The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections i-v "Snowmen."

i. "Cursed is the ground."
In Chapter 3 of The Theology of Peanuts we turn to a third kind of fracture, the antagonism between humanity and Creation. In the Christian story this antagonism is a consequence of the primordial fall from grace. Man is ejected from Eden's Paradise and begins to exist in a hostile environment. From Genesis 3:

God said to Adam:
"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."

ii. "...and then he died."
Genesis 3:22-24
And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 5:5
Altogether, Adam lived 930 years, and then he died.

However one reads Genesis we can all agree that it is an account of human mortality. A meditation on why we die, an attempt to get our heads around the fact that we are dust and to dust we will return. Thus, any account of the human condition must confront death and human finiteness.

iii. Snowmen
David Michaelis has noted that "Snowmen occupied an major place in Schulz's worldview from his earliest days of drawing." (1) Schulz was born and raised in Minnesota, so snow was a part of his world and, thus, a constant in the wintertime strips of Peanuts.

As anyone from Northern climes knows, snow is an amazing creative medium. It can be shaped to create snowballs, snowmen, snow forts, and snow angels. And Peanuts is filled with snowball, snow fort, and snowmen strips.

Yet the spring thaw always destroys these creations. They melt and fade away. In Peanuts the melting of snowmen is a constant source of subject matter for Schulz. The typical rhythm of these strips is that a Peanuts character grows an attachment to the snowman. They become friends. But then the sun comes out. The Peanuts character then frantically tries to protect or shield the snowman from the sun's heat. The character often begs or pleads with the implacable fire in the sky. All to no avail. The snowman always melts. And the final square of the strip is often an expression of grief and loss. As Michaelis notes, "every friendship with a snowman is doomed..." (2)

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

It should be clear that the Peanuts snowmen and their plight are deeply existential symbols. First, snowmen represent the futility of human toil. What we build and create will not last:

Ecclesiastes 2: 11
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

Second, beyond the transitoriness of human achievement, we must also confront the fact that we are the the snowmen. We are finite. We will melt. Dust we are and to dust we will return.

Ecclesiastes 3: 18-19a
I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other."

Thus, in snowmen Peanuts confronts our deepest existential predicament, the deepest rift between humanity and Creation. As Marilyn McCord Adams has written,

"Death proves that there is not enough to us to maintain integrity, to hold body and soul together...It is in our nature and our calling as human beings to strive against the forces what would undo us, and it is in our nature surely to lose...Death mocks our personal pretensions...If death is a horror, and death is natural to human being, then to be human is to be headed for horror. In cultic conceptuality, human being is a prima facie cursed kind of thing to be."

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

As we saw in Chapter 2 Peanuts is clearly a meditation on human alienation. Here in Chapter 3 we are confronting the existential issues portrayed in Peanuts. Is there a connection? Are issues of death related to relational fractures?

For the most part, the Western traditions of Christianity have not noted the connections between death and failures of human communion. The curse of Eden had a series of consequences but these were, generally speaking, disconnected from each other. By contrast, the Eastern tradition of Christianity has always seen clear connections among the Eden sequelae.

Specifically, in the Eastern tradition death is considered to be the fundamental predicament of the human condition and the taproot of all subsequent sin. Death was the main curse of the fall. Human sin, specifically relational disordering, is a fearful response in the face of death. In short, the Western tradition speaks of "original sin," a defect inside humans. By contrast, the Easter tradition speaks of an "original dilemma": Living life as snowmen. Mark Heim describes the Eastern perspective this way:

Removed from Eden we are "[u]nourished by the divine energy, our existence fades into subjection to corruption and death. In such a state, our mortality becomes a source of anxiety. Futile attempts to defend ourselves from it lead us into active sin and estrange us from trust in God. Now sinfulness is more a result of mortality than mortality from sinfulness. To say that humans are 'conceived in sin' does not mean that some guilt or evil inclination is passed on to them in the act of their conception, but that what they inherit is a mortal human nature, which became mortal as a result of sin." (4)

This Eastern perspective harmonizes well with what we observed in Peanuts at the end of Chapter 2, relational disordering due to our Malthusian plight. The fractures of Creation--Death--spill over into the fractures of relationality.

In sum, I hope we all are beginning to see the theological richness of Peanuts. Peanuts does not simply portray the human predicament as a bunch of mean kids. Peanuts is multifaceted and nuanced. Death, the root dilemma if the Eastern tradition is accurate, plays across the pages of Peanuts. It is subtle, there is no Grim Reaper. And the children do not age or die. But death is there in Peanuts. We see it in the snowmen.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

(1) p. 550. Schulz and Peanuts
(2) p .551. Ibid
(3) p. 208-209. Christ and Horrors
(4) p. 68. The Depth of the Riches

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections i-v "Snowmen."”

  1. Richard,
    As an unbeliever I find that the realization of the reality of my mortality is what motivates me to nurture my relationships and to value what I have. This is in contrast to my years as a believer when there was always heaven to look forward to and the mortal life seemed to be an annoying pain that needed to be endured.
    It's interesting to me that the Eastern Orthodox Church has the emphasis correctly placed. Thanks for making me aware of that. It makes more sense to me that the fear of death would motivate people to deny it and pursue ways of distracting themselves from having to think about it. The result, as I see it, can lead to unpleasant, exclusionary behavior.
    Also, the EOC point of view would remove the need for an atoning sacrifice (a la Heim) and make salvation into overcoming ignorance rather than the western Christian belief of salvation by overcoming sin nature by faith in a specific act of sacrifice. Thanks for the great series.
    Rick T.

  2. Hi Rick,
    You make an interesting point about death working toward loving-kindness. I've found this sentiment most strongly expressed in the Buddhist tradition. For example, from the Dhammapada:

    "All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt?"

    Existential psychologists also use death in therapy to help people prioritize and live more deeply and passionately. I find that death fills life with a great deal of poignancy. I like how Emily Dickinson expresses it: "That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet."

    And yet, these enlightened perspectives too often falter in the face of famine or tragic, painful death. An awareness of death can be leveraged toward the good but death itself remains a scourge.

  3. I know this is a bit tangental to the topic, but Rick's response made me think about my ambivalence toward an afterlife. On the one hand, the idea of eternal life seems so foreign to me that I don't always find it terribly appealing. What does one do for an eternity? And then I think of silly, practicle sort of issues like if the earth is renewed to an incorruptible state--a new creation--how exactly there'd be room for everyone. Yes, silly, I know.

    Conversely, though, the idea of oblivion following death troubles me. The thought of my own death is unsettling, but in a universal context, I can't help feeling that if this life is all there is, then it's a rip off that so many people endure the suffering they do with no hope for final justice and peace. Of course, an empathy for the suffering should motivate me to bring about what justice and peace I can on my own, and that, I think, lies at the core of the NT. A final renewal of all things--a heaven--doesn't excuse Christians of such a responsibility.

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