Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dr. Seuss and Revelation

Last week, I taught a short seminar at HIM (which is Hawaii's biggest Christian conference) on how to read Revelation. To explain the nature of symbolism in Revelation, I used a few political cartoons (an idea that I got from David Scholer, one of my doctoral advisors at Fuller). And in honor of Dr. Seuss' birthday a few weeks ago, I used some of Seuss' political cartoons from the 30s and 40s. What is interesting, and what makes this relevant to the study of Revelation, is that Dr. Seuss' cartoons were immediately obvious to readers at the time, but are difficult to understand today unless we study history. If you are my age or older, you can immediately recognize the hammer and sickle in the chef's hands as a symbol of Communism or of the USSR - but if you are the age of many of my college students, you might not recognize the symbol. Most people today recognize the swastika on the pig's hat, but people from another time might not. You have to know something about history to recognize that the cartoon represents Stalinist Russia's defeat of Hitler's Germany. There's a few things I don't know - was this cartoon in response to a particular battle that Russia won? or in hopes of a victory? And what does the wreath on Joe's left arm symbolize?
Here's another one that made immediate sense to the original listeners. "Coughlin-ites" refers to followers of Charles Coughlin. Although he is obscure to us, Coughlin was the most popular radio speaker in the US during the 30s and early 40s (more than 40 million listeners, according to the infallible Wikipedia entry). Saying "Coughlin-ites" was something like saying "Ditto-heads" or "Limbaugh-ites" today. But Coughlin was sadly an anti-semitic Nazi sympathizer who blamed the escalating European conflict on England rather than Germany.

In this cartoon, labels help identify the topic. Pearl Harbor and Manila on a couple of bricks show that Dr. Seuss is talking about the Japanese attacks that brought the US into WWII. Dr. Seuss, like others from his time, clearly felt that Japan's unannounced and unprovoked attacks broke the rules of warfare - and now it was time to take up some of the same dirty tricks? There are only a few symbols here: the top hat as a symbol for the US and a swastika for Hitler. Is the main figure an eagle, America's symbol? or is it a chicken, symbolizing fear? Note another culturally-bound image: Hirohito is portrayed in a manner many would now regard as racist. But is Seuss racist? Reading his other cartoons makes me think not - he was in favor of civil rights for African Americans long before it was popular.

You can see the relevance for studying Revelation: we cannot understand the meaning of symbols, such as the beast, 666, Babylon, the two witnesses, or any others, unless we know how people perceived those symbols in the ancient world. We also could easily misread the impact of certain images. Just as we might (mis)read Seuss as racist, rather than opposed to the aggression of Japan, some scholars (mis)read Revelation as anti-semitic, rather than responding to first-century Jewish-Christian tension.


  1. I'm a pastor of student family discipleship from a smaller church in NW Iowa. I subscribe to and have often enjoyed your posts on this blog. I am curious. What resources would you recommend for proper interpretation, cultural/historical understanding, and biblical exegesis for the book of Revelation? Thanks!

  2. Hi Tyler. Glad you read the blog! Yes, it's pretty important to find some good resources on Revelation, or we end up just guessing about the symbolism. Some of the symbolism is based on the OT, but not all. I like using Craig Keener's commentary on Revelation in the NIV Application Commentary series. Although Keener is an expert, his commentary is quite readable for those who don't know Greek. You can get it on Amazon or in Logos format relatively cheaply. For something more technical, I like Greg Beale's commentary in the New International Greek Testament Commentary.