Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Gospel According to Peanuts - 3

In his final chapter of The Gospel According to Peanuts, titled "The Hound of Heaven", author Robert Short suggests that the dog Snoopy represents “a little Christ”: 
Snoopy we would hesitate to call "Christ". He comes closer, rather, to being "a little Christ" -- that is, a Christian. .... He is, in other words, a fairly drawn caricature for what is probably the typical Christian.

The dog, because of his wonderful qualities of love, loyalty, watchfulness and courage (Charlie Brown's description) often has been used as a symbol for faith in literature and art; it is even used in this way in the Bible. But the dog also is a good symbol for faith as there is a real sense in which a man must become "as a dog" before he can become a Christian. He must take on the dog's lowliness of complete obedience and humility at the feet of his master and in service to others. ....

Snoopy, as a little Christ, quite obviously takes on Christ's ambivalent work of humbling the exalted ....
 Although Short hesitated to say that Snoopy represented Jesus Christ, Short pointed out some interesting indications of that ultimate relationship.

Although Schulz initially portrayed Snoopy as an ordinary puppy, he gradually portrayed him as a supernatural dog that was superior to human beings and was above human preoccupations:

Furthermore, Snoopy loved human beings condescendingly.

Snoopy tried to communicate to the children, but was limited to projecting his thoughts to them. Snoopy could not communicate to the children in their spoken language. The reader of the comic strip was allowed to read Snoopy’s thoughts fully, but the children-characters seemed to understand Snoopy only partially, if at all.


As a student of the Bible, Schulz might have noticed and pondered a couple of New Testament passages that mention dogs. It seems that Schulz referred subtly to those passages in a few Peanuts episodes that included Snoopy. .

Short points out one mention of dogs in The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 15. 
A Canaanite woman ... came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
 This Gospel story resonates with a Peanuts episode in which Snoopy enjoys eating table scraps and declares: "Anything that falls on the floor is mine." (Short quoted that cartoon on page 86 did not reproduce it.)

At that early stage of Schulz's religious-symbolic thinking, Snoopy represented the Canaanite woman's daughter -- a non-Jew hungering to be liberated from demons.

In the Bible story, Jesus seems to redefine his own mission on Earth. God the Father had sent God the Son to Earth to assume the physical form of a human being, Jesus Christ, but retaining divine sensibilities and powers. This Jesus Christ was supposed to interact with human beings and ultimately, although immortal, suffer death as a human being. In his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus realized that his mission would save not only Jews, but also non-Jews.

Elaborating this concept, the Son of God descended to Earth to share the mortal sufferings of all human beings, including even the Canaanite, demon-possessed daughter. Jesus Christ now was inspired to identify himself with this daughter, who like a dog, had to resort to eating the crumbs that fall from dining table. Symbolically, Jesus Christ now was debased not merely to the Canaanite daughter herself, but further to the dog that symbolized the daughter.

Thus when Snoopy declared that "Anything that falls on the floor is mine", Snoopy began his metamorphosis into Jesus Christ in the Peanuts religious symbology.


A subsequent step in this metamorphosis was an episode in which Snoopy Snoopy licked Lucy's face and then licked Linus's hand and tried to lick his face.

Short points out the resonance of this episode with the New Testament episode in which Jesus washed his disciples' feet, as reported in The Gospel According to John, Chapter 13:
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.

So He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"

Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

"No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet."

Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."

"Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!"
 Short fails to point out the other relevant Biblical mention of dogs in The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 16 -- the story of dogs licking the feet of Lazarus, who starved for crumbs to fall from a dinner table:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' 
But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. ....

The rich man answered: "Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."

Abraham replied: "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. ... If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
 Schulz might have pondered these Bible stories that mentioned dogs, and then Schulz developed Snoopy's significance in Peanuts. Snoopy gradually incorporated a divine spirit that acted on God the Father's behalf to interact with, to console and encourage, and ultimately to save the comic strip's children from their anxieties.


The clearest indication that Snoopy eventually represented Jesus Christ Himself occurred in one of the episodes in which Linus and Charlie Brown were sitting in a pumpkin patch. Linus was waiting for the Great Pumpkin and then suddenly saw a silhouette rising in another part of the pumpkin patch.

The expression "'used dog" -- said by Charlie Brown and by Snoopy -- might have a subtle double meaning -- that God (or Schulz) has used a dog to represent the Son of God (or the Great Pumpkin).


