Can We Be Good Without Charlie Brown?
Charles Schulz's faith found its way into 'Peanuts,' and a book that put pop culture to work for religion
BY: Michael G. Maudlin
Charlie Brown is a loser, a failure, an outcast, virtually friendless, a sufferer of perennially low self-esteem. By almost any standard of success today, he fails. But he is good. In fact, most of us can only dream about being as good as Charlie Brown. How can this be?
Charles Schulz died this weekend at age 77, as his final "Peanuts" strip was going to press. An active Christian layman in the Church of God (Anderson), Schulz had a religious as well as an artistic mission: to use humor to reveal the incomplete ways we live out our ideals. Charlie Brown bore the moral brunt of Schulz's message. Now he will go, we hope, to a place where he can throw only strikes, win every game, and finally get to kick his football.
But we have to live with the consequences of both Schulz and Charlie Brown's departure. Whether we are conscious of it or not, Schulz provided us a cultural definition of goodness, a very particular and very old one, one that only makes sense if we allow for such concepts as sin, redemption, and grace. Which leaves us to wonder, can we be good without Charlie Brown?
Northern California's wine county is not known for its abundance of Christian prophets. Yet here is a divine coincidence: Schulz drew most of his "Peanuts" strips in Santa Rosa, California, the same town where Disney's "Pollyanna" was filmed. This early Hayley Mills's vehicle tells the story of how an upbeat, trusting, God-loving child can turn a troubled, turn-of-the-century village full of negative thinkers into a rosy, loving community that understands the true meaning of Christianity (and America): be happy. Pollyanna, the child prophet, becomes the very incarnation of Norman Vincent Peale's gospel.
Schulz's message can't be reduced to a simple smiley face, but it is good news nonetheless. His child prophet, Charlie Brown, yearned to be Pollyanna, but he keeps tripping over the human condition. Schulz started with Peale and added the dark night of the soul. And over 50 years, the "Peanuts" gang taught us more than we realize about the Christian life.
In 1965, a 28 year-old pastor named Robert Short turned a popular slide show he'd been presenting while working his way through seminary into a book called "The Gospel According to Peanuts," using Schulz's characters to explain the Christian faith. He explained that Lucy, in her headstrong impulsiveness, often represents original sin. In the "Hound of Heaven" chapter, Short shows how Schulz used Snoopy to stand for Christ or ideal Christians. A small Presbyterian publishing house (John Knox) published it in hopes of inspiring some Sunday-school teachers to think outside the box, and, behold, their wish was fulfilled. Over 10 million copies were sold.