The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Prelude: Incurvatus in se

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, has credited Peanuts (along with Pogo and Krazy Kat) as being a significant influence upon Calvin and Hobbes. As Watterson has said, "I collected the annual Peanuts books all through childhood, and it's probably impossible to overstate the influence Peanuts had on me." (1) For essays attempting to find the "theology" within Calvin and Hobbes it is perhaps important to note here at the beginning that what Watterson got from Peanuts is the notion that comic strips can provide serious commentary about life and the human predicament. "I think," Watterson has written, "the most important thing I learned from Peanuts is that a comic strip can have an emotional edge to it and that it can talk about big issues of life in a sensitive and perceptive way." (2)

In many superficial ways, Calvin and Hobbes looks a lot like Peanuts. The protagonist is a young boy who has an animal sidekick who possesses unusual abilities. Both Hobbes and Snoopy play with our sense of realism (as always click on the pictures for a better look):

Physically, Charlie Brown and Calvin have large heads and tend to speak with a vocabulary well beyond their years. Both strips have a leading female character, Lucy and Susie, who frequently come into conflict with the young boy. Both strips move with the seasons, going from winter into spring through summer and into autumn. Each year we are regularly confronted with school episodes and the making of snowmen:

In both strips we see the leaves fall in autumn. Peer violence inhabits both worlds as Calvin and Charlie Brown are repeatedly assaulted. Both strips have existential moments beneath night skies. And, of course, both strips specialize in humorous but sharp commentary on contemporary life and human nature.

But beyond these superficial comparisons, the inner life of Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes couldn't be more different. The distinctions are due to the vast differences between the characters of Charlie Brown and Calvin. Charlie Brown is, to put it bluntly, deeply neurotic. He is morose and self-loathing. He worries and beats himself up.

Calvin, by contrast, is almost wholly lacking in introspection. Calvin is narcissistic and self-absorbed.

Where Charlie Brown is his own worst enemy Calvin finds himself surrounded by enemies. Shoot, Calvin goes looking for enemies. Witness the great G.R.O.S.S. club (which first appeared in May 1989):

Charlie Brown's negative affect swirls around low self-esteem where Calvin is mainly frustrated that he can't get others to fall in line with his plans or recognize his genius. In short, Charlie Brown and Calvin are polar opposites.

Or are they? When St. Augustine diagnosed the root problem of the human condition he used a metaphor, Incurvatus in se which is Latin for "curved in on itself." For Augustine human sinfulness is due to the fact that our selfhood is bent in upon itself. All arrows point toward me. This self-focus lies at the core of sin. Thus, despite the vast differences between Charlie Brown and Calvin they both illustrate Incurvatus in se. Charlie Brown thinks too little of himself while Calvin thinks too much of himself. But in each case the self sits at the root of their preoccupations. And we smile at Charlie Brown and Calvin because we see ourselves so clearly in them.

But are these observations appropriate? Can Calvin and Hobbes be read as a theological text?

No doubt there are risks in attempting an academic reading of a comic strip:

However, Watterson is clearly an intellectual and he didn't hesitate to deal with deep philosophical and existential material in Calvin and Hobbes. No doubt Calvin and Hobbes has philosophical threads, but what about theological ones? Unlike Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes is not overtly religious which exacerbates the question. So let me give an apologia for attempting The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes.

First, Watterson has stated that he's never attended any church (3). And yet Watterson clearly has theological sensibilities. He has described some of his strips as "little sermons" (4) and he uses the Christmas strips for "Calvin to wrestle with good and evil." (5) Calvin's school teacher, Miss Wormwood was named after the character in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. (6) Further, many strips themselves bring up theological questions:

And, finally, we can note the obvious: Watterson explicitly named his lead character after "a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination." (7)

And yet, it must be stated stated that Calvin and Hobbes does not present an overt and systematic theological worldview. Rather, Calvin and Hobbes is best read as posing theological questions rather than providing answers. One of the themes of Calvin and Hobbes is Calvin's continual confrontation with epistemic horizons. He is often attempting to forecast the future while rushing, with Hobbes, headlong down a hillside in a wagon. He is continually terrorized by what lives under his bed. These are not theological propositions but they speak to our theological situation.

In short, what I will try to do in the coming essays is to enter the world of Calvin and Hobbes and ask what theology looks like from inside that world. I think it is a world that poses more questions than answers, but I think they are interesting questions, worthy of being teased out. I have no idea if Watterson would approve of this project, theological inquiry might not be how he would like his work to be approached. Regardless, I'm attempting it. The key to my success will be how faithful I remain to the world and sensibilities of Calvin and Hobbes.

In the end, the fans and admirers of Calvin and Hobbes will be the ones to judge the success of this project.

(1) p. 6 The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
(2) p. 17 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(4) p. 201 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(5) p. 198 Ibid
(6) p. 25 Ibid
(7) p. 21 Ibid

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Prelude: Incurvatus in se

  1. As an avid admirer of Calvin and Hobbes I am amped up about your coming theological analysis of Watterson's art.

  2. Richard,

    Recently graduated from ACU, now getting my MDiv at Candler in Atlanta. I've been reading your blog for a while and figured I should finally drop a note. I always benefit from and love your posts, but let me just say how I excited I am about this series. I grew up in love with Calvni & Hobbes, and my love has not diminished over the years. I have always thought Watterson's theological worldview would be fascinating to document: so I can't wait to read on!

  3. Calvin and Hobbes have been in my life for years, since before I can remember (our cat was named Hobbes before I was born!) and I cannot wait to see what you are going to write about them!!

  4. It's seldom that I can read something, even comic strips and find myself laughing aloud, but Calvin and Hobbes can actually do it for me!

    Clever and witty, Mr. Watterson was with his comics!

    BTW...I haven't gotten to read many people's blogs nowadays, but I made it through this one and am anticipating this series!

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