The Making of The Theology of Peanuts

People blog for all kinds of reasons. I blog because my brain needs something to do. Thinking is kind of my hobby. So, as you may have noticed, I set in front of myself little blogging projects. This is the source of all the thematic series that I do.

Right now, obviously, I'm in the middle of The Theology of Peanuts. This has been by far the most ambitious thing I've done to date. The biggest task was getting my head around the source material. As I've been linking to, Fantagraphics books is currently engaged in publishing the entire 50 year run of Peanuts. All weekly and Sunday comics. They release two volumes a year, with two years contained in each volume. The volumes are beautiful and award-winning. Each comes with an introductory essay written by the likes of Walter Cronkite or Garrison Keeler. So far, years 1950-1966 are available.

In The Theology of Peanuts I've been working with strips from 1955-1966. Over the Christmas break read through these eleven year's worth of comics and coded them by theme. I didn't code all the strips, just the ones that struck a theological note with me. For example, here's a copy of one of my notebook pages (I'm addicted to carrying a Moleskin notebook wherever I go):

After reading the source material I tried group all the themes into a overarching theological structure. Here is a copy of the outline that ultimately produced the Table of Contents I've been filling in. If you look close you'll see in the jottings many of the ideas that have been showing up in the posts:

All in all this has been a labor of love. I have had so much fun reading the early years of Peanuts. We know Peanuts so well from later years that, starting from the beginning, we almost don't recognize the characters. In 1950 Snoopy doesn't speak but by 1966 he sits atop his dog house and begins his life as a writer: "It was a dark and stormy night." Also in '66 we see Snoopy fight the Red Baron for the first time. From then on Snoopy becomes the Star of the Peanuts Universe.

Here is my favorite find from reading through the Peanuts strips. In 1964 Linus makes a bid for class President. Lucy and Charlie Brown work together as his campaign managers. Against all odds, Linus is on the verge of victory. All he needs to do is deliver an innocuous speech at a school assembly. As Linus begins his speech Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "We've got it cold, Charlie Brown...If he doesn't say anything stupid we can't lose!" Charlie Brown begins to fantasize about being Vice-President. But then, at a critical moment, Linus steps from behind the podium to address the crowd with these ill-fated words:

"I want to talk to you this morning about the 'Great Pumpkin.'"

I hope you've been enjoying The Theology of Peanuts. It's a long series, and a quirky one. But I've found the world of Peanuts so rich and rewarding I wanted to share all that I had found.

PS-If nothing else comes from this series I have this. The other night Aidan, my youngest, came into my room while I was selecting strips for a post. Peanuts books are all over the bed. Aidan climbs on the bed and begins to read. He's just starting to read so the short sentences of the strips fit his reading level very well. He starts laughing and talking about Snoopy and his adventures with all the birds that stop by his doghouse. I tell him I loved reading Snoopy books on long drives to Grandma's house. He's intrigued by this vision of me being a little boy. And he reads on.

We sit, for a long time, together, laughing and reading Peanuts books into the night.

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6 thoughts on “The Making of The Theology of Peanuts

  1. Richard, please keep on keeping on. I found your blog via Bob Sutton who's become a bit of an electronic friend thru our own exchanges and his recommendations are valued accordingly. After browsing your blog they were entirely justified - anybody who tries to apply both James and Hofstadter (two of my great heroes)to modern life deserves applause.

    Without giving too much distorting applause let me say this Peanuts inquiry is wonderful. I wouldn't invest so much time in reading it let alone the effort in wrestling with your arguments if it weren't a worthwhile investment of my time and energy.

    So far it's been very rewarding. In fact I took your Theodocy post and triggered several days of long and thoughtful exchanges among several of my friends as well.

    So believe me we find your efforts worthwhile and rewarding. :)

  2. Dr. Beck: I'll admit I haven't followed the "The Theology of Peanuts" series, but I did happen to catch a glance of the "P.S." at the bottom of this last post and how can one pass up reading a "P.S."....there's something about those things that even if you don't read what proceeds it, everyone is curious as to what's in the "P.S." sooo...

