I promise there’s a reason for that title. Really.
I first encountered the Liken the Scriptures series a few years ago, when I saw them on the shelves of a local LDS bookstore. I was interested, of course, but not willing to commit the purchase price. A while later, we found the franchise’s first title, Nephi & Laban, at the library and decided to check it out.
It was the story of Spencer, a young boy who had trouble paying attention in Primary when a caring teacher helped him understand that he could make the scriptures more real by thinking of them as applicable to himself. Spencer immediately sees the fruits of this new perspective when Nephi seemingly appears in his Primary room. Before long, Spencer is plunged into a musical retelling of Lehi’s sons’ retrieval of the brass plates from the fat and greedy Laban.
The sets are simple – more suited for the stage than film. The songs are fun, but nothing spectacular. The mode of storytelling is… imaginative, though straightforward. Spencer learns a good lesson, and a whole new world of interest in the scriptures opens up for him.
This is the format of all the Liken tales. A child facing a problem is directed to the scriptures by a loving adult, and miracles result. There are nine titles to date, excluding two sing-along DVDs with favorite songs from the others, divided into two series: the Bible Series, which is marketed to the broader Christian audience, and the Gold (Book of Mormon) Series.
The First Christmas
Esther and the King
Daniel and the Lions
David and Goliath
Jonah & the Great Fish
Nephi & Laban
Ammon & King Lamoni
Alma & King Noah’s Court
Samuel the Lamanite
The Liken films all rest on a core set of fairly obscure actors, but some include better known performers such as Thurl Bailey as Goliath or David Osmond as Jonah. The repetition of talent can be off-putting for adults, but my kids enjoy seeing and recognizing the same faces in different roles.
Now here’s the reason why I liked Nephi & Laban so much: the same thing that happened to Spencer also happened to my kids. Not only did they spend several weeks singing songs about choosing the right and to-the-letter obedience, they remembered the story – the right parts of it. When we studied those chapters from the Book of Mormon, the girls (my kids are all girls) got that twinkle of recognition in their eyes and became very excited because they knew what was coming next AND some of the lessons to be learned from it.
Except when they didn’t. That’s also part of the beauty. Sometimes my kids remembered the wrong things, which provided opportunities for us to correct their knowledge. This led to something miraculous with young children: meaningful discussion about the scriptures. My kids knew from the film that the story of Nephi had something to do with them, and we as parents got to help fill in what that was.
So what does that have to do with a lichen? Well, as everyone knows, a lichen is a two-part organism. One part is a fungus (this is getting better all the time), and the other a photosynthetic creature such as a green alga. The two parts develop a symbiotic relationship that allows them to thrive. While some lichens are very sensitive, others have such a hardy partnership that they can survive in extreme climates like the arctic tundra, a dry desert, even a toxic slag heap.
My experience with Liken is the same. Not toxic, but the value of the films is that they facilitate the teaching of scriptures in the home. On their own, they won’t lead any kid very far in the right direction; there’s too much entertainment mixed in. But they can form a kind of symbiosis with parental instruction that helps kids retain interest in the scriptures, while opening their minds to the idea that they can learn – from adults – how to solve kid-sized problems using these stories. That is a beautiful thing.
Now, if you’re looking for spiritually challenging, deeply insightful cinema for adults, Liken is far from your ideal. Neither is any of these films a paragon of cinematic technique, acting, comedic or musical performance, etc. The films have their weaknesses to be sure.
One possible objection to Liken‘s format is that it’s too silly – that all the frivolity and fluff causes kids not to take the scriptures seriously, or is somehow less reverent than the stories deserve. There is a fair amount of silliness, it’s true, though not as much as in other children’s adaptations of scriptural stories like Veggie Tales. Nephi and his brothers sing boy band style about drawing lots to go see Laban. God’s protection of Samuel defies the legendary accuracy of the members of the Nephite Archery Corps (NAC), whose costumes recall Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The fish that swallows Jonah suffers emotional anguish over his size. Personally though, I feel the Liken franchise takes the serious issues seriously enough, interjecting fun and games for purposes of pacing and emphasis.
Whatever the case, the filmmakers have gotten something right. It’s a formula that catches kids’ attention and causes them to remember what they see with more than casual interest. Liken offers kids an opportunity to see others like themselves gaining relevant, real-world insight from the scriptures while presenting scriptural stories in a way that is both appealing and memorable. At least in the case of my family, that translates to active interest in scripture stories, including more attention during formal family study and occasional questioning as the kids process what they’ve seen throughout the day.
For this reason, I’m likin’ Liken like a lichen, and I hope to see more.