Advent and Dr Suess

You might regard that title as somewhat incongruous.  But when I heard that our pastor was planning to organise his services for the four Sundays of Advent around the stories of Dr Suess, I was staggered.   Advent: the quasi-penitential season, focused on preparation for celebrating the first coming of Jesus (the Christmas season itself), and on preparing ourselves in consciousness and confidence that Christ is coming back.  And that at the consummation of all things, we will stand before the judgement seat of God.  Traditionally, Advent was a season for the contemplation of the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

In less liturgical churches, much of that sort of emphasis (if it ever existed) has long since been lost.  Perhaps it is even  more so in the southern hemisphere, where December is absorbed not just in preparing to celebrate Christmas, but in end-of-year celebrations and events, perhaps especially for schools.  Christmas trees appear in church early, Christmas carols appear at odd times (for some reason we sang “O little town of Bethlehem” last Sunday), and suddenly the focus has shifted to the celebration, and off our own unworthiness; in the twee phrase, the reason for the season.  Sin –  our sin – is the harsh reality that religion seeks to deal with: that God, in Christ, came for.  Our hope, and prospect for rejoicing, is that at the Second Coming of Christ, sin will be no more.  Our world will no longer be scarred by sin; our own lives, sometimes despite our best endeavours, no longer marred by the taint of our own wrongdoing –  acts, thoughts, and of commission or omission.

But sure enough, we arrived at church last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, to find the church decked out as a scene from The Lorax.  Despite the heavy-handed environmental focus of the story, cheap plastic poles, decked with cheap plastic toppings were apparently supposed to resemble the truffula trees in the story –  abundant until the evil capitalists began milling them, and then kept going until there were no more.  The pastor had to point out –  I’d missed out –  that only one half of the church had the “trees” and the other was bare.

As part of the service, we listened to British actor Ric Mayall read the entire story.    Were we six I wondered?    By the end of the service, I finally understood the (tenuous) connection to Advent.  Hope was the theme of the service, and at the end of The Lorax, the last seed for a truffula plant is given to the small child listening to the story, raising the possibility that if planted and suitably tended in time the forest might one day return.  This, we were told, was “hope”.

But hope –  in the Bible –  isn’t desperate wishful thinking, some million to one longshot that just might happen.  It is about a confident expectation in the God who made heaven and earth, and who (in Christ) visits and redeems his people.  It is God, all powerful and all wise, who acts, and whose promise to act is the thing on which we stake our faith.

In truth, using The Lorax seemed as much about the pastor’s own Green politics and predilections, in a suburb with a substantial Green Party vote, as about the gospel. It seems a drift that is all too typical.   There was a time when the Church of England was caricatured as the “Tory party at prayer”.  These days the drift, even in hitherto evangelical churches, is towards something that risks being caricatured as the “Labour or Green parties at prayer”.

For all the cutesy rhymes –  of which, no doubt, Dr Suess was a master –  The Lorax was conceived in anger, and in its execution simply reveals a degree of ignorance of how markets and firms work and resources are managed.  Of the anger

The Lorax,” he once explained, “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”[2]

And of the ignorance, in The Lorax, there seem to be no property rights, and thus no incentives to manage and sustainably harvest the resource.  And there are no prices either –  so no incentives for anyone to change behaviour, and switch to alternative products.  Can pillage of the sort Suess describes in his story happen?  Sure, when there are no property rights established.  Thus, the cod fisheries off the east coast of North America was fished almost to exhaustion.   When everyone is free to use an asset, no one has an interest in sustainably managing the resource –  everyone’s incentive is to get in before the other person does.

But with private property rights (formal or informal), and mechanisms for allocating harvesting rights of things like fisheries, there are strong incentives to sustainably manage the resource.  Thus, commercial fishermen in New Zealand operate within a system of transferable quotas, governing how much they can each take, within an overall assessment of the sustainability of the resource.  In the United States, there is more land in forests (natural and tended) than was the case 100 years ago.  Advanced economies are not polluted wastelands –  although there will always be aspects that could be improved –  but some of the most pleasant and liveable places mankind has ever known, for hundreds of millions of people.  Are there outstanding issues? No doubt.  To the extent that climate change is a concern, the need to find sustainable mechanisms to allocate the available resource –  capacity to pollute –  remains real.

But to turn the first Sunday of Advent into something focused on something so wrongheaded as The Lorax is to trivialise the season. Perhaps worse, it is to suggest that the big issues –  those from which “salvation” might be needed-  are the actions of other people.  Here in suburbia we don’t pillage forests –  in this particular suburb we are surrounded by (lots of) regenerating native bush, far more of it than was around 100 years ago.  But we do all sin, we do all fall short of the glory of God. We –  and our world –  still need a Saviour and Redeemer, who broke into the world that first Christmas, and who will return and put an end to suffering, sickness, disease and death – all the concomitants of sin.

The Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for the 1st Sunday of Advent, while perhaps little known in non-liturgical churches, remains as vivid, and humbling, as ever.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

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