Robert L. Short

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2257

Peanuts, the famous cartoon strip, often assumes the form of a modern-day, Christian parable. To illustrate how closely the parables of Peanuts can parallel the parables of the New Testament—in lessons suggested, in ways of suggesting these lessons, and in indirect method—[the cartoon showing Linus' kingdom of sand washed away by rain] is coupled with Christ's parable of "The house on the rock and the house on the sand." (p. 19)

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And so there are lessons to be found in Peanuts; but just as in the parables of Christ, we are not always sure what these lessons are. Or, as Lucy would put it, also in Peanuts we have trouble "reading between the lines."…

[Mr. Schulz] has confessed … to presenting something of a religious message in Peanuts, but evidently he has not gone much further in specifying exactly what this message is. Again, why should he?… [The] job of the interpreter (whether minister, priest, professional critic, or perceptive layman) and the job of the artist should usually be kept apart. "How can you give a personal evaluation of a work of art?" was Schulz's guarded reply when one reporter attempted to force him into becoming his own critic. Both the Church and the artist must constantly beware of cheapening what they have to say by making it too accessible….

[Lessons] "to be found," if they are to be seriously appreciated when found, will always first require a corresponding amount of serious seeking. And so then, like Charlie Brown, the job of Charles Schulz probably should not be the interpretation of "prophetic literature" as much as it is the creation of it…. (p. 20)

The doctrine of Original Sin is a theme constantly being dramatized in Peanuts. And as Lucy asks Charlie Brown, after demonstrating to him how his pebble-like virtues are no match for the boulder representing his "countless faults," "Don't you think you're lucky to have me around to point up these things in such a graphic manner?" Indeed we are lucky! For as Hume maintained, one of the best ways of putting new flesh onto the bones of old and misunderstood creeds is precisely to point up these things in a graphic manner. (pp. 26-7)

The captivity of man's will is most often dramatized in Peanuts just as it is most often dramatized in men's lives—by the significant change that never takes place. In talking about the egotism and brutality of children, Schulz has said, "We grown-ups don't change so much, except on the surface, because we get along better that way." (p. 31)

The inability of the Peanuts kids to produce any radical change for the better in themselves—or in each other—is a constant Peanuts theme…. The classic Peanuts commentary on this rather pessimistic view of human nature is the running gag every year when Charlie Brown's courageous views on man's freedom and goodness are invariably brought back to earth by Lucy [when she promises not to pull the football away as Charlie Brown kicks it]…. Lucy's "bonded word" … sounds more like what theologians have called "the bondage of the will"; and Charlie Brown sounds very much like a follower of Pelagius, who also was "accustomed … to call attention to the capacity and character of human nature and to show what it is able to accomplish." (pp. 32-3)

The "children of men" of the preceding psalm could be well represented by the children of Peanuts, for in both cases all seem to have "gone astray." Even the lovable and long-suffering Charlie Brown, as Schultz has said of him, "never does anything mean, but he is weak, vain and very vulnerable…. And aren't all kids egotists?" Schulz asks. "And brutal? Children are caricatures of adults." Indeed Mr. Schulz had originally planned to call his strip Li'l Folks, and evidently was quite disappointed with the "terrible insignificance" of the "Peanuts" title, when the strip was renamed by a cartoon syndicate. (pp. 40-1)

Children can be a good symbol for the original sinfulness of man since all men originate as children and as sinners…. For this reason the children of Peanuts can be seen as a sort of comic counterpart to the kind of children found in William Golding's terrifying tract of the times, Lord of the Flies. Golding's children, along with an increasing number of young people in modern literature, help us to see the unaccommodated man—left completely free to be himself, to do what comes naturally, without gospel and in spite of law—is a savage…. Seeing the infant as a sinner, however, probably never has been nor will be a popular point of view. It may be, therefore, that the modern "cult of the child," which holds to the child's "original innocence," is partly a reaction against the doctrine of Original Sin…. Whenever they can, even the youngest Peanuts children are crafty enough to take advantage of this point of view…. This kind of "original innocence" of children, as Lucy says of it, "doesn't solve anything, but it makes us all feel better." But the innocence of the Peanuts kids is never an innocence of shallow and sinless "cuteness"; it is always an innocence with biblical or metaphysical overtones, an innocence of being "innocent but not too well informed," as Schulz has said of Linus. (pp. 41-2, 45)

All the Peanuts kids are guilty … of serving a false god; and all receive their inevitable wages in [a] kind of emotional clobbering.

This theme is so constant in Peanuts that the strip truly can be seen as a kind of "child's garden of reverses." Take Linus for instance. His blanket (this "portable security," this source of "mental therapy," this "spiritual blotter" soaking up "fears and frustrations"!) is obviously intended to cover a multitude of sins for him, but it inevitably turns out to be only a drag, as it is surely the world's longest and most vulnerable Achilles' heel. One might wonder why he continues to suffer for it so; but, as he says, it is all he has: "Only one yard of outing flannel stands between me and a nervous breakdown!"… No one can part with one's god until one has to, until there is no part of it left to cling to. A god, by definition, is all we have "to keep us going," as Linus has put it. (pp. 50-2)

But Peanuts manages to demonstrate the hazards of worshiping deities that are far more familiar than blankets, winning, Beethoven, or Schroeder. There is for instance the belief we can have in ourselves, or in our abilities—the well-known "power of positive thinking."… Poor Charlie Brown! The psalmist surely must have had him in mind when he wrote, "Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there were none and for comforters, but I found none."… Indeed the psalmist could have had "Charlie Brown" in mind. For Charlie Brown, with his globe-like head (Lucy has used it as a globe several times) and his T-shirt of thorns, can be seen as a sort of twentieth-century representation of Everyman. We love him just as misery loves company; for usually he is just as miserable as most of mankind is. (pp. 53, 55)