Snoopy interacted with Linus occasionally by playfully grabbing Linus's security blanket with his teeth and trying to run away with it. Usually Linus would hold on in an epic tug of war. On a few occasions, Snoopy managed to escape with the blanket and hide it from Linus. After Linus became inconsolably distraught, however, Snoopy would retrieve the blanket mercifully to Linus.

I think these episodes have a religious meaning. Linus represents a young pastor, clinging to the doctrines he learned recently at the seminary. Snoopy, representing Jesus Christ, playfully teased Linus by yanking away his doctrinal security blanket for awhile. Snoopy was trying to wean Linus from this security blanket, encouraging Linus to mature and to think freely.

When Lucy, however, confiscated Linus's blanket and thus weakened him beyond his ability to cope 

then Snoopy returned the blanket to Linus, thus answering his prayers.


Short wrote his book before Snoopy began writing a book and flying his doghouse as an airplane, but I would like to add my own speculations about the possible meanings of those developments.

Eventually, Snoopy began writing a book, which began with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”. Evidently, the book's first part would be scary and suspenseful. The book’s further text never was revealed, but we can suppose that the ending would be happy and encouraging. One remark by Charlie Brown indicated that Snoopy's book ultimately would be about theology.
Charlie Brown: I hear you're writing a book of theology. 
Snoopy: I have have the perfect title. Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong? 
(I found this quote in the Michaelis biography, Schulz and Peanuts.)

Before Snoopy finished his book, however, he learned to fly his doghouse magically, like a combat airplane through the sky. High in the clouds, Snoopy fought against and shot down other airborne enemy beings – in particular the notorious Red Barron. Snoopy thus became a hero in a cosmic war that was not perceived by the children among whom Snoopy had lived on the Earth.

We can suppose that Snoopy’s book might begin on a dark and stormy night on Earth but then eventually conclude with Snoopy’s victorious cosmic war in the Heavens, lit brightly by the stars of the quiet universe. After the Red Barron and his fellow enemy pilots were shot down from the sky, then Snoopy would fly his doghouse-airplane back down and rejoin the children on Earth. There he will complete his book, for the children to read, understand and enjoy.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Gospel According to Peanuts - 2

Charles Schulz had begun drawing his Peanuts comic strip in 1950. In 1952, a paperback book of the all that year’s episodes was published, and every year afterwards a new such book was published. Our family had many of these books, and I read them repeatedly. I was an expert about Peanuts by the time The Gospel According to Peanuts was published.

I think I began reading Peanuts every day in the newspapers in about 1959, when I was in second grade. I continued to read the strip every day through the 1960s. I eventually stopped reading it when Peppermint Patty became the main character of a mostly new cast at the beginning of the 1970s.

In the year 1963, the number-one and number-two, best-selling, non-fiction books in the USA were Schulz’s Happiness is a Warm Puppy and Security is a Thumb and a Blanket.

In the year 1965, the best-selling, non-fiction book was Robert L. Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, which I wrote about in my previous blog post. This book eventually sold ten million copies, one of which was purchased by my parents. I was in eighth grade, and I read the book to the best of my ability.

Recently, I bought the book at a used-book sale and read it again.

I began writing about the book, about Schulz and Peanuts in my previous post, and I will continue in this post here.


In 1963, Short earned a Masters Degree in Theology and Literature from the University of Chicago. He subsequently began a doctorate program in Systematic Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwest University. He developed a slide show about theology, illustrated by episodes from the Peanuts and Pogo comic strips. He turned his slide show into a book proposal. The book was an immediate success. In the following years, eight more of his books of pop-culture theology have been published (e.g. Is Kurt Vonnegut the Exorcist of Jesus Christ Superstar? and The Parables of Dr. Seuss).

Despite its popular success, The Gospel According to Peanuts is difficult to read. I am now 61 years old and have read about religion for my entire adult life, and I struggled to follow his thread of thought on many pages. Nevertheless, I found him to be quite though-provoking in several of his arguments.

After Short’s book became a best-seller, Short and Schulz met, became friends and participated together several public discussions. The two men stayed in contact for several years. Schulz said that many of Short’s interpretations mischaracterized Shulz’s intentions. Schulz was simply trying to be funny, and Short read too much into the humor.

By the second half of the 1960s, however, when Schulz was dismissing Short’s interpretations, Schulz had stopped attending church and had become publicly critical of Christianity. His thinking and attitudes had evolved far since 1950, when he drew his first Peanuts episode, which depicted four-year-old children as hateful.

Although Schulz might say many years later that he simply was trying to be funny, he evidently was dealing at least subconsciously with various beliefs and hostilities that he resolved in much later years.

