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