It’s that time of year again where we all sit down and watch that masterpiece of holiday angst, Charlie Brown Christmas. More than 40 years after it’s original air-date, this animated short about the corruption and commercialization of a day to commemorate the birth of a destitute carpenter who wrecked the tables of money changers is as relevant as ever. Many critics like to point out the extraordinarily well delivered biblical quotation Linus gives (read by an actual eight year old) to uplift Charlie Brown’s holiday attitude. My personal favorite part is right after the speech when Charlie Brown feels so high that nothing can bring him down.
That is, until the bouncy jazz abruptly stops as he accidentally crushes his tiny Christmas tree with an over sized ornament.”I’ve killed it! Everything I touch gets ruined!”, he yells, and quickly stumbles off screen. It’s a great line in a great moment that epitomizes the manic-depression of the character.
But what of that biblical passage Linus reads? Many people love to point to it as proof of Charles Schultz’s devout faith. He was a Methodist Sunday school teacher for a time, after all. Entire books have been written about the Christian undertones in Peanuts; however, Schultz himself claimed later in life to be a secular humanist and is quoted as saying “the only theology is no theology”. Just what did this guy believe in?
To get a full picture of the theological beliefs of Charles M. Schultz I think A Charlie Brown Christmas needs to be matched up with it’s lesser known younger brother: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which is a not so subtle criticism of blind faith. The whole story revolves around the very same Linus, who helped us celebrate the faith of a child just a year before, sitting in a pumpkin patch waiting for a supernatural being who would never show up. Linus tries to recruit followers (Charlie Brown’s younger sister, Susie who, despite being younger, does not have the level of faith Linus possesses), passes up pleasures of the flesh (trick-or-treating), and attempts to chastise and shame nonbelievers. Linus is convinced that his suffering will result in rewards the heathens don’t deserve, and they will live to regret their folly. It’s pretty classic zealot behavior. In the end Linus succumbs to the same fatal attitude that got Lot’s wife turned into sodium chloride (he didn’t mean if the Great Pumpkin comes, he meant when!). It takes a pretty twisted, and irreverent sense of humor to take a level headed character that innocently quotes verses from Luke and turn him into a wannabe cult leader in his very next production.
Its possible Schultz believed passionately in Jesus the man and not Christ the Son of God. Perhaps the loving and peaceful long haired hippy who hung out with the poor and indigent and spit on the rich appealed to him the way it appeals to many of us, but the mythical and supernatural parts of the story did not. Schultz was a Christian, but only in the philosophical sense. His faith, like his self-esteem, was nonexistent.