Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me?
In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him.
Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection.
In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked.
Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear.
After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.”
I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God.