SHERMY: I've got this whole Santa Claus bit licked, Charlie Brown. If there is a Santa Claus, he's going to be too nice not to bring me anything for Christmas no matter how I act... Right? Right! And if there isn't any Santa Claus, then I haven’t really lost anything! Right?
CHARLIE BROWN: Wrong! But I don't know where!
Presbyterian pastor Robert L. Short published The Gospel According to Peanuts in 19641. It proved a hit, was republished several times, and birthed a less-successful sequel, The Parables of Peanuts (1968). In 2000, the publishers brought forth an anniversary edition.
Short wasn't reading the comfortable Peanuts of the late 1960s or 70s, when Peppermint Patty and Marcie often held the strip for weeks and Snoopy was a groovy sort of dog who jumped on every trendy bandwagon. No, this was the early Peanuts, the strip that provided a surprisingly unvarnished look at childhood. Happiness could be a warm puppy, but Charlie Brown spent much of his time in a deep funk. Linus's personality split evenly between wisdom and neuroses, while Lucy could barely remember to act like a human being. "Good Ol' Charlie Brown," reflected Shermy in the first strip. "How I hate him." In a cartoon reprinted in Short's book, the good ol' blockhead walks down the street and meets with ridicule and laughter at every turn. Upon arriving home, he turns on a radio and hears, "...and what in all this world is more delightful than the gay, wonderful laughter of little children?"
He kicks the radio.
Robert L. Short turns to this early incarnation of the strip and finds spiritual inspiration and religious lessons. He developed the book from a slide show he created, which used the comics as a clever way to teach and provoke discussion on aspects of Christian doctrine. He acknowledges that strip creator Charles M. Schulz may not have intended all of the scriptural lessons Short finds in the strips. That's the nature of art. But the Peanuts creator was a devout Christian who taught at the local Sunday School. It's really no stretch to suggest that a particular world-view influenced Charlie Brown's adventures.
Short writes warmly but holds a fairly conservative line. Original sin taints humanity. Children are not innocent. Humans naturally turn away from God and toward evil. Hell awaits the unsaved. He connects cozier interpretations of Christianity to Pelagius, the fifth-century monk excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church:
One elderly latter-day pillar of the Church, after having the doctrine of Original Sin explained to her, is said to have exclaimed angrily, "Well, if all of us really are as bad off as all that, then God help us!" In the case of Pelagianism, it is often difficult to know whether to weep or to laugh (33)
Short also writes from the perspective of the early 1960s, when people like, say, theologians, took popular culture a lot less seriously as culture. The book first defends comic strips as an art form. Dr. Fredric Wertham's attacks on comix had cast a long shadow, and the preface, by a professor of theology, supports the newspaper strip as artistic while condemning Superman and Mad Magazine as "perversions" (ix). Short explains in the meticulous first chapter why a preacher might even want to refer to popular culture to reach his congregation. Clearly, he saw himself treading upon new and unfamiliar ground.
He draws some interesting conclusions. Charlie Brown is a beleaguered everyman wearing a t-shirt of thorns. Lucy stands for Original Sin. Schroeder is an idolater. Snoopy, despite his canine failings, comes closest to representing Christ’s ideal.
Some strips he suggests directly illustrate Sunday School lessons. Lucy rants about how she is her "own cause" and Short reminds us that we can serve one god only. Other strips he ties to specific Biblical references: the Book of Job and the Parables of Jesus, for example. Elsewhere he develops his theological commentary. An extended consideration of strips that depict the characters' attitudes towards Santa Claus leads to conclusions about attitudes towards God.
He writes a fairly readable book, clearly intending to reach a broad audience while holding to a particular set of beliefs. His conclusions will give a reader much to ponder, assuming Peanuts, Christian theology, or the mid-60s zeitgeist rank among his or her interests.
1. The book appeared in December of that year, which is likely why most sources indicate 1965 as the year of publication.