The Gospel According to Peanuts: The Church and the Arts

Last year sometime, Aaron Zimmerman posted about Robert Short’s seminal The Gospel According to Peanuts, […]

David Zahl / 11.21.11

Last year sometime, Aaron Zimmerman posted about Robert Short’s seminal The Gospel According to Peanuts, claiming that Short was the original Mockingbird. It took me a few months to get around to it, but I’ve finally read the books in question, and man oh man, they are wonderful! Shame on me – I was expecting something far more corny. Perhaps because they preceded (or jumpstarted) the “Christian publishing industry,” perhaps because the material in question – Schulz’ Peanuts strip – is so strong, perhaps because Short himself was looking to the same giants for inspiration and wisdom that we are (Luther, Kierkegaard, Salinger, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are quoted with alarming frequency, not to mention Christ himself), the approach outlined in the book is disarmingly sympathetic. And the theology at the heart of it could not be less asinine; the bondage of the will and justification by faith, for example, are both given some serious due throughout, and the chapter “Good Grief!” functions a primer on the theology of the cross. More on that soon. For now, a few quick excerpts from the first chapter, entitled “The Church and the Arts”:

Man then is trapped in his own blindness, in the circle of this own humanity. Apart from God’s mercy, men cannot even “turn for [God] to heal them.” This is why when a man does turn to God, this revolution, or reversal, always has the aspect of a miracle; it is a revolution which occurs in spite of man’s own best efforts rather than because of them.

Art has a way of getting around man’s intellectual and emotional prejudices. This is because art always speaks indirectly–whether in being the vehicle for delivering a new answer, or in causing a new kind of question to be asked that must be asked before any new answer can make sense.

Far too often the Church finds itself in the trap of attempting to explain its position in a language that is itself not meaningful. When Linus asks his mother why he cannot “slug” Lucy, who has taken his book of stories, his mother answers, “That’s just one of those things I can’t explain.” But Lucy has an explanation: “Listen dope!” she tells Linus, with her fist in his face, “If you slug me, I’ll slug you right back!!” “Never mind, Mom,” says Linus after silently watching Lucy turn and walk away with his book; “It’s just been explained to me in a language I can understand.”

Art, just because of its subtlety or indirectness, has a way of sneaking around “mental blocks” and getting to the heart of the matter where it is capable of deeply and literally “moving” — even the most immovable — men and women. [ed note: ourselves included!]

Art can also aid in penetrating man’s emotional prejudices by showing him who he really is; by acuratly reflecting his own pretentions, foibles, and anxieties; by setting up before him a mirror where he may see his own inmost part.

This is why all real art, though at first it may seem to be a most welcome escape from reality, will inevitably lead one into a face to face encounter with reality — but always with reality in a different light from which it was first seen. Thus Hamlet could say, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Our approach to Peanuts, then, will not be one of “reading into” but of “reading out of”; our concern will not be so much in trying to say what Mr. Schulz has actually put into his cartoons, as in saying what has come out of his cartoons to us. Confession, or witness, is the basis of a Christian interpretation of art as it is the basis of a Christian interpretation of anything. It just may be, however, if an interpretation should seem to account coherently for all or most of the puzzle’s pieces, that the interpreter’s intuition has coincided with the artist’s vision. But still there is no way of knowing for sure.