    As I read it I smiled and thought how cool that is to get your son into reading comic books you grew up on. I have converted my 10 year old cousin into a Calvin and Hobbes reader; as I introduced her to her first Calvin and Hobbes book about a year and a half ago and she has since purchased several more. I love hearing her randomly laugh out loud when she's reading them!

    Sorry, but I'll take a Calvin and Hobbes over a Peanuts comic anyday... ;)

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for the PS at the end of this post!

    My youngest is 14, and I dearly hope to nurture in him a love for the subtle, sometimes sublime beauty and other times fascinating horror embedded in our lives. It seems one must either embrace it or spend one's life hiding from it. It appears that peanuts is a great way to introduce the love of truth to a surprisingly young child.

    I recently pulled my son out of our church--and myself with him--because of an entrenched anti-intellectualism that fears the pursuit of truth... It dismays me that what ought to add an extra dimension to life is so often used to create an intellectual ghetto.
    My son should not end his most formative years in that kind of environment.

    Anyway, Sunday mornings in place of church, my son and wife and I have begun going through books that touch on christian faith and developments in our culture that are relevant to (or can be made relevant to) a 14-year-old. We also plan to visit various churches and discuss our experiences, with an eye to finding a place that uses faith to add that dimension to life that I believe sets the human spirit free.

    I cannot commit to this, since I need to place my son's interests over others at this point, but I may blog about our experience, so others can learn from our experiment. I'll wait and evaluate how I think my son would react to our sharing this experience.

    But at bottom, it's the same experience that you shared with your son over the Peanuts strips.

    Thanks for modeling both a faith that enriches life on a spiritual dimension, and a means to share it with others.


  4. Hm. You need some way to keep track of that stuff on your iphone. At the very least you need a database of the strips and themes. Or maybe that's what GAs are for. ;)

  5. I suppose you've run across Robert L. Short's volume, The Gospel According to Peanuts? Here's an Amazon link:

  6. dblwyo,
    I love Bob Sutton's book and his blog. He seems like just a fun person. Thanks for the encouragement.

    You can't go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes. It's in my top three along with Peanuts and The Far Side.

    I would be very interested in hearing about your journey. Some of my friends, when they have gone on journey's like this, have gravitated to liturgical churches. They can go to church or mass and immerse themselves in the symbols of the faith while not exposing themselves to the pedagogy of bible study (which they regularly disagree with). It seems to give them a season to sit "in the faith" in a more passive way while they contemplate their own thoughts and feelings. Liturgical churches tend to move your body through the faith rather than your mind. Thus, when your mind is tried, rebelling, seeking or questioning your body can continue the journey while the mind does its thing.

    The trouble with the iphone is that it doesn't allow you to draw circle or arrows. I tend to work things out geometrically. I need a stylus that can doodle a bit. Palms have these but even these are not integrated with the notes function.

    Yes, I do have Short's volume. There are parts of it I like very much. Here is how our projects differ:

    Short is presenting an evangelistically motivated gospel account (with strong Calvinistic features) using Peanuts as illustrations. Thus, Short is imposing a theology onto Peanuts. The Peanuts illustrations are to make the gospel presentation more appealing and accessible.

    My project has been to enter the world of Peanuts to discover the theology I find there. I don't impose a theological account onto Peanuts but discover the theology implicitly latent in Peanuts. I don't look for a single strip as an "illustration" but look for reoccurring strips that are the theological leitmotifs of Peanuts. Once I've identified those themes I bring them out into the open for theological exposition.

    One consequence of this process is that the theology of Peanuts will tend to be lopsided. Peanuts doesn't present "salvation" in any clear sense. It is not as neat as Short presents it. Peanuts is best at presenting a theology of "predicament." You might notice that Part 1 of the blogbook I'm writing is much longer than Parts 2 or 3. Because of this I think the main theological thrust of Peanuts is one of theodicy.

    However, Short's analysis and mine do touch in places. Thanks for providing the link to the book so people can check it out!

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