In other words, Short might be insightful in some of his opinions even though Schulz dismisses them as mistaken.


Short titled his book’s first chapter “The Church and The Arts”. He pointed out the limited effectiveness of direct proof in converting people to Christianity. Systematic theologians such as himself convert few people by developing detailed logical arguments.

Artists, using indirect methods, usually are more effective. People are attracted by the church’s artistry – the music, architecture, paintings, sculptures, prayers, rituals, pageants, etc.

Religious artists subvert and undermine even the most stubborn resistance of unbelievers.

On the other hand, religious artists often become troublesome for the Church. For example, they adopt many of the artistic methods and concepts of unbelievers. Gospel music becomes pop music. Church services become television shows. Theological discussions are conducted in comic strips.

Artists communicate outside the intellectual frameworks established by the theologians. Artists often confront the difficult questions in spontaneous, clever ways, not relying on the Church’s carefully developed doctrines. Successful, popular religious artists cannot be controlled easily by the Church leadership.


A perennial story in the strip’s history was Linus’s participation in his church’s Christmas Eve pageant. He was supposed to memorize and recite some Bible verses. He was afraid to fail in this performance, partly because his older sister Lucy threatened to mock and beat him if he did fail.

Alongside this story about Linus would run other stories about the other children calculating their own deserving of Christmas presents from Santa Claus. The children engaged each other in philosophical conversations along the lines that Santa Claus should ignore their various faults and misbehaviors that might have been observed during the entire year and should instead reward them generously for their exceptionally good behavior during the few weeks right before Christmas. Santa Claus deserved to be deceived and exploited for the children’s benefit.

Charlie Brown was appalled by this cynicism, but he too was drawn into it despite his own better judgment. He too finds himself calculating and scheming to maximize his presents from Santa Claus.

Linus was so consumed by his efforts to memorize his Bible verses perfectly for the Christmas Eve pageant that he never involved himself in the others’ philosophical discussions about deserving presents from Santa Claus.

Eventually, however, Linus developed a unique belief in a Great Pumpkin, which would come uniquely to Linus and award him presents on Halloween. The Great Pumpkin would reward Linus not for Linus’s good behavior, but rather merely because Linus believed that the Great Pumpkin would come. Even though Linus believed fervently, however, the Great Pumpkin never came. Linus never was rewarded for his belief. Instead, Linus was puzzled, disappointed and humiliated repeatedly.


In this interwoven plot, Schulz seems to be mocking several Christian phenomena – recitation of Bible verses, the calculation of good deeds or of proclaimed faith to earn divine rewards, the continual expectation of a Divine Coming, and individual delusions. In other words, Schulz is being a successful religious artist who has become troublesome for the Church.

I think (this section is my own interpretation, not Short’s) that Shulz is depicting affectionately two kinds of church members: 1) the ordinary, practical members, and 2) the fervent, intellectual members.

When Charles Schulz returned from World War Two to his home in an emotional depression, he found meaning for his life by attending his small church and engaging himself in Bible study and church activities. He was not a religious thinker, a theologian, in his church. Rather, he was an ordinary member who found practical benefits, such as relieving his personal depression. Schulz was drawn in for practical benefits – as Charlie Brown was drawn into gaming Santa Claus.

Linus represented another, more fervent, somewhat unreliable kind of church member – like a young pastor, freshly graduated from the seminary and newly assigned to lead a mostly older congregation. Linus had to recite Bible verses to the entire congregation. Linus felt compelled to develop doctrine and to lead others accordingly. This self-imposed leadership role included a risk that Linus might go widely astray.

These are realities of religious life. Church members include superficial calculators and foolish heretics and many other varieties of sinners. There is much to laugh at. However, their search, through religion, for meaning in life is a noble drama.

Although Schulz pokes fun, his portrayal is charming. His Peanuts children are discussing the meaning of their actions and lives, are memorizing Bible verses to participate in religious pageants, are declaring their beliefs, and are failing but persisting. Their lives are full of drama and meaning.

Even though we are sinners, condemned from birth, we can laugh about our dismal situation and continue to strive. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Gospel According to Peanuts - 1

In 1965, the number-one best-selling non-fiction book in the USA was The Gospel According to Peanuts, written by a theology-doctoral student named Robert L. Short. Eventually more than ten million copies of the book were sold.

My parents bought a copy of the book in about 1965, when I was in about the eighth grade. I read the book to the best of my ability. The book was illustrated by many examples from the Peanuts comic strip.

