Vol. 3, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing
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
by Dennis R. Hoover
Cartoon strip reprinted by permission of United Media
As big a story as Charles Schulzs 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 countrys
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 Shorts 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 PBSs News Hour to CBSs 60 Minutes, the broadcast media seemed to
examine everything about Peanuts but religion. "My favorite Peanuts character is that
dude who never bathes," the pets.com sock puppet told Nightline, while a CBS
prime-time special included footage of a Woodstock tattoo on host Whoopi Goldbergs
breast. The print media were more likely to mention religion, though generally only in
In one sense, the medias 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 strips complex point of viewa New York Times editorial
called it "joyous melancholy"can only be fully understood in theological
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 Pinskys excellent overview in the February 6 Orlando Sentinel noted
that Schulz was adept at demonstrating "faith in the funniest places." Sara
Fosss piece in the February 12 Plain Dealer pointed out that Peanuts often
invoked religion indirectly by, for example, illustrating human sinfulness ("ID
RATHER DIE!" bellows Lucy when it is suggested she admit she was wrong). Kathi
Wolfes 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 Allens January 22 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
credited Schulz with warming popular culture to religion. "Whats 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....Weve 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 Harts 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 Schulzs 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 "Schulzs 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 Citizens John C. Davenport that he was
confident his religion-themed strips "really dipped beneath the surface. They
havent been just silly things... I feel very deeply about it and I feel it should be
Then there was the Emmy and Peabody award-winning holiday television special, "A
Charlie Brown Christmas." Charlie Browns predicament: "Christmas is
coming, but Im not happy. I dont feel the way Im supposed to feel."
Linus, a frequent Bible-quoter, responds with a verbatim reading from Luke,
("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 Schulzs seemingly
unassailable status as preacher to the American public can be found in the Palm Beach
Posts take on the scene last Christmas: "It is a childs sincere view
of a blessed holiday. As Linus explains the redemption of the world, Charlie Brown finds
it himself. And people of all faithseven non-faithsfeel 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.
Schulzs 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 Inquirers 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 strips 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 Timess 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 Springs 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 Schulzs
traditional Christian worldview. Humanity is fallen and sinful, yet created in the image
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 Eichers 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 Inges
belief that Charlie Browns 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...Its people I cant 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 Posts 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
strips 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 Posts 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 Shorts Gospel According
to Peanuts, over half of which deals with these topics. For that matter, the strip
itself gives plenty of exegetical clues. Its no accident that Schulz had characters
referring several times to Matthew 5:45: "He sends rain on the just and the
Charlie Brown may be a good man, but that doesnt mean hes going to win
While there was certainly no shortage of sweetness in Peanuts, there was a substructure
of decidedly non-sugarcoated Christian theologyGod 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 Schulzs 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
doesnt 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,
But it was Johnny Hart, long before his turn to fundamentalism, who best articulated
Schulzs 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."