Paralyzed Lexington minister enjoys success of quirky religious book
That’s the premise behind The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, a brisk-selling book by the Rev. James W. Kemp of Lexington.
Released in January, Kemp’s treatise has already sold nearly 15,000 copies and is headed for a second printing. This week, the 100th anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birth, Barnes & Noble is prominently displaying the book in stores across the country.
Kemp, a United Methodist minister with multiple sclerosis, is savoring his literary success: positive book reviews, media interviews and book signings.
“It feels great. I love publicity,” he said yesterday. “One of my lifetime goals was to be on the best-sellers list, and I hope I can do that.”
Kemp, a graduate of the University of Kentucky and Duke Divinity School, preached in Lexington, Winchester and Russell while battling MS. He retired in 1996 after 15 years in the ministry.
Despite being almost entirely paralyzed, Kemp has written three books on spirituality with the help of his mother.
Helen W. Kemp writes down her son’s words, transcribes his old sermons and mails his book proposals to publishing houses. She says she enjoys the collaboration. She’ll help at book signings, too, stamping her son’s signature on each copy.
“Anything to help him enjoy the day is what I want to do,” she said. “This has really brightened his days.”
As a pastor, Kemp frequently quoted Dr. Seuss, using examples from The Cat in the Hat and other classics to illustrate his sermons.
Horton the Elephant taught Kemp’s congregations about faithfulness. Yertle the Turtle illustrated the dangers of selfishness. The North-going and South-going Zax were textbook examples of pride and stubbornness.
Now those messages are being heard across the country.
Sam I Am — the star of Green Eggs and Ham — is compared to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who Kemp said “had an unappetizing, unpopular message for the people of Israel.”
“God’s power and love can make green eggs and ham taste like milk and honey,” Kemp writes.
In another chapter, the Grinch is compared to Zacchaeus, an unpopular, short, rich tax collector who was viewed as a villain by his neighbors in ancient Israel. Both eventually find forgiveness and friendship.
Two or three publishers rejected The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss before Judson Press picked it up in September. The American Baptist publisher secured permission from Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s estate and from Geisel’s publisher, Random House. Judson got permission to use excerpts from Dr. Seuss’s books but wasn’t allowed to reproduce any of his drawings.
The book was rushed into circulation in January, not long after the debut of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat in movie theaters.
Linda Peavy, Judson’s associate publisher, said the book is a big hit and a great read. “It’s absolutely wonderful. We’re very proud to have released it,” she said.
The marriage of pop culture and Scripture is nothing new. Others have written books on “The Gospel According to” — Peanuts, Harry Potter, The Simpsons and J.R.R. Tolkien. But Kemp, 48, calls Geisel his favorite theologian.
Kemp discovered Dr. Seuss at the Lexington Public Library more than four decades ago, when he checked out Horton Hatches the Egg.
Later, he discovered Fox in Sox, Sneetches, the Lorax and all the Whos Down in Whoville.
At home, Kemp has devoted almost an entire bookshelf to the children’s author. Copies of Horton Hears a Who and Bartholomew and the Oobleck vie for space with traditional theological texts.
The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss was culled from 15 years’ worth of homilies.
“It’s a way of continuing my ministry,” Kemp said. ” … I’m doing it for the glory of God.”
Kemp wants the book to touch people, not just entertain them. “I hope it will bring people a new awareness of faith.”