark includes distressing scenes in which animals are threatened. First the creatures on the ark are jeopardized by Noah’s taunting neighbors, who attempt to sabotage the loaded ark by rolling a boulder downhill toward it and who then threaten to set fire to the boat and turn the animals into a "giant barbecue." Then one of Noah’s sons nearly kills some of the animals with a huge sword in order to feed the humans during the unexpectedly long sojourn aboard the ark.

Ironically, while using literalism to justify retaining the violence, the cartoons’ producers delicately euphemize other aspects of the stories. They describe Samson’s weapon as the jawbone of a donkey rather than that of an ass, and avoid, by strategic placement of animals and plants, exposure of the naked Adam and Eve in The Creation. Though many of us may object to our children’s use of the word "ass" and their seeing non-familial nudity, vivid images that imply that God and his heroes are fearful and vengeful are potentially more damaging to children, especially when not appropriately balanced with images of love and grace.

While Hanna-Barbera added some details, the cartoons omit others that are key to understanding the biblical narrative. Why show scenes that young children cannot comprehend, such as the debauchery in Daniel and the Lion’s Den where people are lying around on sofas drinking and spilling their food, dancing, and laughing wickedly, and then not mention that the most heinous sin of the party was the people’s using goblets pilfered from the Jerusalem temple to make wine offerings to Belshazzar’s gods? Why suggest that Samson drank wine (not mentioned in the biblical story) before Delilah robbed him of his secret -- thus making a subtle point about the risks of alcohol use -- and not mention that this would also have been a violation of the Nazarite vow?

Such omissions lead to more serious issues of interpretation. Hanna-Barbera portrays the heroes as so mighty and good that they overshadow God. A doubter among the Hebrews claims at the end of Moses: Let My People Go: "I have failed Moses and our God." His mentioning Moses before God is typical of the tenor of the whole series. Even the advertising for the series emphasizes the characters’ heroism more than God’s help. Unlike the Bible, which is intended to be God’s story in which God works out his will despite the strengths and weaknesses of his people, this series focuses on the human characters’ power.

Other examples of questionable interpretation are evident in The Creation. After Adam and Eve are cast from the garden, a flaming sword, which is shaped like a cross (an image that may shock Jews who have promoted the Old Testament cartoons) , dramatically appears to bar the pair from paradise. We are then assured by a narrator that terrible as it was, this event was only the beginning. That might be acceptable, but other interpretations are offered as well: "God showed us paradise so that we could see what we would lose if we disobeyed him." Because of Adam and Eve "we know the difference between right and wrong," and we must "work and sweat for whatever we get." These summary statements, though not necessarily inappropriate, have a real danger: they seem to imply that this is the story’s primary meaning.

The cartoon’s image of woman is also problematic. Eve conforms to the modern ideal of female beauty: she is coy, shapely with long flowing auburn hair, and perfect down to her manicured fingernails. Here Eve’s primary concern is pleasing Adam, and she is most tempted by these words from the serpent: "I’ll show you the sweetest delight in the garden as a surprise for Adam. . . . Adam will be pleased. . . . You will make him wise, a god, and you will be his goddess." When she offers the fruit to Adam, he appears totally oblivious of what he is eating. The woman is guilty, the man is innocent.

Especially after repeated showings at home, the cartoons may so affect children’s biblical understanding that the film images will predominate in their perception of the biblical stories. Many people have a similar experience when they see the movie version of a book. Even if they have read the book, the screen images cloud all others. In the same way, "The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible" may overpower children’s imaginations and suppress their ability to allow the biblical text to speak to them anew as they grow older. In a sense the cartoons are like Cliff Notes: once the basic plot and characters are known in such simple form, few are likely to pursue deeper meanings. Though their producers may be well intentioned, instead of providing a generation with knowledge of the Bible, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons may be fostering the worst kind of biblical ignorance.


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