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Finding God in Whoville

Pastor's book ranks Dr. Seuss with the likes of theologians St. Augustine, Martin Luther

Sat, Apr. 24, 2004
Bob Smietana
Charlotte Observer

Finding God in Whoville Pastor's book ranks Dr. Seuss with the likes of theologians

St. Augustine, Martin Luther In "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss," each chapter focuses on a single Dr. Seuss book based on James Kemp's old sermons. Can you relate the story to the lesson?

When he was a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, 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" (Judson Press, $10 paperback) has sold more than 14,000 copies, and has headed into a second printing. It got a boost in early March, when Barnes & Noble featured it as part of a national celebration of Dr. Seuss' 100th birthday on March 2.

Dr. Seuss -- born Theodor Seuss Geisel -- died in 1991.

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 until it hatches -- despite ridicule from those around him -- is a model of faithfulness, 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 changed his life.

"If we are to follow Jesus," Kemp writes, "we, too, must learn to recognize and love people, who, like the Grinch, are miserable and difficult because they are in so much pain."

The eyes of a child

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, a condition that forced him to retire from the ministry in 1996. "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss" is the third book he's 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, in which 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. His speech has declined so that 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, despite his circumstances.

Hope is another of the themes Kemp finds in Dr. Seuss.

One of his favorite characters is the Cat in the Hat, he says, "because through him we see that something good can come out of bad circumstances; we are never hopeless."

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

Spirituality and pop culture

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

Linda Peavy of Judson Press, Kemp's publisher, says the book connects with readers because so many grew up reading Dr. Seuss.

"This book will appeal to readers because it is easy and enjoyable to read," Peavy says, "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."

Kemp says he enjoys the attention the book's success has brought him -- and the fact that it allows him to continue his ministry. He's even done a few book signings, with his wife stamping his signature.

During a signing at a Cokesbury bookstore in Lexington, the store sold 75 copies in 15 minutes and had to order 100 more. But the signings will be limited, Barbara Kemp says. The physical toll is just too much for Kemp.

Still, he hasn't given up on being a famous author. "One of my lifetime goals was to be on the best-sellers list," he said, "and I hope I can do that."

A Dr. Seuss Quiz

In "The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss," each chapter focuses on a single Dr. Seuss book based on James Kemp's old sermons. Can you relate the story to the lesson?


a. A parable about embracing change
b. A lesson about overcoming discrimination
c. A lesson about the "restoring power of Jesus"
d. A lesson about greed
e. A model of faithfulness

Copyright © 2004, Charlotte Observer