Big Bird And Despair In The Big Apple

In October, 1982, Will Lee, who played the beloved “Mr Hooper” character on Sesame Street, died. In November, 1983 the show had to address his absence and explain it to their young views. The show was aimed at 3–4 year olds. Here is how they did it:

As you can see for yourself, as touching as was their kindness to Big Bird, there was something missing.

Sesame Street came along when I was nine. My little sister might have watched it more than I. Of course we all saw it. By the early 1970s Sesame Street was one of the biggest things on television. It was fast-paced and well written but by 1983, when the show aired the segment about the death of Mr Hooper, I was in university and working two part-time jobs. Recently I saw that segment for the first time (in a documentary about there origins of Sesame Street) and I found it almost unbearably sad. I thought about how I explained death to my children and how I have explained it to congregations. My heart ached for the 3 and 4 year olds represented by Big Bird—who asked an eminently reasonable and most important question: why? Why did Mr Hooper have to die? Was Mr Hooper coming back? They insisted that he is not coming back, which, of course, is only partly true. The grown ups could not not tell him. On Sesame Street, sin, grace, and God do not exist. As wonderful as the characters were, spiritually, Sesame Street is an existential wasteland. On Sesame Street there is no heaven and no hell. I suppose that Gordon or one of the other cast members or writers must have been to church. I wondered what they thought as they wrote and performed that scene? Is this really what we want to tell 3 and 4 year olds, that this life is all there is? That Mr Hooper died, “because”? Because of what?

The truth is, of course, that Mr Hooper died because, until Christ returns, we must all die. This is what God said: “In the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). In Adam we broke the covenant of works. The penalty was death. It was not for nothing that the Apostle Paul said, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). What the grown up should have said to the millions of impressionable children is that Mr Hooper died because of Adam’s sin. Death is not arbitrary. “Because” is only half an answer and therefore no answer. Toddlers are humans. They deserve a reasonable answer. They can understand sin. They know what it is to be be naughty and to suffer consequences. Will they understand it all? No. Do we? No. We have to start somewhere but the grown ups at the Children’s Television Workshop decided to start nowhere. By refusing to tell the truth about the first part of the story, they had no place to tell the truth about the second part of the story: redemption and resurrection.

Sin and death do not end the story. There is more. God sent his Son, the Savior, to rescue fallen humans from sin and death. Three and four years can understand being rescued. It happens to them regularly in ways small and great. It happens in a small way when Mom or Dad pick them up when they fall. It happens in bigger ways when Mom and Dad take them to the doctor for help they cannot give. How wonderful would it have been if the grown ups around Big Bird had told him about God the Son incarnate, how he came for us, how he was good for us, in our place, how he died and how he was raised and he will come again and raise us from the dead too? Mr Hooper will live again, in the resurrection.

The truth is that Will Lee/Mr Hooper is not simply gone. He has an immortal soul. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”. Mr Hooper was an image bearer and so are all the toddlers to whom Sesame Street was speaking. He was made to commune with God. Perhaps Mr Lee was trusting in Christ and is communing with him now? We may hope. As I watched these grown ups fail to love and comfort the children who had lost a television friend, I could not help but think of one of the first things I taught my children and that Reformed Christians have been teaching their children since 1563:

1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Obviously the Children’s Television Workshop was funded by the public tax dollars and therefore they were limited in what they could say. We live in a religiously pluralist nation but that fact does not ease the pain of such a great but missed opportunity.

Believer, you can do for your children what the Children’s Television Workshop could not do for the nation’s children in 1983. Catechize them. Start with Heidelberg 1 and work from there. Your four-year old might want a couple of weeks to learn Q/A 1 of the Heidelberg but he will learn it happily. Toddlers delight to memorize. When they do, reward them. Leonard Coppes called this “candychism.” See the resources below for more on how to teach your child to think like a Christian.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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