The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections vi-x "Thorns."

vi. thorns
"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...”

When Man is cast out of Eden we are explicitly told that He will face thorns. Thorns are the symbol of the antagonism between Man and Creation. Creation is sharp, defensive, and wounding. Thorns draw blood. Nature doesn’t want us. Creation pushes us away.

vii. painful toil
After Eden existence is a labor. Survival is difficult in a Creation characterized by thorns. Living demands exhausting effort.

In the past the pain of toil was physical. In modern, technological societies much of the pain of work is psychological and spiritual.

Why do I make this diagnosis? To understand we must go back to Adam Smith. Interestingly, the breakthrough of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was not the Invisible Hand and free-market capitalism. No, the innovation of Wealth was the object lesson of the pin factory and the idea of the division of labor.

Prior to Smith wealth was considered to be a fixed and finite resource. The goal of a nation was to obtain and hoard. A nation’s value was how much gold the king had in his coffers. But Smith saw in the division of labor the idea that wealth might not be finite and simply shifted around. Rather, wealth could be created. Wealth could grow.

The engine of this growth is the division of labor. Let’s use Smith’s example of the pin factory. A single individual might only be able to make five good pins in a day. But an assembly line of workers, each doing a discrete task, could make 5,000 pins in a day. Magically, a nation governed by the division of labor becomes awash in excess goods to be consumed and exported. Wealth is not finite. It can be created and grow.

But the division of labor comes with a spiritual cost. Our lone pin maker, fashioning the pin from beginning to end, experienced the joy of creation and identification with the specifically created product. “I made that pin.” But with the division of labor Man was divorced from his Work. I create no single pin. I just perform an assembly line task. And spiritual satisfaction is hard to find on the assembly line. Wealth is created, but Man is alienated from the creative joy of his labor.

The pin factory is our thorn. Our wound.

iix. The Pin Factory
Here’s a personal story from the pin factory. During my doctoral education I worked as a therapist at a psychiatric hospital. The way insurance works most people have only a limited amount of funds for full, 24-hour psychiatric care. Thus, when people were admitted to the hospital they were generally discharged within 72 hours. A person would be admitted due to a suicide attempt and we would try to stabilize her and reduce her suicidal ideation in about 2-3 days. After that she was discharged to continue treatment with out-patient counselors.

So, we learned to patch people together quickly and efficiently. It was difficult work. Just when you thought you had formed a warm therapeutic relationship with someone, just as your hopes for her went up, you would come in the next day and she would be gone. Discharged. She was moved down the pin factory assembly line. We never knew how things worked out after discharge for our in-patients. We started them along the path toward healing but someone else brought it to completion. And, feeling disconnected from the fruits of our labor, burn-out was common. You never saw anyone get better.

I remember one night that the adult in-patient floor was understaffed and they asked if I would stay and work an overtime shift sitting on a suicide watch. A woman had been admitted after a suicide attempt and they needed someone to shadow her. When on suicide watch you are never left alone. All sharp objects, shoelaces and belts are taken away.

I remember sitting with this woman for that long night. We didn’t talk much. She was very depressed and slept a lot. I spend most of my time reading in her doorway. Thoreau’s Walden. Funny that I remember that. After my shift I went home.

Two weeks later someone came into the breakroom and showed me the obituaries. Apparently after discharge she did, this time, successfully kill herself. I wondered about what happened to her after my night with her. I wish I had had more time to talk to her. Get to know her. Perhaps offer some help or hope. But I was just working the assembly line.

Stories from the pin factory.

Beyond the workaday pain of work, Creation can manifest its antagonism in catastrophic ways. Hurricanes, famines, plagues, fire, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards, tornados, cancer.


It is true that humans bring a great deal of suffering upon themselves, what is called human or moral evil. But much of the suffering of life comes from Creation’s thorns. These forms are suffering are called surd evil or natural evil. They are the strongest examples of the antagonism between Creation and Man.

These sufferings make us doubt that the cosmos is, at root, kind and benevolent. It places enormous strain on our faith. Eventually, some gain relief by rejecting notions of a loving Deity and by fully embracing the fact that the universe is cold, mean, and heartless. For those who make this turn, they are free to hate Creation the way it seems to hate us. As Charles Taylor has recently written:

In the face of tragedy "it can be too painful, maddening, full of self-torture to feel that God could have helped but didn't; or that God somehow couldn't help, but is supposed to be all-loving father. There is a fight to go on remaining in the love of God. It's a relief to flip over and to give vent to anger. You can say, I don't want to pardon God; but in another way, you can say: I see it all as blind nature, and I can let myself go to hate this, or consider it my enemy; I no longer have the burden of having to see it as benign. I can just let fly, take it as my implacable adversary; and there is a relief in this." (1)

x. Kite Eating Trees
We’ve been discussing the thorns of Creation, the thorns creating “painful toil” and the thorns of full-blown antagonism seen in surd evil. In Peanuts the thorns—the antagonism of Creation—are portrayed in the Kite Eating Tree.

In the early Peanuts strips we constantly see Charlie Brown failing to get a kite aloft. No matter what he does the kite gets stuck in a tree. Often humorously so. But in these early strips the fault is all on Charlie Brown. The trees are not antagonistic. They are just there. Charlie Brown’s failures are all his own.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

But in 1965 Schulz does something with the kite flying strips. Schulz creates a Kite Eating Tree. Here is the very first Kite Eating Tree strip from March 13, 1965:

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

Here with the Kite Eating Tree we see a fully antagonistic Creation. The Tree is actively against Charlie Brown, thwarting his aspirations of flying the kite. In the Kite Eating Tree a full-blown conflict between Creation and Man is portrayed:

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

Charlie Brown’s plight in Peanuts isn’t just social. Our plight isn't solely social. Along with Charlie Brown we struggle with Creation. Creation causes us pain.

