YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN—
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PEANUTS

JANUARY 9, 2000
R.M. FEWKES


My wife and I were married on December 17, 1967. We spent part of our honeymoon in the big city of Boston. While there we attended a theater production of "You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown" which was a musical adaptation of the popular comic strip Peanuts. It was a fun show and we enjoyed it a great deal. Charles Schulz, the creator of the strip, had already been at it since October 1950. It was the most popular comic strip of its kind. Schulz has been at his craft for nearly 50 years and it has never lost its appeal to young and old alike. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Schulz announced his retirement effective January 4, 2000. At age 77, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in November and had to undergo chemotherapy treatment. He wanted to devote time to his family and to tending to his health needs without the deadline of a daily comic strip.

Among fellow cartoonists, Schulz, who is affectionately known as Sparky, is revered as an all around good guy who treats fans, business partners, and peers with the utmost respect. I was touched by the response of Kirk Anderson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who drew an endearing farewell picture of Snoopy that read as follows: "A shy local boy puts pen to paper, not knowing he will become the most successful and beloved cartoonist of all time. He raises the cartoon to high art; brings psychology, philosophy and theology into the comics; changes pop culture forever, give the world characters as allegorical as Shakespeare’s. I hope this has a happy ending!" worries Snoppy, his mouth a squiggle. Such are the sentiments and prayers of a vast global community.

Bar none Schulz has indeed become the most successful comic strip artist in human history. More people worldwide read Peanuts on a daily basis than anything else out there. It reaches 355 million readers in 75 countries and 21 languages, a truly global outreach. The final Sunday morning strip will appear on February 13. After that papers will be doing reruns from the 1970s. That won’t matter since nothing in his comic strips are limited to time and place. All his strips are good for the ages and people of all ages.

The Rev. Robert Short, a Presbyterian minister, published a book in 1965, called The Gospel According To Peanuts, which has sold millions of copies since. With Schulz’s backing and approval, Short showed how the parables and lessons in the Peanuts comic strip reflected the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and made sense in a humorous way of some traditional Christian doctrines like sin and grace. He makes a strong case. The remainder of this morning’s sermon will show how the Gospel According to Peanuts still has lessons to teach us.

We begin with a heated theological discussion between Little Linus and Charlie Brown who are having an argument about the Great Pumpkin versus Santa Claus. Linus is thoroughly convinced that each year on Halloween night the Great Pumpkin rises up out of the pumpkin patch and brings toys to all the good little children in the world! "You’re crazy!" says Charlie Brown. Linus retorts, "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." On another occasion Charlie Brown says to Linus, "We are obviously separated by denominational differences." Later, when asked to defend his belief in Santa Claus, Charlie Brown dodges the issue by saying, "I refuse to get involved in a theological argument." Why is it that the religious and political viewpoints of others often appear crazy to us while our opinions seem so reasonable and sensible? That’s why people say you can talk about anything except religion and politics. Charlie Brown agrees.

In commenting upon the message in his cartoon strip, Schulz once said,

Schulz has been an active "lay-preacher" in the Church of God, a conservative evangelical denomination, and he has taught Sunday School. I would not be surprised if he got some of his ideas for the strip from his encounters with the children.

Take this episode in which Linus is attempting to interpret the meaning of a nursery rhyme to Charlie Brown. He says to Charlie, "The way I see it, ‘the cow jumped over the moon’ indicates a rise in farm prices. The part about the dish running away with the spoon must refer to the consumer. Do you agree with me, Charlie Brown?" Charlie Brown replies, "I can’t say. I don’t pretend to be a student of prophetic literature."

One of the things that Schulz has touched upon again and again in his Peanuts strip is our flawed human nature, otherwise known as original sin, the notion that we are born into the world with two strikes against us and an inevitable third which we bring upon ourselves. Charlie Brown is sitting on a log feeling rather dejected. He says to Linus who is standing nearby, "Life is just too much for me. 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 replies, "What did you want, a chance to warm up first?"

The poet, Adrienne Rich, says, in her piece called, "Transcendental Etude:

That was Charlie Brown’s complaint. It would be nice if we had a chance to warm up first, wouldn’t it.

In another scenario we find Lucy saying to Charlie Brown, "Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown? You know what your trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you’re you!" Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?" Lucy answers, "I don’t pretend to be able to give advice. I merely point out the trouble!"

In all fairness to Lucy she sometimes plays the role of redeemer. On another occasion Charlie Brown turns to Lucy for support. He tells her, "I think my trouble is that I feel guilty all the time…" (There’s that original sin again) Lucy looks around, back and forth, and then with a shout she yells, "NOT GUILTY!" Surprisingly, she sounds a lot like the old Universalists who preached a Gospel of universal salvation: Not guilty, everybody saved.

