The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 5: "Five cents please."

More than anything, Peanuts presents us with a theology of predicament. Peanuts presents what is wrong in the human condition. There is some, but very little, of the evangel in Peanuts. Thus, Part 1 of the Theology of Peanuts will be by far the longest of our three parts. But before moving on to the positive notes sounded in Peanuts in Part 3 a pause to consider pseudosalvation.

There are many false Messiahs offering pseudosalvation. Routes to peace, wholeness, and well-being that, in the long run, turn out to be shallow and ineffective. In 1959 Schulz begins his prolonged commentary on a pervasive form of pseudosalvation in American society. This commentary is seen in Lucy's 5 cent psychiatric booth.

Here is the strip in '59 that debuts the booth:

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

Schulz's target is not psychotherapy. Rather, through Lucy's psychiatric booth, Schulz is critiquing a view of "healing" that has increasingly dominated the American culture.

We see the symptoms of this pseudosalvation clearly depicted in Lucy's booth. First, it is a booth. It's the spiritual equivalent of a McDonalds. One stop shopping for mental health and spiritual fulfillment. Second, with the price clearly depicted we see Lucy's advice as predominately a commercial venture. She's selling something. Third, Lucy's advice is automatic and unimpeachable. She offers her opinion as an expert. In short, she speaks not from relationality but from a distance and with the scalpel of "expert advice." There is no intimacy.

Does any of this sound familiar in America? Fast food for the soul?

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

I'm watching morning TV as they show footage of Brittany Spears being taken to the hospital. Much discussion about what's wrong with Brittany. Soon a psychologist appears offering, from only witnessing the same footage I have just seen, a clean diagnosis with clear recommendations for how to treat her case. Voyeuristic diagnosis and therapy.

Later in the show another mental health expert appears to give me five "hot tips" on being a better parent. I listen. Profoundly unimpressed.

Finally, a commercial break. Apparently, Dr. Phil will be on Oprah later today.

I just checked the Top 10 best-selling books in the Self-Help section of Amazon. Here's the list:

1. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose
2. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence
3. Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out
4. The Power of Now 2008 Calendar
5. The 4-Hour Workout: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
6. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
7. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
8. Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao
9. The Secret
10. StrengthsFinder 2.0

Here are the top five book categories in the Amazon Self-Help section:

Motivational (8,360 titles)
Personal Transformation (8,294 titles)
Success (7,124 titles)
Stress Management (6,504)
Happiness (2,847)

That's a lot of books on how to be happy.

Just back from another peek at Amazon. Here are some selections from the Top 25 list of Amazon's Christianity section:

--Jack Canfield's Key to Living the Law of Attraction: A Simple Guide to Creating the Life of Your Dreams
--Church Shift: Revolutionizing Your Faith, Church, and Life for the 21st Century
--Become a Better You
--Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires, the Respect He Desperately Needs
--The Unmistakable Touch of Grace: How to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Signposts in Your Life
--Boundaries Workbook: When to Say Yes When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
--The Purpose Driven Life
--Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul
--The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate
--The Success Principles (TM): How to Get from Where you Are to Where You Want to Be

I offer no criticisms of the books above. I simply offer the titles to ask this question: What view of persons sits behind these titles? I think it is a view that Charles Schulz saw so clearly and diagnosed so lucidly in Lucy's psychiatric booth strips.

Specifically, we see in America today a mechanistic view of persons. The soul is like a broken car or a house in need of remodeling. We need to "fix" and "improve." We need "How To" manuals to find spiritual fulfillment. We need (hot) tips, tricks, goals, lists, steps, keys, secrets, laws, and guides. And we want it all "stress-free", "quick", "easy", and "simple". Finally, it all should translate into a revolutionary new life. Not just a new life, but a revolutionary new life.

Vanity of vanities. Pseudosalvations. It's not that we couldn't benefit from a new angle or some good advice from time to time. But lives cannot be revolutionized by such trivialities. Revolutions are much more costly and their effects are not unmitigated. Jesus said "Take up your cross and follow me." He didn't say, "Here are three hot tips for a more spiritual life." Golgotha isn't a self-help movement. There are no tips for Gethsemane.


Souls cannot be "fixed." And what ails us cannot be healed with advice read in a magazine while we stand in line at Wal-Mart.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

--End Chapter 5--
--End Part 2--

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6 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 5: "Five cents please."

  1. heretic (btw, love your moniker),
    No doubt I've listed some very good and life-changing books in the lists. I have friends that swear by some of them. My target is less the content of the books than the titles and how they market themselves to something currently dominating the American consciousness: The quick, simple but amazingly profound and life-changing "fix."

  2. Richard,

    What you are talking about is an all-too-common kind of folk theology wrapped around magical thinking. Occasionally, God breaks through but not too often. And too often, we leave no room for endurance and lament in our prayers.


  3. I was just reading something somewhere (Newsweek perhaps?) that talked about our culture's need to fix people who aren't "happy".

    We have lost appreciation for dark times and what can be gained through these seasons. Today we medicate "depression" at the drop of a hat rather than acknowledging the benefits of walking through our sadness or grief.

    I think we're scared of those feelings in ourselves, and we really don't know what to do when others admit dealing with depression. See, I used the word "admit", like it is something to be ashamed of.

    Having said all this, I love Lucy's response to Charlie Brown.

  4. I'm somewhat troubled by the celebration of that book on sadness in the last few weeks. If we're going to examine the line that separates sadness from depression, we should look to medical data instead of philosophy.

    In the NPR interviews and Newsweek articles I see the same stuff as Lucy's booth. "It's normal, get over it. Five cents please!"

  5. We're all looking for the Great Pumpkin to come save us from ourselves (why does James discussion of the growth of mind-cure movements come to mind...hmmm...hint ?). In my limited understanding spiritual development is self-development and, as you've said, a Su. morning feel-good sermon doesn't cut it. It takes constant application of effort, discipline and skill. Which our Churches, who should be the institutional home of this line of effort,don't support. Yet historically it has been their primary purpose.
    A recent Charlie Rose program on heart disease pointed out that heart problems are the leading cause of death and the leading cause of heart disease is bad lifestyles and choices. People look for the quick, easy fix (the latest diet for example) without being willing to dig in and change.
    It was an amazement to me to read of the growth of Happiness Psychology - Martin Seligman's work ? He pointed out that because most research funding was from the VA they focused on broke people and only in the last few years are they addressing the questions that James covered magisterially and comprehensively. And the Great Religions have been addressing for thousands of years.
    You get what you pay for and you pay for what you want. We want a fast-food booth. Until the "consumer" is willing to face some of these hard truths, like you are in this blog, you'll see all those cute and catchy titles designed by Prof. Hill.

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