Saturday 31 May 2008

Two small books: Dr Barth and Dr Seuss

Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss (WJKP, 2008), 95 pp.; Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (WJKP, 2008), 63 pp. (review copies courtesy of WJKP)

Here’s a couple of nice little books (Thing One and Thing Two), both just released from WJKP. In our first book, Robert Short offers an entertaining reading of Dr Seuss’s stories as Christian “parables.” I adore Dr Seuss – I’m always begging my kids to let me read more Dr Seuss, instead of those bland and banal Disney books that clutter their shelves. So I enjoyed this book’s playful engagement with Dr Seuss’s stories.

Admittedly, Robert Short’s analysis is not a very nuanced one; and it’s a shame he neglects both Dr Seuss’s sharp political edge and his extraordinary aesthetics (first and foremost, these books are great because they’re works of true poetry).

Ultimately, Dr Seuss’s writing can’t be turned into neat theological “parables” (although many of them are certainly political parables). So I can’t help cringing a little when Short tells me that Christ = the Cat, or that Christ’s body and blood = green eggs and ham, or indeed that Sam-I-am represents the name of God! (I’ll let you in on a secret: he’s called “Sam-I-am” because it rhymes with “eggs-and-ham”…) But all this can be taken in good fun, and Short is clearly enjoying himself with bucketloads of playful exaggeration.

In any case, there are some nice insights along the way – for example, in the chapter on I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, Short remarks: “The difference is that Christian faith has an infinitely greater appreciation of trouble than the world does” (p. 51). An excellent point!

And Short is right to observe that Dr Seuss’s stories possess a “profundity-in-simplicity” which allows them to make a real impact. These stories, he remarks, are deceptive in their simplicity. “Charming, childlike little tales suddenly become meaningful…. They sneak up on us. They become Trojan horses or sugar-coated medicine. They are the wise Cat in the otherwise empty hat” (p. 66).

On a somewhat more serious note, our second book brings together fifty of Karl Barth’s prayers, written for before and after his sermons. In the foreword (these prayers were originally published in German in 1962), Barth explains his growing discomfort with the traditional liturgical prayers, since they remained too disconnected from the language and content of his sermons. “For a while,” he says, “I sought help by replacing the petitions of the order of liturgy not with extemporaneous prayers (I have never dared to risk such a thing), but with freely bringing together biblical passages from the Psalms.” Only in his later years did he begin to write his own prayers as part of his sermon preparation. The resulting prayers are stirring, colloquial, often profound, and always blissfully concise – as Barth remarks in the foreword, “the spice for all parts of all spiritual and theological sayings should consist in brevity!”

Barth decided to publish these prayers in the hope that they would be used both in assembled worship and privately. The book thus arranges the fifty prayers according to the liturgical year, with some additional thematic sections (e.g. prayers for funerals). The prayers will certainly be of interest to researchers and students of Barth – but if we are to use the book as it was intended, our proper response should be to pray these prayers, to call upon God in weakness and humility and gratitude and joy. Here are a few short excerpts:

“Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of convictions and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers. You know where we come from…. But now we all stand before you…” (p. 1).

“Lord our God, you wanted to live not only in heaven, but also with us, here on earth; not only to be high and great, but also to be small and lowly, as we are; not only to rule, but also to serve us; not only to be God in eternity, but also be born as a person, to live, and to die” (p. 11).

“None of us is a great Christian; rather, we are all very small Christians. But your grace is sufficient for us. Awaken us to the small joy and thankfulness that we are capable of, the timid faith that we bring, the incomplete obedience that we cannot refuse – to the hope in the greatness, wholeness, and completeness that you have prepared for us in the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that you have promised us in his resurrection from the dead” (pp. 29-30).

GIVEAWAY: Anyway, I’ve got a copy of The Parables of Dr Seuss to give away. So if you’d like a copy, just name one thing that Barth and Dr Seuss have in common. The most interesting or imaginative comment wins the book.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben -- Here's a commonality (banal but true): neither Barth nor 'Seuss' were doctors in the sense of having an 'earned doctorate'..

Phil, Aberdeen

Anonymous said...

Both Barth and Seuss were inseparable from their pipes.

Anonymous said...

Scandalous relationships. Barth with his secretary, and 'Seuss' with the wife of his best friend (thus, after the death of his own wife, 'Seuss' penned the following words: "My best friend is being divorced and I'm going to Reno to comfort his wife.").

Michael F. Bird said...

Seuss and Barth were both "crazy cats"! Also, I'm reading Barth's prayers at the moments and loving it. I'll blog on it in the future.

Anonymous said...


Both Dr. Seuss and Barth draw a distinction between the 'shadow side' and nothingness: The 'pale green pants' are really quite human after all!

Christopher Green

Anonymous said...

Yeah - Barth never had a doctorate... Not suprising really... He'd never have finished it...

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Robert Short who wrote "The Gospel according to Peanuts" and "The Parables of Peanuts" many years ago (in which he explored the theology behind the cartoon strip, saying that Snoopy represented Jesus, etc.)?

If so, I seem to remember that his "Parables" book was quite perceptive, but his "Gospel" book was horrendously universalistic? (Mind you, I was only a young Christian at the time ... I'd probably think it was worse now!)

Or am I completely barking?

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

Holy Wit.

Ben Myers said...

Hi John: yes, it's the shame author, although I haven't read his Peanuts books.

Anonymous said...

Short also wrote The Gospel from Outer Space (1983), which looks at sci-fi films. For Short, 2001 is a celluloid example of atheist humanism, and he is quite critical of Superman - a theologia gloriae (though he doesn't use those words) - but he's wild about E.T. - "closer to Christ than the churches are." I find Short's universalism quite charming (though he lacks a robust doctrine of the atonement to back it up).

Anonymous said...

Karl Barth was Swiss and Theodor was also Seuss so they have three esses in common.

Please Ben ... I'll take your whole family to the best fresh bean house in town if your pass this way.

Anonymous said...

Green Eggs and Ham one of my favourite books.

Francesca (Aberdeen)

Ben Myers said...

Okay, it's a tough contest: these are all nice points (and Christopher, I love your comment about the pale green pants!).

But the prize has to go to Steph, since (a) she offered me a bribe, and (b) her point about the "three esses" is humorous in a distinctively Seussian way. So congrats to Steph! (Please send me an email with your postal address.)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Steph!

I've blogged my thoughts on common ground between the two 'doctors' - here's just a taster:

True, my friend? You ask what’s true?
True is what’s revealed to you.
Logic is not here or there.
Logic won’t go anywhere.
Sometimes what you read won’t fit.
Sometimes that’s the point of it.

Anonymous said...

thank you thank you thank you Ben
from me and my cat
we'll both hold true then
to the coffees on tap
(espressos that is)

Ben Myers said...

Steph: no problem! Hope your cat enjoys the book.

Tortoise, I've just been over to read your poem. That is fantastic work — it's so damn good, I've asked the publishers if they'll provide another giveaway copy just for you. (If they say no, then I'll buy you one myself...) Anyway, thanks for making my day!

Anonymous said...

Both were carbon-based life-forms!

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