by Katharine Armbrester
The more I thought about the matter…the more I realized that I really loved God.
This past November 26th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of beloved cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown, Linus, Sally and Snoopy are characters in the American imagination and are represented on everything from blankets to license plates. The Peanuts holiday specials are family traditions for many, particularly the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas with its Vince Guaraldi music and its timeless message of “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” It’s almost impossible to imagine this time of year without the Peanuts gang.
Many may recognize and love the Peanuts characters, but few know about the man behind them. Charles M. Schulz was born on November 26th, 1922, to a loving family and grew up as a shy and anxious but deeply artistic child. It is a great blessing that Schultz, nicknamed “Sparky,” was able to pursue his artistic calling despite the economic upheaval that was the Great Depression. He remembered being drawn to the “funny pages” of the newspaper more than any other more “serious” artistic endeavor, and he was drawn far more to art than to the inscribed Bible his devout grandmother gave him.
In 1943 he was drafted into service during World War II and had to leave behind his devoted mother, who died of cancer in his absence. He later said of his war experience, “I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about. I place the source of many of my problems on those three years in the army.”
When Charles returned home both he and his father attended a church led by a man who had ministered to his mother in her final days. The church was a Church of God congregation, and Charles liked it for the lack of sectarian politics and for the high morals of its members, who did not smoke, drink, curse, or tell crude jokes. “I like the niceties of language,” Charles said, “We are creatures of habit. I never wanted to be in the habit of having to have a drink.” For Charles, it was very important for Christians to act like Christians, and he had little patience for the infighting or accumulation of wealth that he witnessed in many so-called “believers.” The young Charles Schultz was the very definition of “an upright young man.”
In 1948, Charles Schulz “reconverted;” embarking upon a personal relationship with Jesus. He was deeply humbled by having survived the war and fully immersed in his Church of God family. “I felt that God protected me and helped me and gave me the strength to survive,” Charles said, “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” His life would be forever altered by his faith, for he always endeavored to live near a church, do good to others, and his art would be forever shaped by his religious beliefs.
Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown both had a surprising amount to say on the topic of religion. Their voices were studied, open, and personal. They were often humorous, not seeking to grind any axes.
And boy, could “Sparky” draw. Charles Schulz wrote and illustrated a comic strip for the official Church of God newsletter called Young Pillars. Charles also had a comic strip called Li’l Folks, which was soon syndicated in multiple newspapers. His artwork was also published in Saturday Evening Post, which was one of the most popular publications of the day. When Li’l Folks was renamed (to Charles’s consternation) as Peanuts, the comic strip took off and the adventures of Charlie Brown and his friends were avidly read by thousands across the country. In both of his strips (and Charles continued to contribute the more outright religious Young Pillars strip for years despite Peanuts astronomical success) readers were drawn to Charles’s singular artwork, endearing characters, and his inimitable sense of gentle yet thought-provoking humor.
Before long, television came calling. The 1960s has been called the “golden age” of television and the first Peanuts television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, would change Charles Schulz’s life forever. The show had thousands of viewers, received rave reviews and won an Emmy Award. What is most fascinating about the special, however, as Stephen Lind reveals in his book, A Charlie Brown Religion, is that there was much resistance to any sort of Christian message in the special.
If you are a Christian, you are the church. You are one of the “called-out ones,” who have been called out to serve God. How, then, can you just sit there?
The 1950s and ‘60s are often touted as “the good ole days” when folks were more religious, but Lind relates how there was a great deal of pressure on CBS to take out any Christian ideology or direct Biblical references in the Christmas special. This was pre-televangelism, and commercialism was at a fever-pitch. The lynchpin would be if Coca-Cola, the primary sponsor, agreed or disagreed with the religious messaging. Thankfully, Coca-Cola was fine with it—and Linus’s recitation of the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke was left in. About A Charlie Brown Christmas’s simple but rule-breaking inclusion of Scripture, Charles Schulz said, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
Like King David, Charles M. Schulz was an incredibly gifted man, devoted to the Lord and His Word, but was also a man who was deeply human and flawed. He was an outwardly simple man, and inwardly complicated when it came to his spiritual beliefs and practices in his daily life. “Schulz himself worried that simple explanations would not suffice in matters of spirituality, for there were too many “howevers” needed for such issues,” Lind’s book will “explore and explain much of Schulz’s beliefs in the mysteries of faith, and those “howevers” will play an integral role.”
Sometimes I think God purposely denies me this “land of promise” of close Christian companionship, but maybe I am meant to dwell alone, behind a drawing board.
Charles dealt with anxiety and loneliness throughout his life, which were often exacerbated by frequent moves across the country. His home life was loving but unstable; he eventually had an emotional affair and then he and his first wife divorced. Most controversially, he encouraged his daughter Meredith to get an abortion rather than suffer the life of an unwed mother, sending her to Japan for the procedure.
These portions of the book may be difficult to read for those who want Charles M. Schulz to be a sort of saint, someone they can point to every time they see a Peanuts character in the grocery store and tell their children, “A Christian did that!” Charles M. Schulz was most certainly a role model, but he was also certainly not perfect. Nonetheless, God used him and his art for good, and Sparky’s art is something that is still bringing glory to the greatest Artist of all.
Cartooning is preaching, and I think we have the right to do some preaching.
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Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.