A Charlie Brown Religion

    Reading biographies will give you insight into a person’s character, thinking, and motivations. I especially enjoy reading presidential biographies but occasionally pick up others: Nick Saban, Randy Owens, and Charles Schulz. The latter’s biography is a biography specifically of “Sparky’s” religious journey. It is subtitled Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz, by Stephen Lind.

    Schulz’s parents were Lutherans in Minnesota. He was not particularly religious himself until he came back from a three-year tour in World War II. Back in Minnesota, he began worshiping with a Church of God. He liked their worship style, less formal than the Lutherans and he liked that they referred to themselves as a “movement,” rather than a “denomination.” He also liked their upright, moral lifestyle – no smoking, drinking, cursing or crude jokes.

    In 1948, Schulz embraced the faith of the Church of God but was never baptized (for any reason). In an interview that year, he commented, “I am a firm believer in Jesus Christ.” He taught the adult Bible class and led them through a systematic study of the Old Testament.

    Schulz’s first Peanuts cartoon ran October 2, 1950. By 1958, he had only used phrases from the Bible, twice. He did not tell where the phrases originated. It was in that year that Schulz and his wife moved to California, north of San Francisco. Without a Church of God there, he worshiped with a Methodist church and began soon to teach the adult Bible class there. But he rarely stayed for worship services. They were too formal and ritualistic.

    Lind writes that Sparky marked on nearly every single page of his Bible through the years – underlines, notes on timelines, key words circled. Through his time at the Methodist church, he would teach through the entire Bible four times. His family typically did not attend.

    We are all very familiar, I’m sure, with A Charlie Brown Christmas. At the time it hit the airwaves, less than 9% of Christmas episodes were overtly religious. Thus, Schulz broke the barrier with his award-winning program, first aired on December 9, 1965.

    Lind gives some statistics for the religious content of Sparky’s Peanuts (pg 115). He drew 17,897 comic strips over a nearly-fifty year period. More than 560 of them contain explicit religious and theological references. By contrast, only 415 dealt with Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace theme and only 61 featured Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the infamous football scene.

    Spiritually speaking, in 1970, in a weak marriage, Sparky began a two-year romantic relationship with a woman. He divorced his wife in 1972 and married a third woman in ‘73, sixteen years younger than he.

    From 1979 until 1987, while other comic strips touched on religious themes barely half a percent of the time, Sparky’s Peanuts would do so 4.4% of the time. In one interview, Sparky stated, “Of course, I do believe that the scriptures are holy, but I do not believe that the Bible itself is a holy instrument to be worshipped. After all, the words are only the words which men put down under inspiration” (Lind, 122).

    By Lind’s count, through the years, Peanuts’ characters referenced 32 out of the 66 books of the Bible. In 53 strips, the characters directly quote Scripture while in 34 strips, quotes are placed around statements to indicate they are from Scripture. In 6 strips, Sparky has a child read directly from the Bible while in 32 strips, Scripture is embedded into the dialogue without reference to specific passages and without identifying quotation marks.

    Peanuts characters went to church in over 40 strips and prayer is featured in about the same number. He had one Sunday comic that dealt with the Supreme Court ruling which took prayer out of public schools.

    Of the 75 animated features that Schulz and his team put together, only 13 have no religious or spiritual content to it. To summarize, there was a “church” reference in 20% of the animated titles and a biblical quotation or biblical character referenced in 30% of those cartoons.

    It is clear that Schulz was a religious man, dedicated to his beliefs and willing to share those beliefs with upwards of 300 million daily readers. Unfortunately, the “Jesus” whom he served was a “Jesus” created after his own heart. Amy, a daughter who would become a Mormon, lamented the fact that her dad did not pass on his religious convictions to his children. In the words of Lind, “He had taught her to lick the bowl when she was done with her ice cream, but not what it meant to believe in a Heavenly Father” (165).

    Remember his marked-up Bible? According to Lind (185), when it came to John 14:6… “Without noting the reason, Sparky underlined the first half of the verse, stopping before Christ said ‘no one comes to the Father, but by me.’” 

    Sparky did not want to accept the exclusive claims of Jesus and His apostles. For that reason, I point out that Sparky served a “Jesus” after his own image. That is unfortunate. In the Bible which Sparky apparently loved so much, the Holy Spirit told him over and over again, “Repent and be immersed for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). But Sparky grieved the Spirit and refused to listen. That, too, is unfortunate.

–Paul Holland