The Gospel According To Peanuts
A Tribute to Charles Schulz
Cartoonist Charles Schulz, who died on February 12, was one of the true geniuses of our age. He helped us look beneath the surface of our lives to find the most human and enjoy it. Robert Short, a schoolmate of mine at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote The Gospel According to Peanuts in 1965 to put himself through school. Now it's time for an update from a somewhat different theological perspective.
Perhaps it is not only poets who are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" as Shelley suggested. Perhaps in our age it is also the cartoonists. Comic strips are often modern day parables which yield eternal truths about the human predicament.
World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin likened Schulz's impact to that of Ghandi, adding that the same message is conveyed: "Love thy neighbor even when it hurts. Love even Lucy."
Charles Schulz remembered that on his first day of kindergarten members of the class were given a blank sheet of paper and told to draw anything they wanted. He drew a man shoveling snow. His teacher looked at his picture and said, "Someday, Charles, you're going to be an artist." When he turned 13 he was given a black-and-white dog whom he named Spike. We all know him as Snoopy's brother. Schulz once overheard a friend of his mother's saying, "He's such a nice boy, isn't he?" He thought: "Oh boy, is that all I'll be all my life?"
Not to worry. Schulz took a correspondence course for aspiring artists with an emphasis on cartooning. It cost $170 and his father - a barber - had trouble keeping up with the payments. Once asked if he anticipated success, Schulz said, "Well, frankly, I guess I did expect Peanuts would be successful, because after all, it was something I had planned for since I was six years old." . . . .
"I grew up an only child, and my mother died the very week I was drafted. This was a tremendous blow to our little family. I was assigned to the 20th Armored Division and eventually became a machine gun squad leader. . . . we took part in the liberation of Dachau and Munich. . . ."
In the service Schulz developed an empathy for the ultimate loneliness of human life. "I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about, and because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry."
When Schulz returned he set about to sell cartoons, first finding a job with Timeless Topix - a Roman Catholic publisher - for which he lettered the dialogue bubbles. He did cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1950 Schulz sent a batch of his cartoons to United Feature Syndicate in New York City. Over his objections, they changed the name of his cartoons from "Li'l Folks" to "Peanuts." The fifty-year love affair with Charlie Brown and the gang had begun.
Schulz considered his work far more than a job - it was a vocation. He wrote, " . . . if you do not say anything in a cartoon, you might as well not draw it at all. Humor which does not say anything is worthless humor. So I contend that a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching."
His medium was the cartoon - his subject matter was often explicitly religion. Lucy is jumping rope when younger brother Linus asks:
Linus: Do you ever pray?
Lucy: That's kind of a personal question, isn't it? Are you trying to start an argument? I suppose you think you're somebody pretty smart, don't you? I suppose you think. . .
Linus with his blanket, talking to Charlie Brown.
Linus: You're right . . . religion is a very touchy subject."
In a single comic strip Schulz could summarize volumes of theological thinking. Take the issue of human suffering. While tomes have been written on the subject, he brought it down to earth in a homely way: how children learn to lose. It started with a baseball game - one of several hundred that Manager Charlie Brown would lose over the years. Charlie Brown is on the pitcher's mound looking pretty unhappy.
Charlie Brown: Nine home runs in a row! Good grief! What can I do. We're getting slaughtered again, Schroeder. . . I don't know what to do. Why do we have to suffer like this?
Schroeder: "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward."
Charlie Brown: What?
Linus: He's quoting from the Book of Job, Charlie Brown, seventh verse, fifth chapter. Actually, the problem of suffering is a very profound one, and . . .
Lucy: If a person has had bad luck, it's because he's doing something wrong, that's what I always say!
Schroeder: That's what Job's friends told him. But I doubt it. . .
Lucy: What about Job's wife? I don't think she gets enough credit!
Schroeder: I think a person who never suffers, never matures. Suffering is actually very important.
Lucy: Who wants to suffer? Don't be ridiculous!
