A Charlie Brown Religion
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A Charlie Brown Religion

Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz

Stephen J. Lind

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eBook - ePub

A Charlie Brown Religion

Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz

Stephen J. Lind

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About This Book

Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comic strip franchise, the most successful of all time, forever changed the industry. For more than half a century, the endearing, witty insights brought to life by Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and Lucy have caused newspaper readers and television viewers across the globe to laugh, sigh, gasp, and ponder. A Charlie Brown Religion explores one of the most provocative topics Schulz broached in his heartwarming work--religion.Based on new archival research and original interviews with Schulz's family, friends, and colleagues, author Stephen J. Lind offers a new spiritual biography of the life and work of the great comic strip artist. In his lifetime, aficionados and detractors both labeled Schulz as a fundamentalist Christian or as an atheist. Yet his deeply personal views on faith have eluded journalists and biographers for decades. Previously unpublished writings from Schulz will move fans as they begin to see the nuances of the humorist's own complex, intense journey toward understanding God and faith."There are three things that I've learned never to discuss with people, " Linus says, "Religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin." Yet with the support of religious communities, Schulz bravely defied convention and dared to express spiritual thought in the "funny pages, " a secular, mainstream entertainment medium. This insightful, thorough study of the 17, 897 Peanuts newspaper strips, seventy-five animated titles, and global merchandising empire will delight and intrigue as Schulz considers what it means to believe, what it means to doubt, and what it means to share faith with the world.

