Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage

What Really Happened in Uganda?

Go Down, Elian

A Religious Right Arrives in Canada

Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy

A Cardinal in Full

Mormon Women in the Real World


Peanuts for Christ
by Dennis R. Hoover
Peanuts.gif (1171441 bytes)

Cartoon strip reprinted by permission of United Media

As big a story as Charles Schulz’s announced retirement was in December, it was the poignancy of his death February 13, only hours before the last Sunday Peanuts strip hit the newsstands, that really sparked a collective "good grief." In eulogizing Schulz, many journalists seized the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Peanuts. Yet in all the outpouring of reflective prose, the religious dimension of the country’s most beloved comic strip was too often missed or misconstrued.

In fact, Biblical themes and references were a common feature of Peanuts throughout its 50-year run; by one estimate, 10 percent of the 18,000 strips involved religion. And then there was Robert Short’s 1965 best-seller, The Gospel According to Peanuts, which used individual strips as modern-day Christian parables. Thus far the book has sold 10 million copies, a figure that has "no doubt topped the number of sales of all books in theology-not-associated-with-cartoons published since 1965," writes Martin Marty in the foreword to a new edition out this year.

From PBS’s News Hour to CBS’s 60 Minutes, the broadcast media seemed to examine everything about Peanuts but religion. "My favorite Peanuts character is that dude who never bathes," the sock puppet told Nightline, while a CBS prime-time special included footage of a Woodstock tattoo on host Whoopi Goldberg’s breast. The print media were more likely to mention religion, though generally only in passing.

In one sense, the media’s relative lack of interest in the religion angle should not be surprising: Schulz had a way of injecting his distinctive Christian perspective into the main arteries of American mass culture without raising secularist eyebrows. Still and all, the strip’s complex point of view—a New York Times editorial called it "joyous melancholy"—can only be fully understood in theological terms.

Schulz never hid his personal religious commitment. He was a member and Sunday School teacher in the Church of God (Anderson), a conservative Protestant denomination in the Pietist and Wesleyan tradition. And to their credit, religion beat writers produced a handful of top-flight stories noting the religious content of Peanuts.

Mark Pinsky’s excellent overview in the February 6 Orlando Sentinel noted that Schulz was adept at demonstrating "faith in the funniest places." Sara Foss’s piece in the February 12 Plain Dealer pointed out that Peanuts often invoked religion indirectly by, for example, illustrating human sinfulness ("I’D RATHER DIE!" bellows Lucy when it is suggested she admit she was wrong). Kathi Wolfe’s story for the Religion News Service on January 13 argued that Peanuts captured both the cultural and spiritual era of post-World War II America.

Martha Sawyer Allen’s January 22 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune credited Schulz with warming popular culture to religion. "What’s remarkable is that over and over again he got religion into his comic strips," Bruce Forbes, a religious studies professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, told Allen. "Schulz was including religion in a non-preachy way at a time when it was absent" from the funny pages. "Prior to the last 10 years" added Forbes, "pop culture ignored religion....We’ve turned a popular culture corner."

Other comic strip proprietors certainly acknowledged that Schulz was a path-breaker. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau said in the December 16 Washington Post that Schulz "revolutionized the art form, deepening it, filling it with possibility, giving permission to all who followed to write from the heart and intellect." Greater leeway to address religion may indeed be part of the Peanuts legacy: Strips like B.C., The Family Circus, Hagar the Horrible, Kudzu, and Beetle Bailey include religious content from time to time.

But even contemporary popular culture has its sensitivities. The contrast between Schulz and B.C. creator Johnny Hart is instructive. Though Hart had always considered himself a Christian, in the 1980s he converted to fundamentalist evangelicalism, and has increasingly used his strip to convey Christian doctrines. (In one Easter strip Hart drew a caveman pointing to an empty tomb and shouting "Yes!")

Some of the Hart’s more doctrinally in-your-face strips have been censored or moved off the comics page by such papers as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Sun-Times. Spirited defenses of Hart have in turn been issued by the conservative Washington Times.

Yet Schulz put over Christian ideas (not fundamentalist ideas, but still fairly orthodox Christian ones) for half a century without creating a stir. Part of the explanation lies in his deft touch, both in drawing technique (he was a master of making seemingly simple lines convey nuance) and narrative. Steve Burgess pointed out in Salon magazine that Schulz’s style stood in stark contrast to the "heavy-handed pulpit pounding of Johnny Hart." The Boulder (Co.) Daily Camera editorial page was sure, as were others, that "Schulz’s ‘preaching’ never crossed the line into proselytizing."

Tactful Schulz may have been, but wishy-washy he was not. "Humor which does not say anything is worthless humor," he once told Decision magazine. "So I contend that a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching." In an interview last year he told the Ottawa Citizen’s John C. Davenport that he was confident his religion-themed strips "really dipped beneath the surface. They haven’t been just silly things... I feel very deeply about it and I feel it should be handled well."

Then there was the Emmy and Peabody award-winning holiday television special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Charlie Brown’s predicament: "Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel." Linus, a frequent Bible-quoter, responds with a verbatim reading from Luke, chapter 2:8-14 ("For unto you is born this day a Savior...).

