Message 93, “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss: Cats in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham”, 5-6-12
© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!” So said Dr. Seuss in one of his books – an author who has arguably had more influence on the last three generations of children than any other writer. The genius of Dr. Seuss – or Theodore Geisel – was that he influenced kids not with facts or bland fables about good and bad, but with seemingly nonsensical rhymes and funny, cartoonish characters. Many adults of my age and younger owe their ability to read to Dr. Seuss. As children, he caught our imagination, made us laugh and offered rhyming patterns and words that drilled into our memories the often complicated phonetic spelling necessary for learning how to read.
As important as he was as a beginner books author, Theodore Geisel subtly influenced the thinking of young minds. Geisel was a progressive – and a progressive Christian – all his life. After years working for progressive publications, he reached his height of influence during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when homogeneity and so-called middle class values were dominant in America. He spoke first to the 1960’s generation – Baby Boom kids who came of age and dominated the discussion in that pivotal decade of civil rights, social security and anti-war protests.
It is not an exaggeration to assert that Dr. Seuss helped shape the 1960’s generation in their activism and thus shape history. Books like The Butter Battle, Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches mirrored the sixties youthful assault on prevailing attitudes about race, class, religion, war and the environment. Dr. Seuss was one of many who helped set the 1960’s agenda. American culture, politics and spirituality were dramatically changed as a result.
While the topic of this month’s series is “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss”, I must be careful not to over-read or over-interpret his many books. While no author writes a book without any viewpoint or theme, Geisel said that people interpreted his books in different and often incorrect ways. His primary mission was to write books that young children would want to read – and thus help them learn to read. He had heard from many teachers that the standard Dick, Jane and Sally early reading books were uninspiring for kids. And so, in response to an article in Life magazine about the sorry state of reading education in the US, Geisel’s publisher challenged him to write a compelling beginning reader that contained most of the 348 words it was deemed every first grader should know. Geisel thought the book would take him a week to write. It took him nine months. He used 223 of the words on that list and in 1957 published a book that was an instant hit and defined Seuss for the rest of his life – The Cat in the Hat.
In 1960, on a bet from his publisher that he could not write another engaging children’s book using only 50 distinct words, Seuss published his other great work, Green Eggs and Ham.
These two silly and outwardly ridiculous books set the standard for early readers. I read them. My daughters read them. They are read and widely sold today. Young Eli will one day, no doubt, read them.
As seemingly simple books with funny rhymes, they nevertheless offer serious themes about life – how to have fun, how to be flexible, how to challenge authority and thus grow up. Seuss was a master at making reading and learning great fun. But he was equally adept at guiding children to intuitively think about universal spiritual attitudes of respect for ideas, people and cultures that are different from the norm.
Over the last year and a half, I have taken regular yoga classes which have helped me immensely. I had no idea, when I began, that yoga is a challenging and strenuous form of exercise. My core strength and joint flexibility have dramatically improved. Such abilities will only help me as I grow older.
Just as important as physical balance and flexibility, though, is the need to be mentally, emotionally and spiritually flexible. And Theodore Geisel knew this and encouraged the same in his books – especially his first two works – The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
In his first book, The Cat in the Hat, two young children sit forlornly at home alone, looking out on a rainy day with nothing to do. Suddenly, a strange creature appears at the door – a tall cat who walks upright and wears a red and white striped hat. He enters the house and proceeds to engage in all sorts of stunts to create fun and activity for the brother and sister. They are scolded, however, by their pet fish to make the cat go away and to stop making such a mess. Their absent mother will be angry, the fish tells them. But the cat proceeds and even brings into the home a large box from which emerge two fun-loving creatures – Thing 1 and Thing 2 – to add more play to the household. Kites are flown, closets are opened wide and general mayhem ensues. But the fish does not let up with his nagging and it chides the children to get rid of the fun-loving cat before their mother returns. Soon, the brother chases down the two Things while the cat swoops in on a large riding vacuum cleaner to clean up the mess. All is restored, the cat departs, the fish is happy and the mother returns. The kids then consider whether to tell their mom about everything that has happened. “What would you do, if your mother asked you?” is the final question Seuss poses.
