If you grew up listening to Christian radio, you inevitably came in contact with Adventures in Odyssey. Odyssey is Focus on the Family’s long-running radio series that has broadcast close to 700 episodes since it first aired in 1987. Now on its third voice actor playing the lead role of John Avery Whittaker, the series is still going strong.
I don’t remember ever intentionally listening to Odyssey. It wasn’t the type of thing where we went, “Oh, it’s that time of day again,” and then the family would gather around the radio. Nevertheless, I grew up with Whittaker and Eugene and Connie. I felt like I knew them. I could see Whit’s End and Odyssey in my mind. I remember when Hal Smith (Otis from The Andy Griffith Show and the first voice actor to play Whittaker) died.
National radio and TV form part of America’s cultural consciousness. Although one grew up in Oklahoma and the other in California, when the two students meet at college, they have a shared culture they can use to relate to one another. They both grew up watching Home Improvement and playing GoldenEye 007. Odyssey is part of the cultural consciousness of many Christians.
Odyssey was already anachronistic when it premiered in 1987. Stations had quit producing and broadcasting radio dramas in the 1960s. The series began as a thirteen-week test series named Family Portraits set in a small town called—you guessed it—Odyssey. The test series proved so popular that Focus on the Family launched Odyssey USA which was later renamed Adventures in Odyssey.
The series revolves around John Avery Whittaker—or Whit—and Whit’s End, the old-fashioned ice cream parlor owned and operated by the lead character. Whit hired a teenager named Connie to run the counter at Whit’s End. He also hired Eugene, a brilliant yet inept college student who often clashed with Connie. Various kids from around Odyssey are constantly coming in and out of Whit’s End.
If you didn’t grow up with Odyssey, you’re probably wondering what makes this radio series about a small town and ice cream parlor so popular. If you don’t listen to Christian radio, you may not be familiar with the show at all. It fills a niche not being filled elsewhere in media. The continued success of conservative talk radio baffles liberals. Their attempts at liberal talk radio have repeatedly failed. Conservative talk radio fills a niche not being filled elsewhere in media. Yes, there’s Fox News, but face it, the news media—newspapers, magazines, and TV—are overwhelmingly liberal.
Odyssey is a Christian sitcom. You don’t find Christian sitcoms on TV. To many, Christian is a synonym for mediocre. Christian sitcom is just another way to say mediocre sitcom with a moral tacked on at the end. To be honest, that’s what I was afraid Adventures in Odyssey was going to be.
It had been years since I had listened to Odyssey. I had recently discovered old-time radio shows like The Shadow and The Adventures of Sam Spade and loved them. I found a website where I could download most of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air series. On Halloween a few friends and I drove out to a lake and popped a burned CD of “Dracula” into the car stereo. Welles’ deep voice had us jumping at the smallest noise. At our Christmas party, we turned the lights out, lit some candles, and popped in a burned CD of “A Christmas Carol” that first aired in 1938.
All this got me thinking about the radio series set in Odyssey that I remembered listening to as a child. Focus on the Family has released the entire series going back to the very first episode on CDs. I ordered the first volume, The Adventure Begins: The Early Classics, twelve episodes from early in the series. I was apprehensive as I waited for the package to come in. Would it be as funny and entertaining as I remembered? Or now that I was older would my more finely-tuned critical sense see the series as a cheesy attempt at Christian indoctrination?
I listened to the first volume not once but twice. It was funny and entertaining. These were artists telling great stories. The stories include morals and Biblical truths, but the messages flow naturally from the stories. A story reflects the values of the storyteller. This is not to say that the morals and Biblical truths in Odyssey are unintentional. There is a difference between unintentional and unnatural though. Christianity and the Bible is important to the producers. It is natural that they would intentionally weave Biblical truths into the episodes. Art reflects what is most important in the artist’s life.
The two-part episode, “The Imagination Station,” that originally aired on March 18 and 28, 1989 introduced a new invention of Whittaker’s that soon became a favorite on the series. Digger Digwillow said the titular Imagination Station looked like one of those old time machines in the comics. His description alludes to the origin of the Imagination Station.
In the bonus material included with the CD release of the episodes, Odyssey co-creator Steve Harris recalls a writer’s meeting where they were discussing writing an episode about time travel. He wanted Odyssey to seem like a real place to kids and was afraid a time machine would make it too fantastical. That’s when they came up with the idea of a machine that would harness a person’s own imagination to make it seem like they were really in the past.
