New Yorker fears Berenstain Bears?

A columnist at the Wall Street Journal used to regularly feature snippets from sports columnists who fancied themselves political pundits. You’d be expecting a nice piece on the last golf tournament but you’d instead get some tirade about the Iraq War or how awful President Bush is.

But I think that The New Yorker gets a special prize for its treatment of the Berenstain Bears in an app review. Except that rather than review the current top-selling book app at the iPhone App Store — “The Berenstain Bears and the Golden Rule” — Ian Crouch says something is deeply troubling in Berenstainland:

I was thrilled to read that my favorite bears remain popular with kids today, and a new platform means new readers. Then I noticed something odd about this incarnation of the Berenstains: they’d become practicing Christians! The golden rule is just the kind of sensible, even-handed moral that I remember from my old favorites, but in the new app, the universal theme is tied directly to a Biblical source: Matthew 7:12. “Golden Rule” is part of the “Living Lights” series of Berenstain books published by Zonderkidz, a division of Zondervan, a Christian publisher based in Michigan. (The app is produced in association with Oceanhouse Media.) Other titles in the series include “The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers,” “The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School,” and “The Berenstain Bears: God Loves You.”

The singular quality of the series always seemed to be the everyday fallibility of the characters; they could be mean-spirited, selfish, territorial, and gluttonous (they’re bears after all), but by the end of each book, they would redeem themselves–restored to their better selves by the steadying influence of trusty humanist values and good cheer. God never seemed to have anything to do with it. Now, I’m faced with the unthinkable: would these once agnostic Reagan-era bear creatures now vote Tea Party in the next election?

Um, this is just utterly bizarre. Saying prayers, going to Sunday School and believing that God loves you might be views that some in the Tea Party hold. But what does it say about The New Yorker that these activities are so beyond the pale that they think that only those awful Tea Partiers do them?

I mean, I actually know political liberals who pray, go to Sunday School and believe that God loves them, too!

Not to mention, that if these completely anodyne ever-so-slightly-religious themes are so shocking, what would The New Yorker do if the Berenstains got into more particular religious themes? I’m laughing, while considering all this, but also sort of crying on the inside.


Crouch gives an update where we learn that he and a few others believed the Berenstains were Jewish. Apparently one of the original illustrators was raised Jewish while the other — his wife — grew up Episcopalian. This led Crouch and a few others to believe that the books were Jewish, I guess. But son Mike, who now illustrates the books with his mom, says the Christian line is in response to appreciative Christian buyers of the books.

All I remember is that my prank-prone family once tried to convince my brother that his true parents were Stan and Jan Berenstain. I have absolutely no idea why they did this.

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  • David Rupert

    The Bears are apolitical. They’re nice. They’re good. They’re decent.

    What a terrible thing to do, to trash simple goodness just to score political points.

    Makes me wanna unleash Smoky on him!
    David, Red letter Believers, “Salt and Light”

  • Nicole Neroulias

    A lot of people have thought the Berenstain Bears were Jewish over the years. You can Google “Berenstain” and “Jewish” to see a bunch of examples.

    I vaguely thought so, too, if only because Berenstain sounds Jewish, and the classic books never had any church-related plots or other giveaways found in other children’s books (celebrating Christmas, etc.). But mainly, I thought they were generally secular, um, wild animals. Surprised to see them become Christian lit — but not as surprised as you were to hear that people thought they were Jewish to begin with, it seems!

  • Mollie

    I thought they were Lutheran.

  • David Rupert

    The bears are so a-political, it’s not even funny. They’re good. They’re decent. They’re nice. Why ruin them with politics?

    David, Red Letter Believers,
    Salt and Light

  • Martha

    “The golden rule is just the kind of sensible, even-handed moral that I remember from my old favorites, but in the new app, the universal theme is tied directly to a Biblical source: Matthew 7:12.”

    Except that this isn’t really those pesky Christianists hijacking a popular kids’ series, but rather that the Golden Rule was religiously-inspired to begin with; it did, after all, come from that book, you know the one, begins with “b” (or “B” if you prefer) and containing that very Matthew gospel stuff.

