When "Horton Hears a Who," is there a sermon to be heard?
What about "The Cat in the Hat" and "The Lorax"? Are those characters metaphors for Christ? And "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" if you'll only follow the Great Commission.
No one has ever doubted the layers of meaning in the stories of Dr. Seuss. "The Lorax" has obvious lessons about the environment. "The Butter Battle Book" took direct aim at the Cold War arms race. "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!" was one way to demand the resignation of President Nixon.
So when Horton's world of Who-ville was "saved by the Smallest of All," Robert Short saw the savior of the Whos as a symbol for the Savior of all people. From "Green Eggs and Ham" to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Short has reinterpreted many of Theodor Seuss Geisel's stories as subtle messages of Christian doctrine in the new book, "The Parables of Dr. Seuss."
Questions remain, however, about whether the original author intended such an interpretation or Short, a retired Presbyterian minister, is just seeing the stories through the lens of his own life.
"I was amazed at what I found when I started looking at it all this Christian imagery was very carefully factored into his stories," Short said in an interview from his home in Little Rock, Ark.
"And that's what this book intends to do, is show how he has done this in a very carefully crafted way. It's there, and you could make an argument for it being intentionally there, because it's done with such great care."
Short has spent four decades drawing spiritual lessons from popular culture, starting with the 1965 best seller, "The Gospel According to Peanuts," the first of his eight books. The 75-year-old minister also does presentations that explore religious meanings in the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and even in the last episode of the television comedy "Cheers," set in a Boston bar. Short has the congregation sing the "Cheers" theme song before beginning his talk.
"'Cheers' is very much like the church should be, in that friendship thrives in that kind of atmosphere," Short said. "It's a model for what the church ought to look like, with vast friendships and so on."
While it's safe to say that the creators of "Cheers" didn't intend for the show to become sermon or Sunday school material, Short feels differently about the Dr. Seuss stories. Although he confesses to knowing little about Geisel's spirituality, Short is convinced that the children's
author was tucking hidden religious messages into places like Solla Sollew.
"He never did say, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to incorporate my Christian faith into my stories,"' Short said. "And I think it's fine that he didn't do that, because it's up to us to draw the conclusion whether it's actually there or not."
Short cites Geisel's early life the son of Christian parents, mandatory chapel services at Oxford and Dartmouth to demonstrate Geisel's "strong religious background." Short and Geisel met once in 1978 and, after Short sent Geisel a copy of two of Short's "Peanuts" books, Geisel wrote Short to say that he enjoyed the way Short "handled the material."
When Short wrote the "Peanuts" books, he had the full blessing of Charlie Brown creator Charles Schultz, who sometimes quoted Scripture in the comic strip. Short has tried in vain to contact reclusive Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, if only to discover Watterson's intent in some of the boy-and-tiger adventures that seem to have a spiritual tint. (Watterson, in a rare question-and-answer session with online fans a few years ago, would say only: "I've never attended any church.")
For "The Parables of Dr. Seuss," Short was again left to interpret on his own. He wasn't given permission to use any of the Seuss artwork and could only quote short passages from the stories. Geisel died in 1991, but his widow, Audrey Geisel, has continued to promote her husband's work and is listed as an executive producer for the recent movie version of "Horton Hears a Who."
Short said he wrote Audrey Geisel a letter about his book but has not heard from her. Several attempts by The Associated Press to reach Audrey Geisel through Dr. Seuss Enterprises were unsuccessful, and a representative there said no one would comment on Short's book.
However, a biography on the Dr. Seuss Enterprises official Web site notes the following: "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. For the most part, Ted enjoyed writing entertaining books that encouraged children to read."
The biography cites "The Lorax" and "The Butter Battle Book" as exceptions. It also says that Theodor Geisel worked to keep the 1966 animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" from having an ending that was "trite or overly religious."
So is "The Cat in the Hat" really the Christ who arrives with a "BUMP" and turns the world upside down for God's children? Is the mother in the story a symbol of the old religious law? Are the fish in the bowl representative of churches that adhere to a restricting version of the gospel? Did Dr. Seuss really intend for his stories to be interpreted this way?
It's a quandary that, for some, would puzzle even the Grinch's puzzler."There's so much of it," Short said. "And it fits so neatly into the configuration of the Christian message that I'm convinced that he knew what he was doing."
On the Net: Dr. Seuss Enterprises: www.seussville.com