The Imagination Station is obviously a metaphor for Adventures in Odyssey itself. Unlike TV and movies, when listening to the radio, you have to use your imagination to come up with the pictures. The purpose of Odyssey is to make Biblical truths came alive for kids.
There’s a deeper metaphor that can easily be missed. The Imagination Station is a metaphor for the core of Christian theology.
In the first part of “The Imagination Station,” Tom Riley comes to Whit for help with a boy in his Sunday school class who doesn’t pay attention. His parents can’t get him to read his Bible either. He thinks it’s boring. Whit suggests, “Maybe I can try this Imagination Station out on him. If it works the way I hope it will, Digger Digwillow won’t be able to complain about the Bible being boring ever again. He’ll have his own experience to prove it” (emphasis added).
Digger: What is all this stuff? Some kind of museum?
Whit: It’s all part of the Bible room. Exhibits and inventions to help kids bring the Bible to life.
Digger: The Bible. You got any comic books around here?
Whit: No, we don’t need comic books in the Bible room. You don’t care much for the Bible, huh?
Digger: Well, it’s alright, I guess. It’s just that it’s…well, nothing personal, but I think the Bible is kind of, you know, boring.
Whit: Boring? King David, Samson, Elijah, boring?
Digger: Yeah. I mean, I know all about those guys, and, well, I like my comic books better.
Whit: Comic books have their place, but they don’t really compare to the Bible—especially since the Bible is true. You think you know all the stories, huh?
Digger: Yep. My dad went through our Bible at home, and he tried to pick out the interesting ones.
Whit: Hmm, then I suppose you know the greatest story in the Bible.
Digger: Probably. Which one you talking about?
Whit: The story of Jesus.
Digger: Oh yeah, I’ve heard it. He taught people and they killed him and stuff.
Whit: Oh, it’s not as simple as that, Digger. Maybe you don’t know it as well as you think you might.
Digger: Uh-oh, here it comes. What are you going to do, sit me on your knee and tell it to me?
Whit: No, I’ve got a better way.
The problem wasn’t that the Bible was boring; the problem was that Digger had never met Jesus. He hadn’t had a personal experience with Jesus. Christians are obsessed with the Bible, because they have had a life-changing encounter with Jesus, who is the central focus of the Bible.
Christians honestly believe the Bible is interesting. They don’t study the Bible out of obligation or religious duty; they study the Bible, because they really want to know what it says. Odyssey isn’t a way to dress up the Bible to make it palatable to kids; it is an honest attempt to introduce kids to the Bible, because the producers are convinced kids will be enthralled with the Bible once they read it.
Whit tells Digger he has a better way than sitting him on his knee and telling him a story. Maybe Whit means you have to find more exciting ways—like a radio drama or an Imagination Station—to teach the Bible in order to make it interesting. I don’t think that’s what Whit meant. You have to meet Jesus before the Bible will be interesting. Whit programs the Imagination Station to transport Digger to Passion Week.
While in the Imagination Station, Digger visits the Last Supper. He brings the bread to Jesus. As soon as he meets Jesus, things begin to change. He tries to relate to John Mark how he felt when Jesus looked at him, but he just stutters incoherently. John Mark responds, “My words exactly.” In the second part, Digger has a conversion experience. He accepts Jesus as his Savior.
One of my favorite episodes is “Promises, Promises.” It is an early episode—the seventh episode of the series in fact. Connie comments that she believes people are basically good deep down inside. Whit tells her that’s a noble and wonderful sentiment, but unfortunately, it is also one of the most ridiculous things he has ever heard.
Whit explains, “I don’t mean to offend you, but you’re way off when you say that people are basically good deep down. That’s not our nature. For proof all you have to do is look at any one of these youngsters running around here. Now, I don’t have to tell any of them how to misbehave. They already know that. But I sure do have to teach them how to be good.” This is deep theology. But never does it seem forced. It is an organic part of who these characters are.
Connie still disagrees. To prove Whit wrong, she says she’s going to make a promise to be good and keep it. She writes down a promise to treat everyone she meets with kindness, gentleness, and patience. Whit says he’s going to make it easier for her. He challenges her to pick just one thing, patience, and to set a time limit, four weeks. As you can imagine, Connie doesn’t even make it a week.
Odyssey would often tackle theological issues. Although it is a kid’s program, it also doesn’t shy away from tough issues. There are episodes about divorce (#17 & 18: “A Member of the Family”), the Vietnam War (#28: “The Price of Freedom), and an episode where a young girl dies of cancer (#50: “Karen”).