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. 

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