Schroeder: But pain is a part of life, and. .
Linus: A person who speaks only of the "patience" of Job reveals that he knows very little of the book! Now, the way I see it. . .
Charlie Brown: Good grief! I don't have a ball team. I have a theological seminary!
Charles Schulz is a gentle and thoughtful theologian. He notes the finitude of human nature and the apparent indifference of God. As one observer notes, "It's not so much that bad things happen to good people in Peanuts. At least in the Bible, God is testing Job. In Peanuts bad things happen for no reason at all."
Schulz didn't suffer religious fanatics gladly. He gently spoofed those intent on forcing their religion upon others. Sally and Linus are walking to school.
Sally: I would have made a good evangelist. You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his religion.
Linus: How'd you do that?
Sally: I hit him with my lunch box.
Then the tables are turned, and Sally resists efforts to get her to change her church. A little boy comes to the house to talk with her.
little boy: Hi! I'm from that new storefront church a few blocks up the street. Would you like to come to our church?
Sally: I already have a church.
little boy: We have good singing.
Sally: So do we...do you sing "Blessed Assurance?" Do you sing "Sweet Hour of Prayer?"
little boy: We give our money in envelopes.
Sally: Who cares?
little boy: My dad is the preacher.
Sally: Good for him.
little boy: He says the world is coming to an end.
Sally: I feel that way every time I get on the school bus.
little boy, walking away: Anyway, you know where we are.
Sally: I'm always here. (pause) Those deep theological discussions wear me out.
One of Schulz's best religious cartoons is decidedly Unitarian Universalist in tone. Sally is presenting a paper in school.
Sally: My topic today is the purpose of theology. When discussing theology we must always keep our purpose in mind. Our purpose as students is understandably selfish. There is nothing better than being in a class where no one knows the answer.
Schulz, according to Robert Short in The Gospel According to Peanuts, is clearly a Christian, but I submit he is a Christian of distinctly liberal bent. He was not afraid to mock the hypocrisy and the pretensions of dogmatic religious faith. I do not claim him as a Unitarian Universalist, but his gentle openness to human foibles is his hallmark - and ours.
Not everyone agreed with his religious sensibilities. As Linus said, "Religion is a very touchy subject." Schulz received this letter in response to his religious perspective ala Peanuts.
"Sir, even if your personal philosophy is at odds with the majority of this country which was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, can you not control your urge to lead astray out little ones and proselytize instead your adult peers who can better defend themselves? Sneaking your anti-Jewish, anti-American philosophy into the minds of hapless children via a comic strip is just plain dirty pool. I would not want to be in your shoes on judgment day. Jesus Christ said that people who lead astray His little ones should be cast into the sea with a millstone tied around their necks. An apology is due America." Schulz commented: "As Linus asked of himself, 'What was that all about?'"
What it's all about? For Charles Schulz it's all about doing what you have to do for meaning in life. "Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems? They do it because life wouldn't have any meaning for them if they didn't. That's why I draw cartoons. It's my life."
Charles Schulz didn't often dabble in political issues. However, one cartoon does make a statement, especially poignant on this Mother's Day. It is one of Schulz's most sobering strips and, in a way, it blesses the Million Mom March against gun violence in Washington, DC, even as we worship. Charlie Brown is with Snoopy at City Hall.
Charlie Brown: Yes, ma'am, we've come to renew his dog license.
Snoopy: b k m g r t s p w
Charlie Brown: She said not to worry. You don't have to take an eye test.
Snoopy: I wasn't worried. This eye is even better.
Charlie Brown: Yes, sir, there seems to be a mistake. We came for a dog license, and they've given him a temporary driver's permit. Do I think he could pass a driver's test?
Snoopy: Section 203: the turn signal should be activated before the vehicle enters the intersection.
Charlie Brown: Well, you never know. Yes, Ma'am. Well, originally, I came in with my dog to get him a license. We also got a driver's license and a fishing license. No, she says you don't need a license for that. . .
