I love the Berenstain Bears. I do not say loved, though I have not picked up and leafed through a book in a decade (or two), because love - as physicists say about energy - never really dies, it just transforms. Not all transformations are beautiful, but the Bears, their simple tree house and almost silly moralisms have stuck with me. The news of co-creator Jan Berenstain’s passing has only reminded me that I love them still.
I learned things from the Berenstain Bears I’m not sure the Bible ever quite made clear. The Bible was full of stories, my Sunday school teachers told me, but not particularly good ones, if I was to be honest. There were a few in Joshua, with horns and fighting and some devilish scheming. And, obviously, there was the book of Revelation, which saw me through many, many sermons with its dragons and beasties and general apocalypse. Jimmy, my best friend, was good enough to note that Ezekiel also had some especially exciting bits.
But by and large it was not the exhortations of Moses’ Decalogue - “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill” - that stuck with me. Stealing and killing, after all, were pretty dastardly things, and at least a few commandments didn’t make any sense to me at all. I would later come to find these ones rather tricky.
But when Brother Bear built a super-awesome fort and hid in it with his friends from Sister Bear, proudly marking its entrance “NO GIRLS ALLOWED,” I got what Brother Bear was on about. Girls, after all, had a way of ruining things and this seemed a very reasonable precaution. Or when Brother and Sister Bear broke a vase and concocted ever wilder tales to Momma and Papa Bear about some fiendish fowl, flying in through the window (all purple and yellow and plumed), I knew what it was to tell the truth. Though, in my more Augustinian moments, I would mentally berate Brother and Sister for being such bad liars.
The thing about Jesus was that he was God, and I found that awfully hard to relate to, man that he also ostensibly was. It was a bit like watching Superman, or Spider-Man, or my personal favorite, Transformers. I would sneak to my friend Jimmy’s house before school to see Megatron and his Decepticons do their worst against the justice and the rightness of Optimus Prime’s Autobots.
There was moralism here too, to be sure, as well as sacrifice and virtue. But what the Berenstain Bears taught me was that good and evil don’t usually march onto battlefields, seize saviors in gardens, sacrifice themselves on crosses or ride on conquering horses. There is a banality to goodness, and also to evil, as I would learn to articulate it much, much later from Hannah Arendt.
Great cosmic evil is hard to stand against, but seeing it for such can be even harder. And often we explain the collaboration of people like Adolf Eichmann as evil men, unstable, inhuman. But the Berenstain Bears, like Arendt, knew what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn meant when he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Bible is still too much, most days, too cosmic by half, for me to understand it. My days are too banal, too filled with meetings and memos, making dinner and writing papers, to relate in an earnest way to a cosmic, universal God. I work in politics and I’m a big-picture sort of guy, sure, but not that big. The Berenstain Bears aren’t bothered much with a cosmic Gospel, true, but they do have a corner on a banality of goodness: don’t lie when you break a vase; don’t exclude because it hurts people; don’t watch too much television; don’t eat too much junk food. Banal? Sure. But doable.
There is an everyday kind of good, banal kindness and decency that even adults can grab hold of. It’s not Superman turning back time, or Optimus saving Cybertron, but it is proximate change, contemplative, ritual conversion of our actions and then, maybe, our hearts. To a young boy, and later to a man, that seems a pretty good start to Jesus’ admonition: "Come, follow me."
What Do You Think?
- What do The Berenstain Bears mean to you?
- How do you feel about the books' brand of moralism?
- Do you find the cosmic grandeur of God's story difficult to process?