The Peanuts comic strip was syndicated and began to run in 1950. During the first two years, the main characters were Charlie, Shermy, Patty, Violet, Frieda and Pig-Pen. All these characters were about four years old.

In 1952, the latter four characters began to disappear and were replaced by Lucy, Linus and Schroeder. In 1959, Sally appeared as the fourth major character.

On several occasions, Charlie Brown specified his own age as follows:

* November 3, 1950 – "only four years old".  

* November 17, 1957 – "six years old

* July 11, 1979– "eight-and-a-half years old"

Therefore in 1964, when Short wrote The Gospel According to Peanuts, Charlie was in about third grade. The five major characters were arrayed in age approximately thus:

** Charlie Brown – third grade

** Sally Brown (Charlie’s sister) – pre-school

** Lucy van Pelt – second grade

** Linus van Pelt (Lucy’s brother) – kindergarten

** Schroeder – third grade

Although many readers probably think that Charlie and Lucy were about the same age, she was obviously younger than him when she appeared in 1952.

At one point, Lucy advised Linus about beginning kindergarten:

Lucy: You have to know a lot of things before you can go to kindergarten, Linus. You have to be able to use a handkerchief, get a drink of water alone, put on your own coat, and cut with a scissors. 
Linus: Wow! I never realized the requirements were so rigid.
Here is another conversation where Lucy is preparing Linus for kindergarten:
Lucy: Some stars are big, and some stars are little. 
Linus: You sure know a lot about stars, Lucy. 
Lucy: I've done quite a bit of studying. One of my best subjects in school was agriculture.
We know Charlie and Schroeder were the same age, because they played on the same baseball team, as pitcher and catcher.

The sixth main character was the dog Snoopy. He began as a puppy in 1950s but gradually evolved into an adult, super-natural dog. Snoopy began to walk on two legs in 1955 and began to sleep on his doghouse’s roof in 1960. (Short’s book was published before Snoopy began to write a book and to fly his doghouse as an airplane in 1965.)


I have belabored the children’s young ages because The Gospel According to Peanuts argues that Peanuts justifies the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. All human beings are born sinful and therefore deserve God’s condemnation even while they are still children. This is a doctrine that strikes many people, including many Christians, as unjust. After all, young children are quite dependent, ignorant and harmless and therefore should be excused.

Peanuts depicts a society where the oldest members were (in the mid 1960s) in the third grade. No adults are seen or heard. The children are mean, rude, snobbish, greedy, demand­ing, conceited. They recognize these vices in themselves and others; they recognize the vices’ consequences for themselves and others; they cannot correct the vices and avoid the consequences. They suffer from chronic anxiety, neurosis, frustration and unhappiness. Their conversation is peppered with references to philosophical and religious concepts, indicating intelligent intro­spection and awareness.

In sum, the Peanuts children were growing up with the consequences of Original Sin.


Charles (“Sparky”) Schulz was born in 1922 and grew up as the only child of a barber and housewife in St Paul, Minnesota. Both parents dropped out of school after their third grades and were barely literate. The father was elected to serve as the recording secretary of the local barbers’ association. He brought home minimal notes, and Sparky wrote the meeting minutes. There was practically no intellectual conversation in the family.

The father and mother were the children of German and Norwegian immigrants, and so the family was nominally Lutheran. They rarely attended church, however, because the father preferred to fish on Sunday mornings.

Sparky did well in elementary school and was allowed to skip fourth grade. From then on, however, he was the youngest student in his class and felt inferior. In high school he had little interest in studying, preferring to draw. In about his freshman year, he flunked four courses. He soon decided to try to become a cartoonist as his career. He coasted through the rest of high school and did not consider continuing into college.

In his last two high-school years his mother became increasingly sick from cancer. The family moved from their house into an apartment above a pharmacy, so that the pharmacist could conveniently come upstairs twice a day to inject medicines into the mother.

In his mother’s last, dying days, he was drafted into the Army. A few days later, at his first assignment, he was given a weekend leave to visit home. His mother died on that weekend. The Lutheran pastor failed to show up as promised, so the father asked another pastor, one of his barbershop customers, to perform the funeral at his small Church of God church. The father and Sparky appreciated the pastor’s favor and the church’s simplicity and decided to attend that church in the future.

In the Army, Schulz was assigned to a machine-gun squad and was deployed to Europe. His squad moved all the way across France and Germany, but he participated in practically no combat. He drew pictures of Army life for his buddies’ letters home.

