The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 1. Self: "My soul is full of weeds." (Sections i-iv "The Duplex Self")

Peanuts, first of all, is a meditation on the human predicament. Interestingly, the main categories of fracture in Peanuts parallel the Christian analysis. We find brokenness and rifts within our hearts (Self), between people (Humanity), between humanity and the physical world (Creation), and, finally, between humanity and the Divine (God). Christians typically group these fractures under the generic term "sin." More specifically, sin is both cause and effect. The fractures create more fractures.

We begin Part 1 with how Peanuts analyzes the fractures within the soul.

As noted, our predicament is one of fracture. And this fracture runs through our personhood. We feel alienated from parts of our soul. We are not unified. Strangers live within us. Further, these strangers are often experienced as malevolent. Thus, we are often internally overthrown. We are self-defeating. The war is inside. These fractures are a recurring theme in Peanuts and lead to Charlie Brown's great description of the human soul:

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

This analysis converges on the biblical witness where the self is presented in a radically duplex fashion:

Romans 7: 14-24a
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

This duplex nature is clearly described in the Jewish view of person. According to the rabbis, the human soul has two impulses within it. First, there is an evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, which corresponds with Paul's "sinful nature." Struggling against the yezer ha-ra is the impulse for good, the yezer ha-tov. The duplex self is thus perceived to be a battleground. The soul is divided.

Interestingly, and controversially, Paul places the impulse of the yezer ha-tov in the hands of the Spirit. If so, then it becomes unclear if humans have ANY intrinsic goodness. By handing the yezer ha-tov over to God it appears that all humanity is left with are the evil impulses of the yezer ha-ra. We quickly find ourselves converging on the doctrine of original sin and the debates between Augustine and Pelagius. On psychological grounds, I side with Peanuts and Pelagius: I discover good impulses in me. Yet I side with Augustine in his general opinion that humans need assistance. What good we naturally possess is very fragile and in short supply. In short, the Christian analysis of the battle between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov is that the duel is not balanced but is asymmetrical. Just how asymmetrical is a matter of debate.

Feeling aliened from our own selves can cause us to think that something or someone else is affecting us. As Charles Taylor has shown us, in the enchanted age the self was permeable. Forces outside the boundary of the self--imps, witches, gods, and demons--could readily enter and disrupt our personhood. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that in an enchanted age people might locate the impulses of the yezer ha-ra OUTSIDE the self. This might be the origin of the Satan idea, a projection of our evil impulses onto an external agent. Again, the yezer ha-ra feels alien to us. We don't want it. By disowning it as "me," it seems reasonable to posit that the source of the struggle is "not me." This "not me"--the Malevolent Stranger within us--is Satan.

But it is more complex than this. The evil impulse isn't simply wanting to rape and steal and kill. It's more subtle and destabilizing. The darkness within always indicts us. It is the skeleton in the closet that exposes us as frauds. To ourselves at least. This internal critique--"You're a nasty, disgusting person! You're not fooling anyone."--threatens to demoralize us and disrupt our positive projects. Every time I move toward goodness I think, "Who am I kidding?"

In the bible, this prosecutorial criticism is also handed over to Satan. We see this in the book of Job and in the New Testament. For instance:

Luke 22: 31-32
"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

Curiously, this function of Satan can be helpful. That is, the bible at times seems to suggest that Satan's ministrations might have holy and beneficial functions. Consider:

2 Corinthians 12: 7
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

All this mixes to create that odd theological stew we label as "Satan."

