Daniel R. Bechtel is professor of religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 11, 1984, p. 359. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The popular Dr. Seuss has published a new book, but one totally inappropriate for children, a book engaged in a primitive form of military escalation, and a story with no resolution.
Ever since our children were young, my wife and I have enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss’s stories. Yearly on Christmas Eve we have read the now-tattered copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and agreed, at least until we opened packages the next day, that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. It is something more. Through hearing this story and seeing the Grinch in our mind’s eyes (because we did not have a television), our hearts, like the Grinch’s, grew a size or two. Now our grandson likes to “read,” and we have discovered again through Horton Hears a Who that “a person’s a person no matter how small.” These are morals to my liking.
When we heard of the recent celebration of Dr. Seuss’s 80th birthday and the concurrent publication of his newest book, The Butter Battle Book, we went to the bookstore and bought a copy to read to our grandson, who is now two and a half, not much older than “Cindy Lou Who.” Lucas, his three-month-old sister, his mother and dad came to visit on a Saturday. After eating fresh-baked whole wheat bread warm from the oven, Grandma announced that we had a new book to read, So we all sat by the wood stove while “Grandmom” read The Butter Battle Book.
I became uneasy when I began to realize that the grandfather in the book was engaged in a primitive form of military escalation. Then Lucas’s parents said, “This doesn’t sound like a children’s book.” When we reached the last page, we found that the story had no resolution. No Grinch carved the “roast beast.” No Horton finally saved the world of the “Whos.” No “Cat in the Hat” put the house in order. We could not tell Lucas that Grandpa decided to get rid of his “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo.” Instead, we faced a blank final page — leaving the Yooks and Zooks face to face, about to destroy each other either by intent or by the tremor of an aging hand.
We were all distressed that we had read such a book to our grandson. And Lucas, not comprehending fully what it meant, but feeling uneasy, wanted to read the book again.
We did not read it again. We found another book on birds so that we could look at pictures and put our world back in order. But my world would not go back into a secure pattern. Recalling my initial outrage at the “Yooks” grandfather standing there, not heeding the plea of his grandson, I wondered how many of those who support mutual assured destruction are grandfathers, or grandmothers or parents. I was also angry at Dr. Seuss, the storyteller, for tricking me into telling Lucas of the “MAD” reality of our arms race. I blamed myself for not checking the story before we read it aloud.
Then I recalled the story of Nathan’s telling a parable to David, the killer of the giant Goliath. David, seeing Bathsheba in her bath, sent for her and made her pregnant. Seeking to hide his act of adultery, he recalled her husband from the battlefront and tried to manipulate him into sleeping with his wife. Loyal to his comrades in the field and loyal to the cleanliness code which protected the “holy” army of God, Uriah refused, even when made drunk on David’s wine. Unable to hide his adulterous act, David added murder to adultery by instructing Joab, the army commander, to place Uriah in the thickest fighting and then to call a retreat. The plan worked, Uriah was killed, and David married Bathsheba.
The prophet Nathan did not rush to David, point his finger and accuse him directly of murder and adultery. Instead he told a story which captured the king’s imagination and evoked his judgment. A rich man with many sheep stole a poor man’s one beloved ewe lamb to serve as the main course of a banquet for a guest. Outraged at such moral callousness, David declared that the rich man deserved to die. When Nathan said, “You are the man.” David realized that he had judged himself.
Other prophets came to my mind: Amos, accusing all the surrounding nations of violating treaties and covenants, then turning the pointing fingers of his Israelite hearers toward themselves; Isaiah, in his song of the vineyard, asking the people of Jerusalem to judge the vineyard of his beloved, then bringing them to the awareness of their own failures as God’s vineyard; Jesus, responding to the question “Who is my neighbor?’’ by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan and asking the question “Who proved to be the neighbor?”
I heard in my inner ear the words of Dr. Seuss to all giant-killers: “You are the one.” I was captured in his parable. In judging his characters, I discovered that I had judged myself. I am the grandfather who through paying taxes and through insufficient opposition to the arms race has not done enough to make a different ending to the parable of The Butter Battle Book.
Repentance is more than sorrow and regret. It is a turning away and a turning toward. My repentance must now include a turn away from inaction born of frustration and toward vigorous and imaginative deeds — to make sure that the last page of the book of life for Lucas, his sister and all the children and grandchildren of this world is neither blank nor filled with destruction.