One by one, parishioners shook my hand following Sunday service. One by one, the usual pleasantries were exchanged. And then, in an instant, the repetitious handshaking was shattered. Her “punched-in-the-gut” expression indicated that something was amiss. I inquired, and she spewed out the words: “Dr. Seuss! They read Dr. Seuss instead of Scripture!”
I soon discovered the backstory to this parishioner’s great displeasure. She had attended a Christian wedding over the weekend in which a Dr. Seuss reading had usurped the traditional Scripture reading. I shared in her displeasure upon hearing of a congregation that was so quick to jettison such longstanding tradition; however, my displeasure was tempered by my curiosity.
It turns out that Seuss use is more rampant in the church than I had ever imagined. Seuss-inspired liturgies have been posted on YouTube and are anxiously awaiting viral status. One congregation has apparently pioneered a Seuss-inspired celebration of the Eucharist called a Suesscharist. A Google search reveals dozens of pastors who have turned to Seuss sermons in order to preach more relevant homilies. One pastor has even published a book on the supposed parables of Dr. Seuss. It is possible that some people prefer worship to be done in trochaic tetrameter. Others, like my queasy parishioner, are less enthused about having America’s laureate of silliness join them at Sunday service.
Nevertheless, nauseous recipients of a Seussified Gospel can take heart. This modern-day Seuss dilemma is not the first instance in which the church has disagreed about what texts ought to be used during worship. And it is not the first time that someone has explored what qualifies a text to be read in Christian worship. At the end of the second century, a bishop in Asia Minor had to lead one of his congregations through a similar text-worship dilemma.
The bishop was Serapion of Antioch and the text was the Gospel of Peter. The many similarities between modern Christians’ Seuss use and this ancient non-canonical gospel are rather peculiar.
When Serapion was first placed in his bishopric around 190 ad, he discovered that one of his congregations routinely read the Gospel of Peter in worship. Having never read the text for himself, Serapion had to simply trust the orthodoxy of his parishioners. He decided to take a pastoral approach saying, “If this is the only thing which threatens to produce ill-feeling among you, let it be read.”
Then Serapion finally got around to reading the so-called gospel. He found that the Gospel of Peter was abounding in Seuss-like absurdity. Instead of a talking elephant named Horton, the gospel contained a talking cross that floated around while making a post-resurrection appearance at Jesus’ tomb. Rather than the pint-sized inhabitants of Whoville, the Gospel of Peter includes freakishly tall angels with heads that “reached unto the heavens.”
Adding to Serapion’s suspicions was the author—or lack thereof—behind the Gospel of Peter. Despite the gospel’s name, Peter did not write the text. Rather, someone claiming to be Peter wrote it. Academia recognizes the Gospel of Peter as one of many pseudepigraphical texts born during the time of the early church. Scads of manuscripts falsely bearing the apostles’ names were circulating. Serapion recognized this text as one such and warned his congregation that it was “falsely inscribed with his [Peter’s] name.”
Dr. Seuss, of course, is but a penname for Theodor Seuss Geisel, the author behind the beloved works of Dr. Seuss. The title of “Doctor” was a flippant reference to the doctorate that Geisel failed to complete at Oxford University, while “Seuss” was his mother’s maiden name and also Theodor’s middle name. Seuss’s work is not pseudoepigraphical per se, since at least we know who wrote it, but there is ample insulation between the Dr. Seuss texts and their creator Theodor Geisel.
In the end, it wasn’t the absurdly tall angels or the falsely ascribed authorship that Serapion cited when he rejected the use of the Gospel of Peter in worship. Serapion rejected the text’s use in worship for a far more elemental reason: the text had not been handed down for that purpose. Serapion stated it this way: “we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us.”
For Serapion, the argument ended then and there; not one of his predecessors had acknowledged the Gospel of Peter as fit for use in worship and, as such, Serapion was not going to authorize the text’s use. It was not the text’s subtle Docetism; it was not the talking cross. Rather, the text was not fit for use in worship because Christendom had never used it that way.
Similarly, the problem with reading Dr. Seuss in a Christian worship is not necessarily a matter of content. Seuss’s work should not be excluded from Christian work because of its lackadaisical spirituality or because of its sheer silliness. The strongest argument for modern Christians to bar Seuss’ work from worship is the fact that his texts have not been handed down for that purpose.
Christian worship is comprised of both essentials and accidentals; that is to say, worship contains necessary and non-necessary elements. The accidental properties of worship are too numerous to count: candles, organ music, bulletins, and rambling announcements about potlucks. These worship accidentals can and probably should change with the times. The essential properties of worship form a far shorter list. In its most essential form, worship contains the proclamation of the Word and the delivery of God’s grace through the sacraments. To lose one of these is to lose worship.
To replace the reading of Scripture with a reading of Seuss is to surrender an essential aspect of worship. Scripture, not Seuss, is the “cradle of Christ” delivering Christ to His people. God’s truth is contained in the Word whereas God’s truth might only make an appearance in the writings of Dr. Suess.
Zealous Seuss disciples may attempt to argue that Dr. Seuss readings fit into the realm of worship accidentals, that a Seuss reading might accompany a reading from scripture, if not replace it. Yet, even viewed as an expendable part of Christian worship Seuss readings pose an unexpected danger. Worship is a furtive educational experience, teaching people even if they are unaware that they are being taught. There are no neutral worship practices; rather, every action is a thick formative practice that teaches. Substituting Seuss for Scripture teaches people that the two are interchangeable. By intermingling Seuss and Scripture, one indicates that the messages of both texts are the same. This cannot be further from the truth. The writings of Dr. Seuss are a playful plea for basic human decency through themes like ecological awareness, disarmament, and self-improvement. The message of Scripture is God’s steadfast love for His creation.
To be certain, my aversion to Seussified worship does not extend to other areas of Seuss’s influence. I am eternally thankful that I was able to cut my literary teeth on Seuss rather than the “Dick and Jane” readers of preceding generations. And, like Geisel, I fully believe that nonsense wakes up the brain cells.
In fact, a tattered copy of Horton Hears a Who! has been passed down to me. For years, my grandfather would read the book to my father. My father then read the book to me. And, without a doubt, I will read it to my children. This book, with its gnarled corners and yellowing pages, has been authoritatively handed down to me from my ancestors with specific instructions: use at bedtime to subdue a bad case of the wiggles. With those instructions I received the text, and with those instructions I am going to pass it on.
A. Trevor Sutton is a student at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri.