Growing in faith alongside "Peanuts"
Since 1950, the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) has graced newspapers worldwide with humor, wit, and a bit of faith. Daily, we can open the newspaper, flip to the comic section, and laugh alongside charming characters such as Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus. If we look beyond the panels, though, we discover the cartoonist’s sincere faith, which can deepen our faith as well.
“His was not a wishy-washy faith; it was an honest one,” writes Stephen Lind, author of “A Charlie Brown Religion; Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz.” Lind’s book includes exclusive stories about Schulz’s faith derived from extensive research of Schulz’s cartoonist career and interviews with his five children.
Lind says that around 560 of the 17,897 original “Peanuts” newspaper strips that Schulz drew contain a religious, spiritual, or theological reference. He notes that while this may seem like a small portion of the total “Peanuts” collection to some, the number is substantial when compared with other recurring motifs: Schulz drew only 61 strips of the iconic football scene where Lucy pulls the ball away as Charlie Brown tries to kick it.
One of my favorite “Peanuts” strips is “Here’s the Church,” printed in 1989. Charlie Brown teaches his sister, Sally, a traditional nursery rhyme by tangling his fingers together and saying, "Here's the church. And here's the steeple. Open the door, and here’s all the people!"
As Snoopy's ears stand up, Sally says, "That's very clever." She walks away, saying, "Open the door, and here's all the people. That's neat! I like that!" Looking over her shoulder, she continues, "I appreciate having a smart big brother who can teach me all these things."
Charlie Brown turns to Snoopy and asks, "Do you think maybe you could help me get my fingers apart?"
With a traditional nursery rhyme and a handful of characters, Schulz introduces the church without fear, shame, or guilt, but rather, with curiosity and connection. He offers readers the freedom to apply their own understanding of theology, faith, and the church.
Since Pentecost (the day that marks the descent of the Holy Spirit onto Christ’s disciples), the Holy Spirit has breathed divine love and new life into the church by uniting a fellowship of believers. The church has become a family of faith, a communion of saints, and—one of my favorite descriptions of the church—a hospital for sinners. At its best, the Christian church is the body of Christ experiencing the fullness of God through being intimately connected by the Holy Spirit.
Schulz did not want to tell others what to think or believe. For decades, he nurtured his gift of faith in the church by studying the scriptures alongside other adults in a Sunday school class. Many of the “Peanut” comic strips reveal Schulz's mature faith in asking intriguing questions such as, "Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?"
Christian faith did not always come easily to Schulz. He experienced times when God felt distant, and his faith nonexistent. Also, as a cartoonist, he struggled to produce daily strips that were authentic and humorous. It was once suggested that he produce 365 comic strips in two months and take off the next ten months. He said no. To sustain his craft as an artist, he had to bring his life to it; he could not draw in isolation. He had to share life with people and live that life on the comic strip page.
Believers in the church and servants in the world can relate to Schulz’s daily struggles. The constant strain of problems and mountain of hardships can leave us weary. We can remain distant from God and neglect extending kindness toward one another.
In the last scene of the “Here’s the Church” comic strip, Charlie Brown and Snoopy teach us the heart of the church: a tangled mess of imperfect people where our faith is nurtured and our lives are strengthened. And if we are bold enough, our humble requests connect us to God and one another.
This is the church Paul prays for in Ephesians 3:14-21. In his letter, Paul draws believers close to God and humbly prays for the corporate body to grow in spiritual knowledge, abound in love, and possess strong faith. Paul's prayer encourages all believers to gain inner spiritual strength, experience an indwelling of Christ's love in their hearts, make Christ's love known in the world, cast new visions, live out new missions, and place the spiritual knowledge of Christ above all other knowledge.
Somedays, the church feels like only a building with a steeple. Somedays, the church feels like a tangled mess of wiggly people. Yet, on the best days, the church feels more like a connected body that draws all places and faces together through the breath of the Spirit to encounter God’s deep love.