In Peanuts religious heresy seems to be represented by the "Great Pumpkin," Linus' substitute for Santa Claus…. Futhermore, the "Great Pumpkin" will only appear in "the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere." Over and over, Schulz seems to be saying that sincerity is no more a guarantee of truth than it is a guarantee of success…. Schulz seems to be in agreement with Kierkegaard, who said, "Evil, mediocrity, is never so dangerous as when it is dressed up as 'sincerity'." The "Great Pumpkin," then, may be symbolic of popular religious sentiment, which currently seems to have more "faith in faith," or faith in "sincerity," than faith in anything in particular. At any rate, the cult of the "Great Pumpkin" is surely "religious," as also is its rival the Santa Claus sect. When Charlie Brown is asked if he believes there really is a Santa Claus, he replies, "I refuse to get involved in a theological discussion." (p. 59)

The "child's garden of reverses," Peanuts, seems … at times to be an unweeded garden that grows to seed. For here the "weeds of the heart" often seem to be represented by weeds that can be seen, and yet weeds that are nonetheless a threat to the Peanuts patch. They are a threat because they are so easy to get "lost" in—just as were the weeds in Jesus' "parable of the sower" and "parable of the weeds of the field."… Snoopy has a very peculiar malady Charlie Brown calls "weed-claustrophobia."… For whether Snoopy represents a kind of cosmic catcher in the rye, or comic outfielder in the weeds, he is literally terrified of weeds…. "What's the difference between 'claustrophobia' and 'weed-claustrophobia'?" Lucy asks Charlie Brown after seeing Snoopy's horror of the weeds. "Regular claustrophobia is nothing compared to 'weed-claustrophobia'," he explains. Even the very worst sufferings "the natural man" can endure are like a "jest," Kierkegaard tells us, when compared to the dreadful "sickness unto death." "Thus may we gather honey from the weed, / And make a moral of the Devil himself," as Shakespeare put it; thus Schulz would not seem to be above the same strategem. (pp. 67-8)

Schulz gives all of us a lot of high-protein food for thought; but …, the job of unshelling Peanuts is largely up to us. (p. 81)

[We] … turn more directly to the element of redemption expressed in Peanuts by extremely subtle suggestion, we now turn to Jesus Christ.

Snoopy we would hesitate to call "Christ." He comes closer, rather, to being "a little Christ"—that is, a Christian. For as Schulz himself has pointed out, Snoopy is capable of being "one of the meanest" members of the entire Peanuts cast. Futhermore, Snoopy has other faults …: he is lazy, he is a "chow hound" without parallel, he is bitingly sarcastic, he is frequently a coward, and he often becomes quite weary of being what he is basically—a dog. He is, in other words, a fairly drawn caricature for what is probably the typical Christian. (pp. 87-8)

Snoopy, as a little Christ, quite obviously takes on Christ's ambivalent work of humbling the exalted and exalting the humble, "that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind,"… as Jesus put it. "The love that follows us sometimes is our trouble, / Which still we thank as love," quoth Shakespeare. And Snoopy is certainly a troubling love that follows. For as his name implies, Snoopy is given to constant prying and meddling. None of the popular false gods of the Peanuts patch are secure when he is around. He is a "hound of heaven," fled from "down the labyrinthine ways," who uses his snoopy nose to smell out faults not immediately discernible to the eye. (p. 89)

Snoopy seems to realize that his lowliness and lonely separation means beatitude, that he is "rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious."… For to be a Christian is to be "a little Christ"; and to be "the Christ" is to be the anointed one, the chosen one, the one who is specially called-out, set apart, or elected—it is to be "the lucky one."

Snoopy's being "the lucky one" may also help to explain why the happiness of the Li'l Folks seems dependent to an extent on their relationship to him. "Happiness is a warm puppy!" says Lucy in one strip, as she pats Snoopy on the head and gives him a big hug. (pp. 98-9)

We would not have the reader think that every Peanuts cartoon contains some profound theological meaning. If this were the case, Schulz probably could not keep his audience with him any more than a Shakespeare could if he had composed his plays of nothing but Hamlet-like soliloquys. But on the other hand, as Schulz has pointed out, "if you do not say anything in a cartoon, you might as well not draw it at all!" The Christian faith must learn to speak meaningfully to men where they are; and when it comes to "serious" reading, there are probably many people who never get far beyond the comics section of the daily newspaper, who read only the comics "religiously." (p. 106)

Peanuts lends itself easily to this kind of Christian interpretation, whether these thoughts were always in the artist's mind or not. Thus Peanuts—and countless other efforts in the modern arts—can play a vital part in the life of the Church by providing meaning-full "conversation pieces" between the Church and culture, by being wonderfully imaginative parables of and for our times…. (p. 107)

Robert L. Short, in his The Gospel According to Peanuts (© 1965 by M. E. Bratcher; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1964 (and reprinted by Bantam Books, 1968).

"Peanuts" it isn't. The eminent multi-millionaire creator of "Peanuts" is also a well-known and active worker for his church…. [He] turned out three little cartoon collections especially for church young people. They deal mostly with teen-agers' relationship with the church and are as wholesome as all-get-out. Bantam has selected [for "Teenagers, Unite!"] the 100 least religious, most "general" cartoons from the three Warner Press paperbacks, but, as we said before, "Peanuts" it isn't. (p. 60)

Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the April 17, 1967, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1967 by Xerox Corporation), April 17, 1967.

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