Charlie Brown walks out, followed by Snoopy, who is carrying an assault weapon.
Schulz has another way of parodying violence. In it he reveals a unique knack of portraying human idealism and human nature bumping up against one another. At times it makes sense, but it often isn't pretty. Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown, shaking her fists in anger
Lucy: I'll get you, Charlie Brown! I'll get you! I'll knock your block off! I'll....
Charlie Brown: Wait a minute! Hold everything! We can't carry on like this! We have no right to act this way. The world is filled with problems. . . people hurting other people . . . people not understanding other people. Now, if we, as children, can't solve what are relatively minor problems, how can we ever expect to... (POW).
Lucy: I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense!
Charlie Brown is "everyman." As Schulz writes, "Charlie Brown has to be the one who suffers, because he is a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than we are with winning. Winning is great, but it isn't funny. While one person is a happy winner, there may be a hundred losers using funny stories to console themselves.". . . . I once read a newspaper article that labeled Charlie Brown 'a loser.' That never occurred to me. A real loser would stop trying. Comedy has always revolved around characters who are 'losers.' Look at Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. . . . Happiness is not very funny. . . . I am 100 percent Charlie Brown."
Peanuts was an antidote to the endless good news being preached in America. Countering the mindless optimism of a "can do" and "the impossible takes a little bit longer" culture, Schulz understood that paradox and irony are part of the human condition. Charlie Brown often wonders why he seems to get so much of the flotsam and jetsam of life.
Charlie Brown: Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, "Why me?" Then a voice answers, "Nothing personal. Your name just happened to come up."
Poor Charlie Brown: Life isn't easy. But with all its problems he has found a unique way to cope. Linus asks him:
Linus: Life is difficult, isn't it, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Yes, it is. But I've discovered a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time. (Pause) Gee, I get depressed easily. I don't know what's the matter with me. I just don't know. Sometimes I think my soul is full of weeds.
Charlie Brown's friend Lucy is a fussbudget, the great curmudgeon, the eternal skeptic, the prototypical cynic. She has a way of taking the wind out of your sails. As Schulz said, "Lucy comes from that part of me that's capable of saying mean and sarcastic things." Linus is eating a sandwich and looking at his hands. Lucy watches him skeptically and listens to him intently.
Linus: Hands are fascinating things! I like my hands. I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character. These are the hands which may someday accomplish great things. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works! They may build mighty bridges, or heal the sick, or hit home-runs, or write soul-stirring novels! These are hands which may someday change the course of destiny!"
Lucy: They've got jelly on them!
Lucy is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. She demonstrates the peculiarities of human nature. Linus asks her:
Linus: When you get big, do you want to be somebody great?
Lucy: That's an insult!
Linus: An insult?
Lucy: I feel that I'm great already!
Lucy: By the time I'm eighteen, I expect this world to be perfect! Why should I have to live in a world somebody else has messed up?! I'll give them twelve years to get everything in order!"
Charlie Brown: What if they need more time?
Lucy: Tell them not to bother wiring for an extension! The answer will be 'No!'
Lucy is a fascinating character. She has a 5 cent psychiatric clinic in a lemonade stand. Lucy fancies herself a counselor, yet often needs counseling herself. She confides in Charlie Brown.
Lucy: Sometimes I get discouraged.
Charlie Brown: Well, Lucy, life does have its ups and downs, you know.
Lucy: But why? Why should it?! Why can't my life be all "ups"? If I want all "ups," why can't I have them? Why can't I just move from one "up" to another "up"? Why can't I just go from an "Up" to an "upper-up"? I don't want any "downs"! I just want "ups" and "ups" and "ups"!
Charlie Brown: I can't stand it.
Sometimes it is Charlie Brown who confides in Lucy. He approaches her in her counseling booth. The doctor is in.
Charlie Brown: I'm in sad shape.
Lucy: Good morning, Sir, sit right down.