In the world of Peanuts Lucy is the Satan-figure. She embodies egotism and aggression in the strip. Characters are legitimately afraid of her. But, as we see in the biblical witness, Lucy has positive functions as well. Lucy's critique of Charlie Brown was seen by Schulz to be, at times, beneficial to Charlie Brown:

"You have to give [Lucy] credit, though, she has a way of cutting right down to the truth. This is one of her good points." Lucy "can cut through a lot of the sham and she can really feel what is wrong with Charlie Brown, which he can't see himself." (1)

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

(1) The Art of Peanuts edited by Chip Kidd

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9 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 1. Self: "My soul is full of weeds." (Sections i-iv "The Duplex Self")”

  1. I'm having trouble with the idea of original sin. I don't believe it. If God is the "all in all" as the Bible frequently speaks of Him, the everything that IS. Then, how can He create something that is imperfect and why would He do so. Am I to believe that He created us imperfect, knowing that we can't hope to do anything about it. I don't think we are capable of changing that imperfection, if we were created imperfect; which I believe we are not. I prefer to believe that He created us perfect as He is perfect; the perfect creator creating perfection. I don't believe God expects anything from us, except to believe we are the same "stuff" as the one who created us; perfect as we were created. I am enjoying this little internet book. Thank you for presenting it to us.

  2. Hi Don,
    I don't really believe in original sin either. I find I disagree with Augustine on just about any issue I've come across. Which makes me think Augustine seriously screwed up Christianity. But I'm not enough of a scholar to defend that point. It's just a suspicion I have.

    I actually like the Eastern Orthodox view of the Fall. The consequence of Eden isn't sin. The consequence is death. And given that we will die we get anxious and move toward self-preservation. As Hobbes noted, this bias often escalates into violence when paranoia and fear lock into self-reinforcing cycles (often called the Hobbesian Trap).

    The point is, I like this formulation (the problem is death rather than sin) as it fits my existential perspective and, I feel, is closer to the human predicament as experienced on the street (i.e., everyone can see the need for rescue from from death and Hobbesian Traps; few people care about if God is angry with them and planning on sending them to hell).

  3. I'm assuming you're speaking of physical death, not a spiritual death of sorts, right? I struggle with how physical death could be the consequence of the fall of man when living things died well before man ever showed up on the scene.

  4. Hi Jason,
    Yes, the Orthodox Church is speaking of physical death, removal from the Tree of Life. The perspective is very different from the views in the Western tradition.

  5. Richard,
    Let me say that you are very creative broher. Who would have ever thought of ever of a Theology of Peanuts. I want you to know that I have enjoyed reading your blog and have added you to my list of favorites. Keep up the wonderful work.
    In Him
    Kinney Mabry

  6. Richard,

    The NIV translation of "sarki" as "sinful nature" is significantly influenced by Augustine and his radicalization in Calvin. More appropriately, it should read "flesh" as the older translations have it. The sense in which Paul uses flesh is expressed in Jesus' words: "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The rabbinic take which you cite is not "essentialist," but "existential," behavioral, and historical. Sin is violation of behavioral norms. Not who we are, not our "nature." Our weakness, our very creatureliness, not a tainted "sinful nature," lays us open for sin (Hobbesian traps). Accumulated violations damage us individually and collectively as well as God's creation.

    I also incline toward the Orthodox reading of Eden. But I would add that one of Pelagius' arguments was that as creatures, even in Eden, we were made to be eternal only by being connected to the Eternal One. Our immortality has always been conditional. It is why we must feed upon God.



  7. Richard - marvelously parsing of the Scriptures in a way that makes them relevant to issues with all wrestle with every day. Not being that familiar the passage from Romans was eye-opening. The line of argument reminds me of Solzhenitsyn's observation that the line between good and evil ran thru the heart of every person. Something that Dostoevsky also argues for, perhaps most strongly in the Brothers Karamazov.
    If you'd like to pursue St. Augie a bit more O'Donnell's recent bio ('05 ?) is an introduction worth your time as it places him in the context of his place and times.

  8. great post! several friends pointed me this way, because i am "lucy" :-) i, of course, gravitate toward her good points such as "lucy can cut through a lot of the sham and she can really feel what is wrong with charlie brown, which he can't see himself."

    it was only when i embraced the lucy side of me that i was able to feel more whole and complete. she is definitely my inner critic and i realize that i am my own worst enemy rather than some outside evil source.

    yesterday, my post was about love and fear...your cartoon here about love and hate covers the topic wonderfully. i hope you don't mind, but i would love to borrow it and link back to your post here.

    wonderful writing & thinking...


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