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Saturday, March 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Religion
Dr. Seuss — theologian?

By Bob Smietana
Religion News Service

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When he was a student at Duke Divinity School, the Rev. James Kemp studied the great theologians of the Christian faith — the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church to which Kemp belongs.

But his favorite theologian was the one he first read at the public library in Lexington, Ky. — Dr. Seuss.

His favorite theological work? "Horton Hatches the Egg."

"It is the first book I remember reading or having read to me," recalls Kemp in his new book, "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss."

Since its release in February, "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss" has sold more than 14,000 copies and has headed into a second printing. It got a boost when Barnes and Noble featured it as part of a national celebration of Dr. Seuss' birthday on March 2.

During his 15 years as a Methodist minister, Kemp often used Dr. Seuss stories as illustrations in his sermons. For example, Horton the elephant, who keeps his promise to sit on a bird's egg till it hatches — despite ridicule from those around him — is a model of faithfulness for Christians, Kemp says.

"In the face of challenges, persecution, and ridicule," he writes, "Horton remains faithful 'one hundred percent.' "

Each chapter focuses on a single Dr. Seuss book and was condensed from Kemp's old sermons. "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back" becomes a story about the "restoring power of Jesus Christ." "Yertle the Turtle," a lesson about greed. "Green Eggs and Ham," a parable about embracing change, and "The Sneetches," one about overcoming discrimination.

Two chapters focus on "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" — one about materialism and another about loving difficult people. Kemp sees a parallel between the Grinch and the biblical story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus treated Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, with respect, says Kemp, and completely changed his life.
 
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"If we are to follow Jesus, we too must learn to recognize and love people who, like the Grinch, are miserable and difficult because they are in so much pain."

In an e-mail interview from his home in Lexington, Kemp said he likes Dr. Seuss as theologian "because Jesus told us to come as a child, and Dr. Seuss makes us look at things through the eyes of a child."

Kemp, 48, suffers from severe multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition that forced him to retire from the ministry in 1996. "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss" is the third book he has written since then.

The first, "Who Says I'm Dead?" deals with his struggles with MS, which has made him a quadriplegic. The title comes from an incident in 2000 when Kemp's bank accounts were frozen after the federal government mistakenly decided he had died. A 2002 book focused on ideas for children's sermons.

For a time, Kemp wrote using a computer with speech-recognition software. But his speech has declined to a point where the computer can no longer recognize him, so he dictates his writing to his mother, who acts as his secretary. His wife, Barbara, interprets for Kemp during interviews.

He says he wrote the book to show that people with great limitations can still be productive, as long as they have the right support system. He says he relies on his faith, family and church friends to help him keep going. Hope is another of the themes Kemp finds in Dr. Seuss. One of his favorite characters is the Cat in the Hat "because through him we see that something good can come out of bad circumstances, we are never hopeless" — that's the overall message of the book, he added.

"There is always hope in the unlimited richness of God. Most of our problems are trivial."

Since the release of "The Gospel according to Peanuts" by Robert L. Short in 1975, similar books have combined spirituality with pop culture. There's been "Gospels According to" the Simpsons, Tony Soprano, J.R.R. Tolkien and Harry Potter, and even "The Gospel Reloaded" that tied into the "Matrix" phenomenon. And then there's the 2003 spoof "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal."

Linda Peavy, associate publisher for Judson Press, Kemp's publisher, said, "This book will appeal to readers because it is easy and enjoyable to read, but also because it contains insights that will change their lives for the better. Hopefully, they will see Dr. Seuss' stories in a whole new light."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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