Charlie Brown: Fine. . . I was afraid I might need an appointment. What can you do when you don't fit in? What can you do when life seems to be passing you by?
Lucy: Follow me, I want to show you something. See the horizon over there? See how big this world is? See how much room there is for everybody? Have you ever seen any other worlds?
Charlie Brown: No.
Lucy: As far as you know this is the only world there is. . . right?
Charlie Brown: Right.
Lucy: There are no other worlds for you to live in. . .right?
Charlie Brown: Right.
Lucy: WELL, LIVE IN IT, THEN! Five cents, please.
Lucy: Charlie Brown, life is like a deck chair on a cruise ship. Passengers open up these canvas deck chairs so they can sit in the sun. Some people place their chairs facing the rear of the ship so they can see where they've been. Other people face their chairs forward - they want to see where they're going. On the cruise ship of life, which way is your deck chair facing?
Charlie Brown: "I've never been able to get one unfolded."
During another counseling appointment Lucy says to Charlie Brown:
Lucy: Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown? You know what your trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!
Charlie Brown: Well, what in the world can I do about that?
Lucy: I don't pretend to be able to give advice. . . I merely point out the trouble!
Charlie Brown: I have deep feelings of depression. . . what can I do?
Lucy: Snap out of it! Five cents, please.
Lucy would have made a good Unitarian Universalist minister. She is very honest, not to say, direct. But, as we have noted, Lucy has her down times, too. She is looking despondently out the window while little brother Linus watches sympathetically.
Lucy: My life is a drag. I'm completely fed up. I've never felt so low in my life. . .
Linus: When you're in a mood like this, you should try to think of things you have to be thankful for . . . in other words, count your blessings.
Lucy: Ha! That's a good one! I could count my blessings on one finger! I've never had anything, and I never will have anything!
Lucy: I don't get half the breaks that other people do . . . nothing ever goes right for me! And you talk about counting blessings! You talk about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?
Linus: Well, for one thing you have a little brother who loves you.
Lucy: (they hug) Waaaa!
Linus: Every now and then I say the right thing."
On another occasion Lucy and Linus are talking. He has said something about being a doctor when he grows up.
Lucy: You a doctor! Ha! That's a big laugh. You could never be a doctor! You know why? Because you don't love mankind, that's why!
Linus: I love mankind. It's people I can't stand!
Then there is another lesson in the study of human nature - the classic scene of Lucy pulling the football away as Charlie Brown is about to kick it.
Lucy: Why don't you let me hold the ball for your, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Do you think I'm crazy? Do you think you can fool me with the same trick every year?
Lucy: Oh, I won't pull the ball away, Charlie Brown. I promise you. I give you my bonded word!
Charlie Brown: All right. I'll trust you. I have an undying faith in human nature! I believe that people who want to change can do so, and I believe that they should be given a chance to prove themselves.
As we all know, she pulls the ball away again and he lands with a WUMP! Lucy bends over him.
Lucy: Charlie Brown. Your faith in human nature is an inspiration to all young people.
There is a certain amount of cynicism in Charles Schulz and his characters. He doesn't mind pointing out the foibles of human nature. Lucy and Linus are holding hands as Charlie Brown observes them - somewhat suspiciously.
Lucy: We're brother and sister and we love each other.
Charlie Brown: You're hypocrites, that's what you are! Do you really think you can fool Santa Claus this way?
Lucy: Why not? We're a couple of sharp kids, and he's just an old man!
Charlie Brown: I weep for our generation!
In one of his flights of imagination, Schulz conjures up the image of The Great Pumpkin, which Linus believes appears at Halloween. Linus and Charlie Brown are in conversation.
Linus: . . . and then on Halloween night the "Great Pumpkin" rises up out of the pumpkin patch. . . and he brings toys to all the good little children in the world!
Charlie Brown: You're crazy!