His imaginative illustrations and his fanciful character of a jaunty cat are mesmerizing. What kid, indeed what adult, does not enjoy the entertainment of a comic jester who tells us that, “It is fun to have fun, but we have to know how!” Readers of the book can identify with wanting to engage in play when they are told they shouldn’t. And readers want to know what happens in this simple, but surprisingly tense, story. Do the dire warnings of the fish come true or can the kids have innocent fun while their mother is away?
And that is the subtle question posed by Dr. Seuss. Can we have fun for fun’s sake? Can we let loose, open up the proverbial Pandora box of pleasure, be a little bit naughty and still be OK? While the book has been interpreted by some to be a Freudian parable about budding sexuality and the tension we feel whether to indulge or repress, it seems obvious that Theodore Geisel was speaking to the children of a repressed 1950’s culture to open up, challenge authority just a bit, and have fun! Indeed, to seven and eight year old beginning readers in 1957 – kids who would be seventeen and eighteen year olds in 1967 – it is easy to see how this book helped encourage the Woodstock generation to let loose, challenge authority and thus change the American ideas about racism and needless war. The Cat in the Hat was not just an innocent children’s book. It was quite revolutionary. Theodore Geisel even claimed that in writing the Cat in the Hat, he was “as subversive as hell!”
As a progressive Christian, though, Geisel was also encouraging a looser set of spiritual beliefs. It seems clear that the house in the story is a type of Garden of Eden with its mother – or God – absent. The brother and sister, Adam and Eve types, are left alone with nothing to do. In walks a cat who – like the Biblical serpent – entices them to have fun. He even opens up a symbolic Pandora box of play (what some might call sin) and lets loose even more playfulness. All the while, the narrow minded fish, drawn by Geisel as living in a very small fishbowl, tells the children to stop having fun, it’s not right! The fish is an unmistakable symbol of the Christian church, or religion in general, and its many rules against supposed sin. But Geisel does not end his story with calamity and disaster – as what took place in the Garden of Eden. Instead, the Cat in the Hat is not a sinister Satan but a creature of fun who is able to contain such fun within playful innocence and then cleans up afterward. Earth and humanity are not destroyed by the symbolic sin. The God figure or mom in the book even returns and all is still good. Geisel then asks at the end of the book not that the kids simply tell their mom what happened but he implicitly pleads for an honesty that is free of guilt and shame. Go ahead and tell God about your fun! Stop listening to man-made religion. Having fun is OK! It’s NOT a sin!!
And we are encouraged – by this gospel according to Dr. Seuss – to approach life in the same manner. Organized religion can be a source of freedom and solace or a life-long force for psychological harm – one that induces guilt, shame, fear and doubt. We were created to enjoy the beauty and joys of this earth, to live responsibly within it and help others to also enjoy its fruits.
And just as we are to enjoy life, we are to be flexible and open minded in our outlook. Cultural and religious standards of so-called morality and decency should be questioned. The same is true for cultural norms on politics, spirituality and thinking. Will humanity be known for close minded attitudes or open and free thinking?
Such are the implicit questions posed by Dr. Seuss’ second book Green Eggs and Ham. A strange character is introduced on the first page and proclaims himself to be, “I am Sam. Sam I am.” Sam entices an unnamed Everyman to try a plate of green eggs and ham. Everyman turns up his nose at the strange food and declares “I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham.” But Sam is relentless in pushing his plate of different edibles – he asks Everyman if he’d eat them in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, in a car, in a tree, on a train or in a boat. “You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may.” But Everyman is just as steadfast in refusing. Until, that is, when he plunges into the sea and, in a type of baptismal rebirth, finally succumbs. He tries green eggs and ham and, in a joyful epiphany, declares he likes them and will eat them here or there or anywhere. “Thank you, thank you Sam-I-am”, he finally says.
