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.
Reading the book today, one is struck by Short's ability to move deftly from Linus to Graham Greene to Saint Paul and back to Snoopy. He demonstrates a broad and deep grasp of Scripture, theology, and popular culture, all without any of the personal narrative that dominate today's religious bestsellers. After reading Short's Gospel, I know less about him than I do about my insurance agent. His only narrative is the gospel: original sin, the wages of sin are death, sin makes us aware of our need for redemption, salvation is entirely a work of grace motivated by divine love. I know of no other bestseller since Short's that is structured around such traditional theological categories.
And yet more than 10 million people bought this six-chapter treatise (Short calls it "theological literary criticism") about a comic strip already 15 years into its run. The book begins with an apology for using art to communicate religious messages (comparing cartooning to the parables Jesus told). It has three chapters on the theology of sin. It's chief references, apart from the ample samplings from Peanuts, are Soren Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, and Karl Barth. If this book had debuted in 2000, the publisher would be ecstatic if it sold 50,000 copies. The success of "The Gospel According to Peanuts," put simply, was a bona fide miracle.
In 1965 we seemed to need reassurance that the old foundations were still holding, even if we were getting impatient with the old forms. Short tried something new, even outlandish: he used pop culture to communicate old truths.
And lo, we loved it. We loved it so much, we expanded on his formula with Crystal cathedrals, seeker-sensitive megachurches, televised talk-show prophets, and serialized end-times soap operas. Though, as this dynamic evolved, we seem to have lost Kierkegaard and Pascal, and sometimes even Saint Paul.
Short could draw so much out of the Peanuts strip only because Schulz put so much in. It is no small thing to lose a voice that regularly tried to explain to 355 million newspaper readers the deep human truths of the Christian faith.