Released from the Army, Schulz returned home in November 1945 and settled back with his father in the apartment above the pharmacy. In February 1946, a fire in the apartment’s basement destroyed Schulz’s entire collection of art materials.

Depressed and lonely, Sparky began attending the Church of God church regularly, services on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and evenings. The congregation comprised about 65 members, several of whom were military veterans his age. These veterans were especially thankful to God that they had survived the war. Sparky wanted to marry another church member but never met a suitable young woman in the small congregation.

Sparky was baptized by immersion at a church retreat in August 1948. On a couple occasions, he preached on street corners and in refuges for vagrants. Out of his meager earnings, he purchased a half-page advertisement in a St Paul newspaper, summarizing the Church of God’s doctrine.

His church pastor suggested to the Church headquarters in Anderson, Indiana, that Schulz be hired to work as a cartoonist and illustrator. Schulz traveled to Anderson and was interviewed by the Church’s president, who decided not to hire him.


In August 1946, he was hired into the staff of an art-studies correspondence school, Art Instruction, in Minneapolis. He evaluated the lessons that the students mailed in.

In the Army and in the following years, Sparky began to read a lot. He subscribed to Book of the Month. He also read a lot of religious books. For many years he led Bible-study groups at his churches and thus read carefully through the entire Bible four times.

In his free time, he drew and submitted cartoons to various periodicals. During 1948-1950, he sold 15 cartoons to The Saturday Evening Post. He also sold a series of cartoons to the St. Paul newspaper.

In the March 1950, Sparky began dating a young woman who worked in Art Instruction’s accounting department. In June he signed a contract with United Features Syndicate to arrange publication of his proposed comic strip, which was named Peanuts. He hoped this initial professional success would convince the woman to marry him, but she soon dumped him – partly because her own family wanted her to marry a Lutheran. She soon married another man, a Lutheran, at about the same time that newspapers began to publish Peanuts, at the beginning of October 1950.


Schulz had developed his idea for a comic strip about children in 1949, when he sold some cartoons to the St Paul newspaper. The publisher usually placed the cartoons on the wedding page, simply because that page often needed some filler. Since most of that page’s readers were women, Schulz tried to draw cartoons that featured small children, especially girls outsmarting boys. Schulz reasoned that a cartoon strip along those lines might attract a large readership, since the birth rate was rising greatly.

When publication of Peanuts began in October 1950, Schulz was 27 years old and single, still living with his father. He had grown up as an only child and had no children of his own. In April 1951, Sparky married a woman, Joyce, who had been married to another man very briefly and already had a one-year-old daughter, Meredith.

In 1952, the Peanuts cast changed significantly. Most of the original characters began to disappear and were replaced gradually by Lucy, Linus and Schroeder. The addition of Lucy and Linus was prompted by the birth of the Schulz’s son Monte in that year. The family two children Meredith and Monte became the model for Lucy and Linus – a bossy older sister and a compliant younger brother.


Sparky’s wife Joyce also was a model for Lucy. Essentially, Joyce treated Sparky as Lucy treated Charlie. The Schulz marriage always was contentious and eventually ended in a bitter divorce in 1972.

One important issue in their marriage was Joyce’s lack of participation in Sparky’s church activities. She rarely attended church with him, even though he had become the assistant pastor of the St Paul church by 1958. Since he always tithed to the church and was steadily becoming extremely wealthy, she resented his increasingly large contributions. To break his ties to the St Paul church and weaken his ties to the Church of God, she insisted that the family move to California in 1958.

In California, he joined a Methodist church, where he continued his leadership of Bible-study groups that read carefully all the way through the Bible. Joyce never attended church with him there. Following her example and because Sparky did not insist, none of their five children ever attended church in California either.

Eventually Sparky himself drifted away from church attendance and participation and became increasingly critical about Christianity.

When the Schulz marriage broke up at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, Lucy was essentially replaced by Peppermint Patty and Marcie, who led a third cast of characters.


From 1956 to 1965 Schulz drew also a comic strip titled Young Pillars for a religious periodical titled Youth, published by the Church of God. Schulz’s decision to stop drawing that religious strip perhaps marked his personal break from Christianity.

Ironically, however, the year 1965 was the year of his biggest cultural contribution to Christianity – the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was broadcast during that year’s Christmas season. Schulz insisted that the story end with a long reading from The Gospel According to Luke¸ telling about an angel telling shepherds about Jesus’ birth.


My information about Schulz's life came from two biographies:

* Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, published in 1989

* Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis, published in 2001