    Certainly he’s entitled to comment on the switch in direction; that a previously non-religiously identified group of characters (if they could be perceived as Jewish, Lutheran or vaguely Protestant) have now been explicitly identified as Christian due to the titles being purchased by a new owner.

    But going all gasp! agog! that the Golden Rule is linked with the Gospel – sorry, not a shock to me.

  • Jerry


    First, the headline of the blog entry is The Berenstain Bears Get an App and Find God so you should not have been surprised by the content. The headline reflected the content. In fact, since this blog posting is in the book section, the reference to the app is out of place from the perspective you offered.

    But I do agree that the article conflated Christianity and conservative politics ignoring the resurgent political left. I do give him a bit of slack because some on the right also do the same believing that Christian theology indicates the correctness of conservative economics.

    So this is yet another example of why I wish people had the historical perspective proved by the PBS mini-series God in America because it clearly shows how Christianity has helped motivate every significant political movement from the right in the 80′s back to the left in the 60′s and further back into the Civil War as well as the Revolution and all the way back to the Puritans.

  • Jerry

    Martha’s posting reminded me that I forgot to mention that the Golden Rule itself is present in every major world religion and secular humanists and even in scientific findings so without specific religious references almost everyone could have found an echo of their religion or philosophy in the books.

  • Dave G.

    the historical perspective proved by the PBS mini-series God in America

    Speaking of accuracy. Not trusting Television history nowadays, I didn’t watch much of this. The couple times I did, for no more than about 15 or 20 minutes at a time, it demonstrated a playing fast and loose with time lines and quotes to make me feel comfortable in my skepticism about television history programs. At least those produced in modern times. Not to mention the production itself. But then, most modern history is about the same. Sigh.

  • Martha

    Jerry, we’re not talking about “The Berenstain Bears discover the Analects of Confucius.”

    The article specifically contrasts ‘the golden rule’ (apparently as some kind of nice, neutral principle) with the raging Christian zealotry now on display, including linkages to the Gospel of Matthew.

    Except that the identification of this principle as “the Golden Rule” for us Westerners does, I am afraid, originate with it being so described as a title for the principle from (everybody say it together) the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

    I am not denying that the principle exists in other world religions; I would be very surprised if it did not. I am saying that until secular humanism became widespread, up to sometime in the last century, our cultural exposure to “The Golden Rule” was within a religious context and therefore to write an article expressing shock and horror about how the nice, non-explicitly religious moral lessons (e.g. the Golden Rule) of the Bears have been hijacked and disguised as Christian principles is misleading.

    It’s as if I objected to Americans taking over St. Patrick’s Day and turning it into some kind of crazy stereotyped public holiday.

    Oh, wait… ;-)

  • Dave

    I remember the Berenstains from circa the 1970s, when they were doing kindly, secular humor involving human beings. Some time after I lost interest, they switched to bears. Now they’re going with explicit religion.

    These are the facts. The journalistic question is, has The New Yorker reviewed the Berenstains prior to this latest fact? If so, the situation may be authentically one of a reviewer not liking a fundamental (excuse the term) change in an ongoing series. If not, they’ve chosen to flip over overt religion.

  • Jenny

    Just went to take a peek at my children’s collection of the Berenstain Bears series (included are hand me downs from my childhood), and I found these specific to Christmas: The Bears’ Christmas, The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree,
    The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear, The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need, The Berenstain Bears Save Christmas.

    I do remember them going to church, Sunday school, praying and other things that identified as Christian, but I wouldn’t have cared if the bears were Jewish.. what bothers me is Crouch and one or two other of his commentors’ claims of “shock” that they were. It felt deliberately insulting.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    I stand corrected: According to Wikipedia, The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree was published in 1980, followed by The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear in 1984. I guess I only saw the books that came after that, but before 1998′s The Berenstain Bears’ Easter Surprise. (Presumably, the “surprise” wasn’t that the Bears were Christian, haha…)