Linus: All right, so you believe in Santa Claus and I'll believe in the "Great Pumpkin". . . the way I see it, it doesn't matter what you believe just so you're sincere!
The Peanuts gang seems to have many problems - just like the rest of us. Linus and Charlie Brown talk about them.
Linus: No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from!
Charlie Brown: What if everyone was like you? What if we all ran away from our problems? Huh? What then? What if everyone in the whole world suddenly decided to run away from his problems?
Linus: Well, at least we'd all be running in the same direction.
Peppermint Patty, the only friend to call him Chuck, lies on one side of a tree with Charlie Brown on the other - in conversation.
Peppermint Patty: I don't know, Chuck. I just hate to see you always living in the past. Of course, I'd hate to see you only living the future, too. Maybe, as they always say, the truth lies somewhere in-between.
Charlie Brown: The truth is just as wishy washy as I am!
Peppermint Patty is feverishly taking an exam, when she stumbles on one of the great truths of life:
Peppermint Patty: True! False! True! True! False! False! True! False! False! True! False! True! False! True! True! False! True! True! True?! True! False! True! False! AND ONE GOOD OLD FASHIONED MAYBE!!
The Peanuts gang is constantly dealing with the great issues of human existence. Charlie Brown's little sister Sally is engaged in some religious reflection and asks help from her wise older brother.
Sally: I have to write a report on why we're here.
Charlie Brown: Who knows?
Sally: Good. That was easier than I thought.
Sally (the next day): The teacher said my report on "why we're here" wasn't long enough.
Sally (writing): How should I know, and who cares? That's a lot longer.
Charlie Brown: And it has more depth.
There is a philosophical whimsy in Peanuts. Charlie Brown and Linus are looking at a little sapling just planted.
Charlie Brown: It's a beautiful tree, isn't it?
Linus: Yes, it is.
Charlie Brown: It's a shame that we won't be around to see it when it's fully grown.
Linus: Why? Where are we going?
There's something about looking at the stars that brings out the best - or maybe the worst - in us. Charlie Brown is talking with Lucy under a sky full of stars.
Charlie Brown: You know what I think? I think that there must be a tiny star out there that is my star. And as I am alone here on earth among millions of people, that tiny star is out there alone among millions and millions of stars! Does that make any sense, Lucy? Do you think it means anything?
Lucy: Certainly. It means you're cracking up, Charlie Brown!
Charlie Brown and Sally are outside looking at the stars again as Charlie Brown says:
Charlie Brown: Let's go inside and watch television. I'm beginning to feel insignificant.
Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown are lying on a hilltop looking at the sky on a summer afternoon.
Lucy: If you use your imagination you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. . . What do you think you see, Linus?"
Linus: "Well, those cloud up there look to me like the map of British Honduras on the Caribbean. . . that cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. . . and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen. . . I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side. . . .
Lucy: Uh huh . . . . that's very good. . . . What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?"
Charlie Brown: "Well. I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind."
Charlie Brown: Life is just too much for me, Linus. . . . I've been confused right from the day I was born. . . . I think the whole trouble is that we're thrown into life too fast. . . . we're not really prepared.. . .
Linus: What did you want. . . . a chance to warm up first?"
We laugh at Peanuts because we see so much of its characters in us. Schulz celebrated the ordinary, the lonely, the forgettable, the hopeful person at the core of all of us by helping us laugh when we realized we're caught between the rock and the hard place that is life.
Then there is Snoopy, a wise and funny dog destined to cheer us up in the worst of times with his indomitable optimism. He is more human than people. He sits atop his dog house with his typewriter, pondering. He begins to type.
Snoopy: What a great title for my new book. . . . Things I've Learned After It Was Too Late.
Snoopy is once again atop his dog house - with a cast on one of his paws.
Snoopy: Today I get my cast off. These have been the longest six weeks of my life. Of course, an accident like this makes you think ... it forces you to take a closer look at your own life ... it makes you want to ask questions ... like WHY ME?