What a funny rhyming story we might think. What a great book to get young minds to learn and read new words. Once again, though, Geisel had a purpose to his seeming madness. Sam-I-Am’s name is an obvious play on God’s self description to Moses at the burning bush – “I am who I am”. Indeed, with his insistent encouragement for Everyman to experience real freedom and unfetter the chains of a narrow mind, Sam is a type of Jesus. And his relentless encouragement to Everyman to try new things is an appeal for us too. Green eggs and ham are metaphors for the things each of us reflexively and impulsively reject. In life, in relationships, in politics, in spirituality, in attitudes towards others who are different races, religions or sexualities, Geisel promotes free thinking, tolerance and flexibility. Indeed, he assaults any rigid dogma, prejudice or belief. No way of thinking, no ideology, theology, or lifestyle is so sacred that we should not at least be willing to consider an opposing viewpoint. Indeed, we’re encouraged to be adventurous and not just conserve the status quo but to be open to different beliefs, strategies and lifestyles. Do we stay the same and stew in our rigidity or do we move forward with bold new visions for better lives and a better world?
And this encouragement to openness speaks to all of us. Many in the Gathering are politically progressive. But are we willing to consider the views of political conservatives? Are we willing to concede they might be right in some matters? Are they willing to adopt the same flexibility toward liberals? And what about our faith? Do religious fundamentalists offer spiritual views that have any validity? Can we be open-minded? Can we empathize with the other who is different or dirty or just not like us? Can we humble ourselves in any of our beliefs and attitudes such that we acknowledge potential flaws in our thinking? Can we, instead, seek common ground with others, refuse to assert our own superiority and thus create solutions that everyone can embrace? To do so, we must – each and everyone of us – be willing to symbolically eat green eggs and ham – the stuff we each say is intolerable. We must stretch ourselves and be flexible. Indeed, the Biblical writer of Proverbs said that a person who does not listen to advice, after many words are spoken to him or her, will ultimately come to ruin.
To be a spiritually flexible person and a spiritually flexible church we should be forgiving to those who hurt us, empathetic to those who are different, inclined to live in peace with others, courteous, patient, fair and affirming. That is who and what we are at the Gathering. We are defined not by doctrines but by openness to other ideas and other people. Around every corner, in every individual, from every ideology is a kernel of truth which can enlighten and inform us. Is the person next to you a bit different in appearance or personality? Does he or she believe different things from you? Is he or she gay, atheist, physically or mentally challenged, vegan, African-American, conservative, liberal, omnivore? And what if they are? Is that so bad? No, it is not. The person next to you is a wondrous child of the Divine…..as you are yourself.
When I spoke a few weeks ago to Vanessa Lefebvre and asked her why she and Boris wanted to dedicate Eli at the Gathering, she told me that she wanted his first public celebration to be at a place that honors ideals of tolerance. She wants Eli to grow into manhood loved and supported in such a way so that he can decide for himself what values and spiritual beliefs to adopt. Life is not easy for any of us – and it has not been easy for Vanessa and Boris – but Eli is such a gift, such a beautiful blessing, and Vanessa deeply knows this and she celebrates the hope and joy he gives her. As parents, both Vanessa and Boris want their son to feel love in his childhood, to feel accepted for who he is, to be embraced within a caring extended family and community, and be a person with expansive dreams and ideas.
Vanessa could not have echoed more succinctly the gospel according to Dr. Seuss. We need Cat in the Hat and Sam-I-Am figures in our lives – those who challenge us to embrace life, to enjoy it to its fullest, to shed ourselves of guilt, to be open and free in our thinking, to ask questions, to be humble in what we believe, to honor and respect all people, all faiths, all beliefs, all lifestyles ALL the time. An anonymous person once said, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” Indeed, let that be said for me and of you – that we are a flexible people who are constantly stretching beyond ourselves…