Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Gospel According to Peanuts

The Gospel According to Peanuts. Robert L. Short. Introduced by Martin E. Marty. 1965/2000. 130 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: "How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4) is a question the Church, always finding itself in but not of the world, urgently needs to reconsider today.

Premise/plot: Are there theological lessons to be learned from engaging (reading thoughtfully) in the comic strip Peanuts? Short says YES, and this book is his argument why Christians should engage with the culture of the world.

My thoughts: The Gospel According to Peanuts is a short book, just six chapters in length.

The chapters are: "The Church and the Arts," "The Whole Trouble: Original Sin," "The Wages of Sin is Aaughh!", "Good Grief," "The Hound of Heaven," and "Concluding Unscientific Postcript."

If you can make it past the first chapter of this one, I think you'll enjoy reading this one. The first chapter suffers from being overly scholarly and long-winded. Instead of coming straight to the point and writing in English, the author offers his argument that essentially says a) comic strips can be important cultural indicators, a type of ART that should not be ignored but engaged in b) Peanuts is well worth reading because there are theological lessons to be found c) Christians often have a hard time communicating with the world in ways that the world can understand, if Christians engage in the culture they can better communicate the gospel in ways--in words and actions--that the world will be more likely to listen and respond.

I really loved the middle chapters of this one. In particular I loved "The Whole Trouble: Original Sin," "The Wages of Sin is Aaughh!" and "Good Grief."
The original sinfulness of man--all men--is almost taken for granted by the New Testament; it is the background for almost everything the New Testament says. Christ himself usually seemed to presuppose this view of human nature. (29)
Short argues that original sin can easily be seen as the background for the Peanuts strip. Each of the characters reveals the lostness--the blindness--of human nature itself.

One of the strips shown in this section:
LUCY: You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?
CHARLIE BROWN: No; and I don't want to know! Leave me alone!
LUCY: The whole trouble with you is you won't listen to what the whole trouble with you is! (30-1)
And here's another that reminds us of Paul's letter to the Romans:
LUCY: This Linus is a picture of the human heart! One side is filled with hate and the other side is filled with love. These are the two forces which are constantly at war with each other..
LINUS: I think I know just what you mean. I can feel them fighting. (36)
An example of a theological insight Short shares:
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. (37)
I enjoyed the comic strips very much. I also enjoyed Short's insights.

One of the points of the book is that ALL of the Peanuts characters have a natural, sinful fallen nature. There aren't "good" characters and "bad" characters. They are all messes. They all make mistakes. They all think mistakenly. If you're used to compartmentalizing the characters into "good" and "bad" then this book might be disconcerting to you. For example, if you are prone to thinking that LUCY IS BAD and LINUS IS GOOD. If you are of the opinion that Linus can do no wrong, and that Linus is wiser than all the rest,  then this one might upset you. For example, Short considers that Linus' blanket is unhealthy as is his insistent belief in the Great Pumpkin.

A few observations I have:

1) If you read enough comic strips, you could find enough to probably prove whatever you wanted. You could pull strips together showing Linus to be practically perfect in every way and Lucy to be a real jerk with no redeeming qualities. In this book, Lucy gets a lot of great lines in and in these strips she seems to be very self-aware while Linus seems to be fascinated with his blanket to the exclusion of seeing the real world.

2) This book was published BEFORE the 1966 Charlie Brown Christmas special. Linus stands out in the special as being wise and observant and GOOD. I think most people associate Linus with that--an image of him reading the birth narratives of Christ. And that image is so solid that it's hard to think of Linus as being anything but wise.

3) The new Peanuts movie is wonderful, but goes against much of what this book says. In the new movie, Charlie Brown comes across as an absolute saint; he may be clumsy, he may be gullible. But he's GOOD; he's LOYAL; he's COMPASSIONATE; he always does the right thing. He may worry a lot. He may be awkward but it seems his good works and good intentions outweigh everything else. He doesn't seem to need a savior; he just needs to believe in himself.

4) This book doesn't consider the comic strips written from 1965-2000. So it isn't a comprehensive look at the comic strip. Again, I think you could pick different strips from these years to prove anything about one of the characters.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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