Lucy and Charlie Brown are doing some ethical reflecting while Snoopy trots along beside them.
Lucy: Sooner or later, Charlie Brown, there's one thing you're going to have to learn. You reap what you sow! You get out of life exactly what you put into it! No more and no less!
Snoopy stops to ponder her wisdom, then trots along, saying:
Snoopy: I'd kind of like to see a little more margin for error!
Most of us can relate to that. In another strip Snoopy is doing one of his amazing dances, showing off for the curmudgeon Lucy.
Lucy: You wouldn't be so happy if you knew about all the troubles in this world.
Snoopy: Don't tell me. . . I don't want to know. . . I'm outrageously happy in my stupidity!
Snoopy sits atop his dog house musing.
Snoopy: My life has no purpose. My life has no direction. No aim. No meaning. And yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?
What are we doing right? It is a good question. It is a hard question. But life, as we know, is hard - not only for Charlie Brown, but also for us. Charlie Brown is in bed talking to Snoopy.
Charlie Brown: Sometimes I like awake at night, and I ask "Is life a multiple choice test or is it a true or false test?" Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, "We hate to tell you this, but life is a thousand word essay."
But no recollection of Peanuts would be complete without the problem Charlie Brown has with love. Charles Schulz, who himself was once rejected by a red-haired girl, once remarked about the presence of so much unrequited love. "Sally loves Linus, but Linus can't stand her; Lucy loves Schroeder, but Schroeder can't stand her; Charlie Brown loves the red-haired girl, but doesn't even dare to go near her. There's something funny about unrequited love - I suppose it's because we can all identify with it. We've all been turned down by someone we love, and it's probably the most bitter blow in life."
Charlie Brown: That little red-haired girl has lots of friends. I don't have any friends. They say that opposites attract. She's really something and I'm really nothing. How opposite can you get?"
Linus meets Charlie Brown in the hallway at school.
Linus: Where're you going, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: The teacher wants me to see the nurse about my eye. She saw me winking at the little red haired girl. She thinks something's wrong with my eye. What am I going to tell the nurse? I never knew love could be so much trouble.
Even Linus has trouble with love. But Charlie Brown, ever the theologian, has an answer.
Linus: She was so cute! I used to see her in Sunday School every week. I used to just sit there and stare at her. Sometimes she'd smile at me. Now, I hear she's switched churches.
Charlie Brown: That'll change your theology in a hurry.
So it will. Charles Schulz changes not our theology but our way of looking at things - including ourselves. Not too long before his death he wrote, "A short while ago, the phone rang in our house, about 7:15 in the morning. My wife Jeannie answered it. It was a young girl calling from the Midwest. She said, 'My friends and I are having an argument. Is Mr. Schulz still alive?' Jeannie said, 'I just saw him in the bedroom about ten seconds ago.' So the girl said, 'Oh well, I guess I lose the bet then.'"
But we have won. We have delighted in the wisdom of a man who drew children and put words in their mouths - words all-too-familiar to us - because they are much like our own. Schulz had a clause in his contract that the trip would end at his death. In his farewell strip which appeared the day after his death, Schulz wrote: "Dear Friends, I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy. . . . how can I ever forget them?" How can we ever forget you, Charles Schulz - you are gone, but Peanuts lives on - and we are grateful.
May 14, 2000
- A Defence of Poetry (1821).
- Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 162.
- Peanuts, 6.
- WPNWE 2/21/00, 30.
- Peanuts, 6.
- Peanuts, 9.
- The Gospel According to Peanuts, Robert L. Short, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1964-5, p 7.
- Henry Allen, "A Good Man: Charles Schulz," WPNWE, 2/21/00, 30.
- Peanuts, p. 140.
- D&C 2/14/00, 6C.
- Peanuts, p. 132.
- Peanuts, p. 134.
- Peanuts, p. 25.
- Henry Allen WPNWE, 2/21/00, 30.
- Peanuts, p. 193.
- Peanuts, p. 251.