Theology of Seuss
Seuss Enterprises graphic.
“Oh the things you can think up if only you try.”
“Virent Ova! Viret Perna!”—that’s the Latin title of Dr. Seuss’ newest foreign language translation of “Green Eggs and Ham,” the best-selling children’s classic that has sold 7 million hardcover copies since fi rst published in 1960.
The story of Sam-I-Am’s odd culinary journey now ranks as one of the best selling English-language books in history, coming in third behind the Bible’s King James Version and the dictionary.
If you need proof of its astounding global popularity, just consider that the Latin rendition has sold 60,000 copies since its debut in October—a fact that can stupefy when one considers that Latin is basically a dead language. In all, Dr. Seuss’ 44 titles have sold 200 million copies, making him one of the most widely read authors of all time.
Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)—the man behind the pseudonym—would have turned 100 on March 2, making 2004 a “Seussentennial” of sorts for those who admire Geisel’s imaginative spirit and poetic style.
Geisel, a doodler who said he never really learned how to draw, first began using illustrations to augment his liberal-leaning political satire, a pursuit that helped him, as a college student, become editor-in-chief of Dartmouth College’s humor magazine, “Jack-OLantern.”
But when Geisel and some other students got in trouble for throwing a campus party that broke school rules, he lost the job. Undaunted, Geisel continued to write for the publication under an assumed name: “Seuss.”
“Ted grew to respect the academic discipline he discovered at Dartmouth—not enough to pursue it, but to appreciate those who did,” Judith and Neil Morgan wrote in their 1996 biography, “Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel.”
In time, Geisel parlayed his rhythmic wordsmithing and quirky illustrations into unparalleled success in the literary world.
An unwittingly religious voice
Although some attribute theological significance to his works, Geisel did not intend as much. In fact, he did not consider himself to be an overtly religious person.
“Like most works of merit, the works of Dr. Seuss have been overanalyzed; many scholars have found devices where there are truly none to be found,” reads Geisel’s biography at Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ official website seussville.com.
Still, Geisel’s parabolic creativity has inspired religious imagination and theological interpretation—perhaps for good reason.
After all, Seuss’ “Sneetches” were born in1961 as commentary on the absurdity of discrimination, and Geisel’s concern about the environment—individual and industrial pollution—led him to write “The Lorax,” published in 1971. Geisel’s “Butter Battle Book” (1984) about conflict between the “Yooks” and the “Zooks”—perhaps his most controversial work—was written in response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Reagan administration. For six months, his Cold War commentary was included in The New York Times’ best-seller list—for adults.
Understandably, Seuss has become staple in many church-based curricula—for believers of all ages, all persuasions. “I don’t know if Seuss would say he had a theological point of view, but he definitely had an editorial view on the way of life,” says the Rev. Marcia Cham, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in East Bridgewater, Mass., who developed a religious education series on Seuss for use in her parish.
“I think [Geisel’s] books are a teaching device similar to Jesus, because they are lessons that sneak up on you—the wiz-bangs that you go through,” Cham says. “[Geisel] is saying, ‘This is the reality, folks,’ and I think that’s what Jesus is trying to say.”
“The whole world of imagination is what captivates me and that’s the way Jesus’ parables should captivate us. Instead of a one-time moral, we should be intrigued,” she says.
“You’ve got to keep looking for the wisdom, not just the closed canon,” Cham says, quoting her theological mentor, the late professor Harold Beck of Boston University’s School of Theology.
Imagination opens the future
Heidi Hadsell, a professor of social ethics and president of UCC-related Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, says, “Religious imagination is an important way that we can open up the future and its alternatives in ways that people who are stuck in this worldly, daily life can never see.”
The religious life is not only about seeing things the way they are, but focusing on how things should be, Hadsell says, “and that kind of religious endeavor requires imagination.
If we are to envision the kingdom of God or create new social relationships, that’s a very hard thing to do without the religious imagination to help us make those leaps.”
She notes how the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) credited religion for its “imaginative powers, for giving to humanity what could be better, to re-do things and strive for the new.”
In this way, Hadsell says, Jesus “introduced to the here and now a taste of what might be and modeled different ways to act on the Sabbath, different ways to think about Sabbath law, different ways to think about outcasts.”
Similarly, she says, Seuss employs words and illustrations to inspire readers to look at things differently. She’s especially fond of Seuss’ exuberance for life in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Likewise, Cham says she enjoys looking for theological themes in Seuss’ stories. For example, she says, in “Horton Hatches an Egg,” she delights in the “faithful fidelity of our God.” Moreover, the repetitive, sing-songy nature of Seuss’ writing style—”The Whos down in Who-ville will all cry boo-hoo”—is reminiscent of the repetitious laments we find in Psalms, Cham points out.
The Rev. Doug Adams, a UCC minister and professor of Christianity and arts at UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, says Seuss’ stories, just as some of Jesus’ parables, employ humor to “lay low our idolatries, whatever we take too seriously.”
“The humor of the parables and the humor of Dr. Seuss imagine what we find unthinkable,” Adams says. Adams offers this illustration: “Horton the elephant sits on the bird’s eggs until they hatch and out come little flying elephants which defy the determination of heredity just as Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew has Jesus coming out of a family tree loaded with immoral people who do right.”
Cham believes that by opening up our religious imaginations, we can better pursue the meaning in life.
“I don’t know if he would call it religious or not, but Seuss was sensitive to the conscious and unconscious aspects of life, the rhythm of life,” she says, “and I’ve had a wonderful time with it.”
What Seuss can teach you
“Bartholomew and the Oobleck” (1949)
“Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” (1973)
“Green Eggs and Ham” (1960)
“Horton Hears a Who” (1954)
“Horton Hatches an Egg” (1940)
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1957)
“I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today” (1969)
“Oh, the Places You’ll Go” (1990)
“The Lorax” (1971)
“The Sneetches” (1961)