I know… I know. It’s no secret that I am a huge Dr. Seuss fan. I have a Cat-in-the-Hat tattoo. I own every book Dr. Seuss ever wrote. And somewhere, buried in a box labeled “College Papers” are about a half dozen theses on the underlying meaning and philosophy of Dr. Seuss’ writings. So it’s no wonder that I am about to wax theological about the latest movie interpretation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. There are, of course, the obvious moral lessons offered in the book and the film: the dramatic environmental impact of our lifestyle, the risks and dangers of unfettered consumerism, and our personal responsibility in the preservation of the natural world. But, I am going to focus on some of the less obvious points made in the telling of this favorite old story.
An Undramatic Entrance
This is the stage that is set in the movie: The Once-ler enters a pristine and beautiful paradise, untouched by human hands and immediately wreaks havoc on his surroundings. We know something dramatic is about to occur when the Once-ler hefts his ax and begins chopping away at one of the Truffula trees. The animals react in horror, and the Once-ler seems oblivious to what is happening. Suddenly, dark storm clouds begin to swirl, lightning strikes and the whole earth stands in breathless anticipation, waiting for the Lorax to descend from the sky in a furious rage and to wield his righteous anger and carry out justice. And, just when we can’t take it anymore… the Lorax UNdramatically and UNceremoniously pops out of the stump. And the Once-ler didn’t see any of it.
This is what I saw: A people, tired and weary are begging for justice, but don’t even stop to take notice of their own complicity in the evils they are bemoaning. A bright star lights up the night sky and garners the attention of watchers from far away, but the people standing right below it do not even notice the light shining down on the them. While they are looking into the distance, waiting for a grande and powerful king with a mighty army to explode on the horizon in a blaze of glory, a child undramatically and unceremoniously is born in a barn among beasts of burden and laid to sleep in a manger. And the people do not even see it.
What it means to us now: The Lorax came to the Once-ler when the Once-ler most needed him. Of course, the Once-ler had no clue that he needed any intervention at all. Jesus entered into our lives when we most needed him…. even if we didn’t realize our need for him. I’m a good Methodist, so I see this as the prevenient grace that comes to us before we even realize our need for it. Imagine how much happier the Once-ler would have been had he taken the time to listen to the Lorax in that first meeting rather than so quickly dismissing him. Imagine how much misery we could save ourselves if we could just learn to recognize those ways that God is intervening in our day-by-day lives!
It Doesn’t Work That Way
The Lorax is astonished that the Once-ler had somehow managed to miss all the lightning and thunder and gathering clouds–and then reveals a mysterious truth: When the Once-ler demands he do it all over again, the Lorax admits that he could, but it “doesn’t work that way.” Why not? If the Lorax was willing to summon all the forces of nature once, why not do it again. Imagine how much clearer it would have made his message? The Once-ler would have found it a lot harder to ignore the one who “speaks for the trees”.
We often demand the same thing of God. When we are looking the other way and do not see the amazing things God is doing in this world, we find ourselves suddenly demanding God do them again… on our terms. We want to go our own way and our own thing, without a second thought about the consequences of our actions. And if we are going to change our ways, then by golly, God should just make it impossible for us to choose anything else! Of course, God doesn’t do things that way. We have been given the power of reason. God created a phenomenal thing when God formed our brains. We were created in the image of God. God breathed God’s own spirit into us to give us life. We were not created to blindly follow like programmed machinery. We were given a will and we have been given the greatest gift I can imagine: the ability to choose. Granted, God could make it impossible for us to choose anything else, but God doesn’t do that. So, when we start playing our games of manipulation, God doesn’t play along. The gift of free will is never taken back. For the Once-ler, this was his undoing… and all too often, it is our undoing as well.
The Nature of Sin
The Lorax, in a menacing voice foreshadowing impending doom, warns the Once-ler what he will face if he doesn’t turn away from the path of destruction he is travelling. It turns out, that the worst that can be done to the Once-ler is not brought about by the Lorax’ hand, but by the Once-ler’s own actions. Sin has a way of being like that. When we refuse to follow the will of God and do things our own way, the worst that can happen is what we have done to ourselves. For Adam and Eve this meant they would have to struggle and toil and suffer pain. For us, it means our waters are polluted, our diverse ecosystem begins to dwindle, fresh air becomes a faded memory, and we must live in a world destroyed by our own actions. God gave us the gift of free will, but when we refuse to listen to God, the consequences of our free will become our greatest punishment. The worst that can happen we have done to ourselves.
A Remnant Called “Unless”
In the Bible, God always leaves a remnant behind–a small group of the faithful who will be able to carry on God’s covenant. They are the last hope of humanity. When the Lorax left the destroyed place that had once been paradise he didn’t take all hope with him. He left a small circle of stones and a once cryptic word: “Unless”. The Once-ler, left wallowing in the ashes of his sin and despair, spends years and years trying to decode the mysterious meaning of that one word. When a young, hopeful boy shows up at his door, asking questions about the past and seeking a better way for the future, the Once-ler finally figures it out and one of Dr. Seuss’ most inspiring verses is uttered: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better… It’s not!”
Isn’t that what Jesus has been asking of us all along? From the moment he began preaching the good news in his public ministry to the last words he speaks to his disciples before he ascends to heaven, Jesus is telling we have to “care a whole awful lot.” Care about the poor, the widow, the orphan. Care about the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned. Care about God and about God’s creation. Care about each other. Care about strangers. Care about enemies. Care. That is the final hope of humanity.
The Second Coming
In Dr. Seuss’ book, we are left (much the same way the Bible leaves us) with hope hanging out there. It’s a like a carrot dangling before us. Just as Dr. Seuss leaves us looking for the return of the Lorax, Scripture leaves us looking for the return of Jesus. The movie gives us a little glimpse of what that looks like: The old reclusive Once-ler who had for years locked himself away as a self-imposed punishment is seen in the light of day. The sky is blue. Tiny, fragile little Truffula trees have begun to sprout everywhere. And with a love and compassion that is the exact opposite of his earlier greedy ways, the Once-ler is watering the delicate plants. A swammee-swan suddenly swoops across the sky like a beacon of hope… and this time, the Once-ler doesn’t miss it: The Lorax descends from the sky with a message of hope and life for the old Once-ler who has a new lease on life.
Read Revelation, and you will find that this is not a new story. After the worst happens–war and devastation and destruction–A new heaven and a new earth descend from the heavens.
I think we miss that, sometimes. We know Jesus will come back to judge–and we, who have locked ourselves up in a prison of our own shame and misery, assume the worse. But just as the Lorax came back to pass his judgement on a redeemed Once-ler, the Lord is looking to do the same. Didn’t Jesus tell us, just before he was lifted away, to make disciples of all the earth? If we do that… if we fulfill our mission… wouldn’t that mean the Lord is coming back to judge a redeemed world?
No matter how you tell the story–it always ends with hope.