One of the main theses of the doctrine of original sin is the notion of the captivity of the will—the seeming inability of human beings to change themselves for the better even when they know what is right. The apostle Paul put it this way: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." This is illustrated in Peanuts by the seeming inability of any of the characters to produce radical change for the better in their selves or in each other. They continue to do those things, which they know they ought not to have done. Linus’ inability to give up his blanket is a clear example. Schulz says of this: "Linus’ affection for his blanket is a symbol of the things we cling to. What I am getting at, of course, is the adult’s inadequacy here—the inability to give up habits which really should be given up." I remember my New Testament professor at Andover Newton who said, "It’s easy to stop smoking. I’ve done it dozens of times." One could substitute a multitude of things for Linus’ blanket and they would all fall into the catch basin of the captivity of the will.

We may not like the theology behind the doctrine of original sin, but like it or not, it does tell us something about human nature we can easily observe in others as well as in our selves. We’ve all got our habits and addictions and personality patterns that are ever so difficult to change. Charlie Brown sees Lucy coming and she appears to be in her usual mean mood.

The obvious message, of course, is that neither she nor anybody else will ever change to any great degree. The classic Peanuts commentary on this rather pessimistic view of human nature, notes Robert Short, "is the running gag every year when Charlie Brown’s courageous views on human freedom and goodness are invariably brought back to earth by Lucy." It is also a parable about liberal optimistic views of human nature in conflict with the conservative pessimistic view. Here’s the scenario:

In honor of Charlie Brown’s annual attempt to kick the football, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial cartoonist, Dick Collier, recently drew a picture of Charlie Brown lined up to kick a football held by a Dallas Cowboy. The caption reads: "News item: After a successful career in the comics, Charlie Brown is signed as the Dallas Cowboys new field goal kicker." At last Charlie will find someone who will hold the ball in place and not snatch it away at the last second. His faith in human nature will finally be vindicated.

Some of you will remember the old Unitarian affirmation in the "the progress of mankind onward and upward forever", a notion that seems naïve even to modern day liberals who still secretly think that progress ought to be "onward and upward forever" even if it isn’t.

Peanuts raises the age-old controversy about the innocence vs. the sinfulness of little children. Schulz says of Charlie Brown, that though he "never does anything mean, he is weak, vain and very vulnerable. And aren’t all kids egotists," he asks. "And brutal?" He concludes, "Children are caricatures of adults." Can anyone deny that kids can indeed be crafty, devious, and even brutal in their responses? Though they may learn from adults they can be pretty original themselves sometimes.

Linus tells Lucy about a conversation he had with Charlie Brown about how people can learn to get along: "Charlie Brown says that brothers and sisters can learn to get along. He says they can get along the same way mature adults get along. And he says that adults can get along the same way that nations get along. At this point the analogy breaks down."

Must we choose between Charlie Brown’s naïve faith in the goodness and perfectibility of human nature and Lucy’s innate proclivity towards meanness? Are they not both true paradoxically at one and the same time? Are not children, are not all of us, a mixture of both saint and sinner, devil and angel, sometimes the one, sometimes the other gaining the upper hand in our thoughts and actions? If there is such a thing as original sin, then there is also an original goodness, that is as much an inherent part of our human nature as its opposite. Though we do indeed need to be wary of the former, we also have it within us to foster and nurture the latter.

Not even Lucy, as mean as she makes herself out to be, is beyond the capability of insight and growth. As our drama draws to a close we find Lucy chasing poor ol’ Charlie Brown around the yard.

Finally, we have this little piece of hope for success tucked into Charlie Brown’s life of seeming failure. At summer camp he manages to make friends with another lonely homesick boy like himself. The boy says to him, "So long Charlie Brown. It’s been nice knowing you." Charlie replies: "It’s been nice knowing you too, Roy. Have a good trip home. Bye now!" Roy leaves and Charlie Brown exclaims, "For the first time in my life I feel I really helped someone. He was lonesome and I became his friend. What an accomplishment!"

What an accomplishment indeed! If Charlie Brown can do it, so can you. You’ve got what it takes to befriend another human being and to make a difference for good in the world. That’s what being part of a church community is really all about. It’s been nice knowing you too, Charlie Brown. We’ll miss your daily parables and life lessons. But we wish you every success in your new position with the Dallas Cowboys, and we pray that your creator, Sparky, will know peace and well being and satisfaction in a job well done.

Thus ends this morning’s lesson from "The Gospel According to Peanuts."