Thorns draw blood and Kite Eating Trees bring the flights of innocence to sudden ends.

(1) p. 306. The Secular Age.

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 3: Sections vi-x "Thorns."”

  1. Richard,

    Taylor's thoughtful but meandering reflections are a good counterpoint to the fashionable and one-dimensional atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens. Still as your reflection on Peanuts argues, it always comes back to pain and its meaning. As I've said before, it is helpful for me to distinguish between pain and suffering--pain which has an explanation, can be comprehended, and suffering which doesn't and cannot. How sad for you that the woman you sat with took her life!

    When I read your last lines, "Creation causes us pain.
    Thorns draw blood and Kite Eating Trees bring the flights of innocence to sudden ends," I thought of the Apostle Paul's words and remembered that the world now grieves and groans (despite the thorny questions of atheists):

    "For the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God."

    Jubilee and deep ecology married!


    George C.

  2. Richard - an interesting inter-weaving of several related ideas and themes. While you're on your path here may I suggest a complement by looking at non-zero-sumness ? Almost put this up in response to you win I loose.

    Smith's fundamental insight was that the exchange of goods and services make us both better off; we create more potential from that exchange than we each had alone. Think about - it's almost a theological proposition (btw Smith's first work and the one he was most famous for was "Moral Sentiments"; he was considered Hume's peer in his day).

    The Pin Factory is not, or just not, about the organization of the factory. It's about how the division of labor leads to greater efficiency, gets more out of a given resource base, expands our opportunities and thereby contributes to a potential for making us all better off.

    Your story about not having time to treat the suicidal patient is really, IMHO, more about having to make hard choices in spending resources between hard choices. Who else did you treat that day ?

    The Universe may be full of kite-eating trees but it doesn't seem to me to be implacably hostile nor intentionally so in any case. The other half of the glass is that we can in fact make people happier and better off even in a Universe where trees eat kites but have to make these hard choices.

    Oddly this accords with many millenia of socio-biological evolution; we evolved as social animals. The growth of language, the emergence of altruism as a social-binding mechanism and reciprocity as a means of improving the survival odds of the tribe (cf. the work of Robert Trivers)all point to this direction. The evidence, for example, of how cooking shaped our physiological and sociological development all flows in this direction.
    If you'd like to treat more patients in a Universe of shredded kites you need to choose between alternative uses for scarce capabilities, find a way to become more efficient so that more can be treated with existing resources or persuade your fellow apes to re-prioritize and spend more of the collective capacities on these priorities.


  3. Dblwyo,

    Much of what you say I take some comfort in. But Smith's writings don't presume a zero-sum game. Nor are their implications that treating or caring for more patients is the relevant issue. Assembly line care might answer some concerns but individual healing takes both chronos and kairos.

    Also it seems to me that elevating efficiency to an absolute undermines the leisure which makes both a cultured and caring existence possible. Beyond mere survival, a measured, that is to say a humane, amount of efficiency moves humans beyond (tribal hunting and gathering) to social relationships and wealth, law, and high culture. We have to know what humane means and to do that requires more than animal instinct. We require leisure to ask the big questions, subsidy and patronage to imagine and to invent. Otherwise efficiency leads to a meaningless rat race, the daily grind, the long daily commute, road rage and a lot of tired, soulless humans.


    George C.

  4. Chris, Richard,

    This comment has nothing to do with Peanuts either, but it is a response to Chris' partial response to being tagged with said tag. "I’m sitting at home right now in front of my IKEA corner workstation, slouching in my cheap Staples desk chair with my right leg tucked up under my left and my left knee sticking out toward my bookshelf." That position and a lot of time on your hands guarentees momentary RCI (rectal cranial inversion). I know. I've been victimized often. Like Charlie Brown trusting Lucy to hold the football for a kickoff. Good grief, indeed!

    Blessings all,

    George C.

  5. George,
    I love those lines in Paul. It is such a grand expansion on our notions of salvation.

    Admittedly, my account of Smith is very narrow and simplistic. There is much richness, as you point out, to be mined in his thought. Reflecting back on my post (yes, I tend to think more about my posts AFTER I write them), I think all I was trying to say that in post-agrarian cultures our work tends to be experienced as being a "cog in the machine." I used the pin factory as an early envisioning of this world.

    The story of the psychiatric hospital was mainly to illustrate how even in the most relational of professions (mental health) alienation due specialization are ubiquitous and do distance us from our work. This not to say that my specialized task (performing a suicide watch) can't be experienced as deep or important. I was mainly trying to point out some of the spiritual disconnect involved in performing such a watch as a part of overtime shift work. I thought the juxtaposition of the shift work with profound human despair an evocative one.

    I do think your comments about "alternative uses for scarce capabilities" are very important.

    Yes I do have a stack of Peanuts books nearby! How did you guess? :-) But they are not very nearby. I put in all my work with them during the holidays. As I've been linking to, Fantagraphics books is republishing all 50 years of Peanuts, releasing two volumes a year (two years in each volume). To date, 1950-1965 is available. In this series I've been working from the comics from 1955-1965. To prepare for the series I read those ten year's worth of comics and coded them by theme (not each one, just the ones that struck a theological note with me). Why would someone do this? All I can answer is, "For fun."

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