The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss
By James W. Kemp
Many of us have fond memories of reading Dr. Seuss’s books, but as we have grown older and read these books to other children, or our own, we may recognize important messages in these pages that we didn’t know we were getting – messages that we recognize from another important book, the Bible. The power of Dr. Seuss’s books to stand the test of time has something to do with the rhymes and illustrations, and a lot to do with the Spirit communicated through them.
James W. Kemp, a retired United Methodist pastor, loved Dr. Seuss’s books growing up and often found himself using the stories as sermon illustrations to share the Gospel message to adults, youth, and children all at the same time with a captivating, amusing, and even rhyming, story. He expanded on these sermons to put together this collection of devotions to be used by church groups and Christian families to reveal the parts of God’s message hidden in the colorful pages of Dr. Suess.
The design of the book lends itself to use in Sunday School classes, Bible studies, and family devotions with each chapter digging into one of Dr. Seuss’s books and showing where Dr. Suess and the Bible overlap. Some chapters are stronger than others, so I will quickly offer synopses of each chapter.
The first chapter looks at Horton Hatches the Egg and compares it to 1 Peter 1:3-7 for a lesson in faithfulness. Just as Horton is persecuted as he protects the egg, the first Christians were also persecuted and Peter is giving them hope and encouragement in his letter. Kemp uses this Dr. Seuss book to encourage Christians to remain faithful to Christ despite the persecutions of the world.
The next chapter based on Yertle the Turtle is compared to the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. In using this rather straightforward story about the dangers of literally stepping on others to get to the top, Kemp is stating the importance of building a solid foundation in Jesus Christ, living the life that God wants for us, and valuing all people as children of God.
I had forgotten about Dr. Suess’s What Was I Scared of? until I read about the green pants. Then, I remembered those dark pages with nothing but person-less green pants and the creacha squaring off. Kemp relates this story to Jesus praying in Gethsemane, raising up Jesus as a model of confronting our fears and doing what God wants us to do even if we are scared. As the green pants and the creacha learn to be friends, Kemp argues that Suess is teaching us how to overcome our own fears – by making them our friends.
For the chapter on The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Kemp doesn’t know quite what to make of the Cat in the Hat at first, but soon he lends himself to serving as a symbol for all of the things that create big messes in our lives. The ties to Isaiah 1:15-20 and Genesis 1 feel a bit weak, but Kemp makes an excellent analogy between the “Voom” that cleans up the cat’s mess and Jesus Christ who washes away the messes that we make. The Biblical references to Revelation 21:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 5:17 strengthen this analogy even further.
The story of The Zax is a story of pride that Kemp correctly relates to the parable of the prodigal son. What follows is a simple and direct lesson on the futility of pride and closed-mindedness illustrated by the Zaxes that won’t budge from their spots. Kemp points out that this Suess book is unusual because it does not have a happy ending – the Zaxes never do budge – but contrasts that ending with God’s gift of grace that ends the story of the prodigal son.
Kemp is especially clever in comparing the Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Zacchaeus from the Gospel of Luke. Just as Zacchaeus was despised as the chief tax collector, the Grinch embodies those enemies that we think are too hard to love. However, Suess gives us the Whos in Whoville to show that Jesus’ love can change anyone, even the meanest man in town.
Horton the elephant makes another appearance in a discussion of Horton Hears a Who that Kemp turns into a lesson on creation care and human rights. Once again, Horton serves as a God figure that is listening to the cries of the world and will do anything to protect it from those who cannot hear. Kemp implores Christians to care for the Earth and all of the people in it as God surely does since he created it and it belongs to Him. The Scripture references here are Psalm 24:1-2 and Romans 8:18-25.
Kemp appeals for open-mindedness once again with his take on Green Eggs and Ham. Just as the child in this book will not even try the green eggs and ham, Israel did not want to listen to Ezekiel’s message of judgment. Just as Sam-I-am won’t leave the child alone until he does try the green eggs and ham, God won’t leave Israel alone even though they continually turn from Him. Just as the child finds that he actually likes green eggs and ham, Israel is comforted knowing that God cares for them and will redeem them.
The chapter on Bartholomew and the Oobleck is a lesson for all ages on how to say, “I’m sorry.” In the Seuss book, the king cannot say he is sorry and comes close to ruining his kingdom because of it, but when he does say he is sorry, all the sticky oobleck they have been drowning in is completely removed. This is a wonderful allegory to the message of salvation and the power of forgiveness, and Kemp deftly ties the stories together with a little help from Matthew and the Fonz.
The chapter on The Sneetches is my favorite partly because it is simple and direct. The Seuss book illustrates the silliness and sadness of racism and prejudice and Kemp relates this message to specific New Testament passages from Paul and James that couldn’t be clearer on the issue. Kemp even ties in a quote from John Wesley and sums up four points of unity that all Christians should recognize.
The Butter Battle Book is my favorite Suess book probably because it does for war what The Sneetches does for racism. It shows in a simple and direct story the futility and danger of the arms race. The book was written in the early 1980’s when talks of nuclear war had everyone running scared or running to build the bigger weapon just like the characters in Seuss’s book. I especially like what Kemp has done here by including Matthew 5:38-39 to contrast the Old Testament law to the good news of the New Testament where Jesus is explicit about turning the other cheek.
The Grinch makes another appearance, the only Seuss book to get two chapters, but this chapter focuses specifically on materialism using the Lord’s Prayer to teach us about relying on God to provide and that all that we need is our daily bread. Although this message is present in the Gospels, this chapter reads too much of the author’s opinion and not enough of Jesus’s opinion which really is needed on this hotly debated issue. However, ending the chapter with quotes from the end of the Suess book about Christmas meaning “a little bit more” than presents convicts all of us of the material world in which we live followed by the hope that realizing this sin will make all of our hearts grow three sizes and not just at Christmas.
It is indeed appropriate that Kemp ends the book with a chapter about On Beyond Zebra! This book teaches children the alphabet but the teacher also adds new letters that go on beyond the letter Z. Kemp gives the example of Abraham as someone whom God challenged to live a faith way out of his comfort zone and way beyond what anyone had known before. Kemp goes on beyond Abraham to include stories about St. Francis of Assisi, Millard Fuller (founder of Habitat for Humanity), Jean Varnier (founder of L’Arche), and Faye Pickel, a faithful servant in Kemp’s church. Kemp ends the book with a challenge to live a faith on beyond zebra to a greater walk with Jesus.
The lessons in this book vary in their strength and impact, but all are excellent discussion starters that can be tailored to groups of children, youth, and adults. In fact, that is just what has been done in a companion leader’s guide authored by Mark and Kate Ballard and Chester Williams. The leader’s guide is also available from the Media Center, and it includes six sessions for each age group: younger children, older children, youth, and adults. I recommend this study as a fresh and fun approach to getting to the heart of the simple Gospel message of Jesus Christ.