How ‘Peanuts’ Took Faith to Culture
By Jesse Carey
November 6, 2015
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
This month, ABC is broadcasting one of the Bible’s most powerful passages into millions of homes across America. In an era of increased religious polarization, where overtly religious messages are largely absent from prime-time, Linus’ monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas (taken from the book of Luke) is still somewhat remarkable.
Along with primetime airings, ABC is streaming the entire special on its website.
Even when the Christmas special first aired in the mid-'60s, the decision to include the Bible passage was controversial. But Schulz’s adamance and non-compromising creative vision paid off. That year, nearly half of the country tuned in to watch.
Considering the special has been aired consistently for five decades, it’s arguably one of the most broadcasted pieces of Scripture in history.
And it perfectly embodies the legacy Charles Schulz created with Peanuts.
The Legacy of Charlie Brown
Last year, filmmaker Paul Feig—one of the masterminds behind films including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, who has also had his hand in TV shows including Freaks and Geeks, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Mad Men—brought Schulz's vision to big screen for the first time in a generation.
'Peanuts' was concerned with exploring deeper truths rather than just creating entertainment.
Early on, Feig addressed concerns that he would attempt to alter the tone or innocent appeal Schulz fostered in his decades writing and illustrating the comic.
He assured Collider,
It’s totally a G-rated movie, because you can’t get edgy with Charlie Brown. That was the Schulz family’s fear, that me and Fox and everybody were gonna come in and hip it up and cast Justin Bieber as Charlie Brown and have it like 'Space Jam' or something. All of us were like, ‘No.’ We cast kids that sound exactly like the kids you remember from the specials. It’s very pure of heart.
It should be noted, the notoriously guarded Schulz family was also heavily involved in the production. As Feig notes in the interview, both “Charles Schulz's son and grandson and the grandson’s writing partner are the writers on it.”
Feig had good reason to be so reverent with his modern adaptation: Peanuts remains one of American pop culture’s most unique pieces of entertainment and social commentary. It intentionally broke the mold of traditional “comic” humor and dealt with big themes like loneliness, insecurity, sadness and complicated relationships with a surprising amount of humanity.
That’s because the comic, like Schulz himself, was concerned with exploring deeper truths rather than just creating entertainment. Religion and faith were constant themes in the original comics, but even the tone of the series itself served as commentary about joy and hope.
The Profound Truth of ‘Peanuts’
Though Schulz was a Sunday School teacher and would even preach sermons at his home church, Peanuts was different from a message you’d hear from the pulpit. It was rarely preachy. Instead, it looked at the beauty and charm of taking a "childlike” approach to difficulties in life. (Even in the new movie, all of the voices are done by children.)
It looked at the beauty and charm of taking a "childlike” approach to difficulties in life.
Even though minor tragedies constantly befall the gang, Schulz never lets it make them cynical. In a modern era of self-help and prosperity promises, his message was more grounded: It’s not about if bad things happen to us; it’s about how we deal with them.
Schulz once explained, “'You can't create humor out of happiness.'I'm astonished at the number of people who write to me saying, 'Why can't you create happy stories for us? Why does Charlie Brown always have to lose? Why can't you let him kick the football?' Well, there is nothing funny about the person who gets to kick the football.’'
It was an idea that was closely tied to faith: "Once you accept Jesus, it doesn’t mean that all your problems are automatically solved," he was quoted as saying.
Unlike other cartoons and works of fiction, in Schulz’s world, even the heroes are flawed. They are less like perfect role models and comic heroes, and look a lot more like people like Peter, David, Gideon and Moses—human beings reliant on grace. As Rev. Robert Short wrote in his best-selling book The Gospel According to Peanuts, “As Schulz himself has pointed out, Snoopy is capable of being 'one of the meanest' members of the entire Peanuts cast ... 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.”
The point is not calling Christians hypocrites; it’s calling them humans. We need grace just like everyone else. Despite our best efforts, in our own strength, we will fail. Schulz saw something tragically funny about that. (As noted in this fantastic essay from Dennis R. Hoover.)
Schulz's highlighting of human nature wasn’t an indictment on people or a way of showing disdain for them. It was a way of underscoring all of our brokenness, and how remarkable it is that God still loves us unconditionally, whether we get fixed or not.
God’s grace never changes. It doesn’t matter if we ever do kick the football, or if we fall down every time we try. He's always going to be there.
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