Even in 1965, when the special first aired, such a direct statement of faith gave network executives pause. Lee Mendelson, the producer, recalled to the Star Tribune that the reaction of CBS brass was, "The Bible thing scares us." But Schulz insisted, and the scene remains. A vivid testimonial to Schulz’s seemingly unassailable status as preacher to the American public can be found in the Palm Beach Post’s take on the scene last Christmas: "It is a child’s sincere view of a blessed holiday. As Linus explains the redemption of the world, Charlie Brown finds it himself. And people of all faiths—even non-faiths—feel the way we are supposed to feel."

Non-Christians may be willing to give Linus a pass on this one, but it is worth contemplating what protests might greet any new animated special for children that used Luke 2 as dramatic climax.

Schulz’s knack for addressing serious religious subjects non-controversially doubtless had something to do with the age of his characters. As Mort Bailey, creator of Beatle Bailey, told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s William Macklin, "Hearing even the most trenchant message from a child tends to soften it."

Restricting his on-strip characters to children also appears to have enhanced Peanuts’ emotional complexity and pathos. A February 15 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial neatly summarized the key to the strip’s appeal: "Mr. Schulz understood not only how deadly serious childhood seems to a child, but also how childlike most grown-ups feel inside."

In this vein, the New York Times’s Sarah Boxer quoted Italian man of letters Umberto Eco, who a generation ago wrote that the Peanuts children affect us "because in a certain sense they are...monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of the industrial civilization." But Eco (quoted now in this Spring’s Wilson Quarterly) also saw the hope and charity that graced the strip: "These monster-children are capable suddenly of an innocence and a sincerity which call everything else into question...we never know whether to despair or heave a sigh of optimism." This tension between despair and hope reflected Schulz’s traditional Christian worldview. Humanity is fallen and sinful, yet created in the image of God.

An awareness of this Schulzian conviction might have helped steer some stories away from unqualified "happiness is a warm puppy" readings. A Christian Science Monitor headline announced implausibly that Peanuts was an "Oasis of Optimism in a Jaded Time." Quoting TV producer Mendelson, Diane Eicher’s story in the Denver Post blithely linked Peanuts to "the core values of the country." The Hartford Courant quoted Randolph-Macon College humanities professor M. Thomas Inge’s belief that Charlie Brown’s recurring problem with Lucy and the football was about "maintaining faith in ourselves."

Such characterizations ignore the misanthropic moods of Peanuts and what Non Sequitur creator Wiley Miller called its "deliciously subversive" quality. As Linus once explained, "I love mankind...It’s people I can’t stand!!" In one of the many strips with the football gag, Lucy stands over the humiliated Charlie Brown and offers her own sardonic commentary: "Your faith in human nature is an inspiration to all young people."

The Washington Post’s Henry Allen was alert to this dimension of the strip, arguing that Schulz was in fact an "existential rebel" against Pollyanna Americanism. "[Schulz] defied the still-persisting notion that children are somehow morally better than adults [and]...created a world of irresolvable paradox in a country that invented the slogan ‘can do.’"

To be sure, awareness that religion played a role in Peanuts was no guarantee that the strip’s darker side would be accurately interpreted. Some journalists went too far in suggesting that Schulz was motivated simply to illustrate inscrutable suffering. A Philadelphia Inquirer commentary by Tim Burke sniffed, "People say Peanuts explored religion in our lives. Sure, if your definition of religion begins and ends with the book of Job." The Washington Post’s Allen went further: "At least in the Bible, God is testing Job. In Peanuts, bad things happen for no reason at all."

But the bad things that befall the angst-filled Peanuts gang should be set against the backdrop of a theology of sin and suffering. A primer is Short’s Gospel According to Peanuts, over half of which deals with these topics. For that matter, the strip itself gives plenty of exegetical clues. It’s no accident that Schulz had characters referring several times to Matthew 5:45: "He sends rain on the just and the unjust."

Charlie Brown may be a good man, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to win baseball games.

While there was certainly no shortage of sweetness in Peanuts, there was a substructure of decidedly non-sugarcoated Christian theology—God is sovereign, no matter how difficult things get; humanity is fallen, sustained only by the grace of God; there is an obligation of holy living, met not by "faith in ourselves" but by reliance on the Holy Spirit. In Schulz’s memorial service one of his daughters, Amy Johnson, stressed that "my dad knew from where his talent came." Johnson also recalled how Schulz once responded to the persistent questions about why Charlie Brown loses: "There is only one winner. The rest of us are losers." Not the stuff of the "health and wealth" gospel.

An unlikely pairing of magazines came close to the mark in this respect. In Salon, Steve Burgess emphasized the wistful Christianity that infused Peanuts, and let Schulz speak for himself, retrieving this 1963 quote: "Once you accept Jesus, it doesn’t mean that all your problems are automatically solved." Likewise, in "Can We Be Good Without Charlie Brown?" Christianity Today writer Michael Maudlin noted that although Schulz may have started with Norman Vincent Peale, he "added the dark night of the soul." Still, Peanuts was not bleak, concludes Maudlin, because Schulz provided a "definition of goodness, a very particular and very old one, one that only makes sense if we allow for such concepts as sin, redemption, and grace."

But it was Johnny Hart, long before his turn to fundamentalism, who best articulated Schulz’s religious worldview. In his foreword to the 1968 Peanuts Treasury, Hart wrote, "I sometimes, with growing understanding, resent the laughs that God must surely enjoy at the expense of his clumsy, faltering children. He shares, of course, an equal amount of sorrow, which I do not choose to get into. Charles Schulz does get into this. He gives us our pathetic side, and we laugh with dewy eyes."