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1

CHURCH PILLARS

“I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.”
CHARLES M. SCHULZ
CHARLIE BROWN LEANED AGAINST THE TOP OF THE BRICK WALL. BY HIS SIDE, Lucy folded her arms on the steady surface as the two stared off, thoughts weighing heavy on their minds. “You know what I wonder?” Charlie Brown asked, resting his head in his hands. “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” Lucy listened, her expression unchanged, lost in the magnitude of Charlie Brown’s concern. “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” he asked, turning to look at her with eyes that somehow knew such grief, failure, innocence, and hopefulness. Lucy paused to consider his question. It was no small matter. Was God pleased with her? Her eyes closed resolutely as she turned to Charlie Brown. With a wide grin she answered, “He just has to be!”1
Such questions were not commonplace for Charles Schulz growing up. As a small child, the boy known as “Sparky” to friends and family spent very little time interacting with any such weighty spiritual matters. He attended a few Sunday school classes with the neighborhood kids one summer, and a few of his mother’s Norwegian kin had brought certain beliefs over from the old country, but Sparky’s was not a theologically pondersome childhood. His mother enjoyed the hymns of the church, but his parents were not active in a local congregation. Carl, his father, was a civically popular barber in St. Paul, Minnesota, friendly with any local minister who happened to find himself in for a haircut. On Sundays, though, Carl did not make his way to a pew in a local church. Instead, when time allowed, the hardworking man would find himself trolling for walleye in Mille Lacs. At other times, he would take his wife, Dena, and their son, Sparky, to visit the boy’s extended maternal family at the Borgen farm over in Wisconsin. Almost always, Carl would study the Sunday comics with his son.
image
Dena stands with her young son, smiling and bundled for winter. Mid-/late 1920s. Courtesy Pat Swanson.
Sparky was a rather shy boy, an only child with an acute sense of aloneness, growing up in an era of strident church denominationalism. Carl and some of their extended family were from nominally Lutheran backgrounds. A few of his mother’s Halverson kin maintained bits of their Scandinavian superstitious worries about visiting spirits and the dangers of good fortune. His great-uncle, Hallie Halverson (his mother’s paternal uncle who would also occasionally host the family on Sundays at his farm in Wisconsin), was christened as a baby at the Rush River Lutheran Church and confirmed as a teenager. Hallie donated much of his estate to the church; his name was commemorated on the back of church pews, and many Halversons were buried in the adjoining cemetery.
Sparky’s Grandma Halverson had even given Sparky his own small copy of the Bible for Christmas. The book, printed by the Midwestern Whitman Publishers, a company specializing in children’s books and greeting cards, was inscribed to “Charles Schulz.” Though he enjoyed the company of his grandma, the sacredness of the book meant little to the young Sparky. Hockey, baseball, and the funny pages were more meaningful to him.
Born on November 26, 1922, as a child Sparky quickly became skilled with a pencil and paper, able to draw a respectable Popeye while still only a youngster at Richard Gordon Elementary School. “Someday, Charles, you’re going to be an artist,” his kindergarten teacher told him after seeing him deftly draw a creative Midwestern winter scene, complete with an unexpected palm tree (his mother had just read a letter from a relative in Needles, California, describing the tall trees).2 With a father who studied the comics section as his primary literary endeavor, talking about his favorites with his young son as they walked home from the barbershop in the evenings, perhaps Charles Schulz just might fulfill the teacher’s prophecy. The boy had, after all, been nicknamed “Sparky” at birth when an uncle said he looked like Barney Google comic strip character Spark Plug.
In high school, Sparky grew increasingly shy as he failed algebra, Latin, English, and junior-year physics. His parents were supportive, but found themselves to be of little help when it came to his studies. When he completed high school, his mother suggested he take a correspondence art course—the one with the “Draw Me” ads in the magazines. He took her up on the idea and enrolled. Sitting at the table, he began to learn what it meant to hone a craft, and he took the first steps toward his own career in drawing.
In 1943, he was drafted into a more dangerous calling—World War II. He would serve until 1945, and was deployed to the European theater to help defeat the Nazi terror. “I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about,” he once said. “I place the source of many of my problems on those three years in the army. The lack of any timetable or any idea as to when any of us would get out was almost unbearable.”3 The most devastating part of the war, though, happened to Sparky before he could even leave Minnesota. His mother had been struggling for several years with a sometimes debilitating illness, later revealed to be terminal cervical cancer. “I used to wake up at night and hear her down the hall crying in pain,” he remembered.4 As Sparky reported for duty, Dena had little strength left in her.
While she was sick, Carl called upon a preacher friend who frequented his barbershop, the Reverend George Edes. Edes visited Dena, praying and sharing Scriptures. He was the pastor at the local Merriam Park Church of God, a small church only a mile from the Schulzes’ home. Carl did not have a close relationship with any local Lutheran ministers, and had quickly come to trust Edes during Dena’s last days. He tried to attend the pastor’s services when possible. Knowing that Dena enjoyed hymns, Reverend Edes continued to visit and minister to her, once asking Bernetta Nelson from his congregation to join him, singing the music of the church in the apartment the Schulzes rented above Carl’s barbershop.
On February 28, 1943, Sparky said goodbye to his mother, knowing it may be the last time he would do so. “Well, goodbye, Sparky,” his mother said to him. “We’ll probably never see each other again.”5 He had to report to the nearby Fort Snelling that evening. She died the next day. Reverend Edes conducted the funeral. Bernetta sang hymns.
While Sparky was away at war, Carl continued to occasionally attend the church. As a Church of God congregation, it was easy for Carl to visit, despite being new. The church was earnest and down to earth, not pompous or detached, and it was not interested in recreating the denominational borders that kept many other religious bodies from interacting with one another. “It’s a non-denominational movement, and I think the message that it had,” Sparky later explained, “. . . is that you did not have to join a denomination. By your belief you were already a follower of the Way. You were already a member of what the New Testament called the Church of God.”6 The Church of God characterized itself as a “movement,” not a “denomination,” seeking to unify believers in the most basic beliefs of Protestantism—the wisdom of Christ’s teachings, the sacrifice of His death, and the miracle of His divine resurrection. The Holy Spirit would help guide one’s study of the Bible, not denominational bylaws.
Many Midwestern ministers often spent only a small number of years with any given congregation, though, and Edes was soon succeeded by Frederick G. Shackleton, a young man the same age as Sparky. Visiting home briefly on furlough, Sparky met the new pastor and found someone with whom he could chat and play golf. “We became friends at once,” Shackleton described.7 Redeployed, Sparky kept in touch by letter, including drawings of his military life for his new pastor friend. His European tour escaped the worst horrors of World War II, though, so Ping-Pong games were the most exciting sketches Shackleton would receive. When he returned home in late 1945, after being spared an Asian Pacific tour by Japan’s surrender, a grateful Sparky once again enjoyed spending time with Fred and his wife, Doris. “He was a regular at church,” remembered the pastor, “although he had not yet received Christ as his Savior. We talked a lot about being a Christian.”8
Like so many who returned from war, Sparky was striving to find a new normal. He had never had much attraction to formal theology, something largely absent in his childhood home, but he began to feel comfortable with the Merriam Park group, nestled in their small building at 330 North Prior, across from the community park. They were a friendly and modest group who enjoyed their Bible study and their fellowship. As a “holiness” group of Protestant believers, they did not smoke, drink, curse, or tell crude jokes—all things that Sparky had always naturally avoided. As he saw it, they were simply antithetical to his personality. “I like the niceties of language,” he would say,9 adding on another occasion, “We are creatures of habit. I never wanted to be in the habit of having to have a drink.”10 Though Sparky was not yet convinced by their spiritual beliefs, he grew increasingly comfortable with each service he made it to.
It was not long before Shackleton accepted a new post away from the Merriam Park group; in 1946, he took a teaching position at Anderson College,11 a school founded by the Church of God in their headquarter city of Anderson, Indiana. He was soon replaced by Brother Marvin Forbes, an earnest, grounded, and middle-aged preacher in whom Sparky would soon find a trusted mentor and friend. When he first arrived, though, Sparky was busy trying to break into the cartooning business and was not yet ready to invest himself in the work of the church.
Sparky had recently landed a job teaching at Art Instruction, Inc.,12 the correspondence school that taught Sparky himself how to draw through postal mail lessons and instructor feedback. While giving feedback to others, Sparky also worked twice a week to improve his own skills by taking night classes in life sketching at the Minneapolis School of Art. He was very skilled with a pen, able to create lines and letters quickly and fluidly, skills Art Instruction had imparted on him during his lessons years before.
With these skills, Sparky was able to taste a sample of the comic industry. In 1945, as his courtship to a Roman Catholic nurse named Virginia Howley13 came to an end, Sparky was hired as a freelance letterer by Roman Baltes, the art director for the Roman Catholic comic book Timeless Topix, published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society in St. Paul. “Catholics! They dog me. I can’t get away from ’em,” he joked with his army buddy Frank Dieffenwierth.14 For over a year, he drew the narration and speech bubble letters for adventure stories of benevolent cardinals and fearless martyrs. That sort of religious story “doesn’t really suit me,” he told Dieffenwierth,15 but he was happy to have the work. He not only lettered the balloons for the magazine’s forty-eight-page English edition, but also its French and Spanish translations, despite not knowing the foreign words he was inking into the balloons. He often worked late into the night, taking an early street car to Baltes’s office in the morning to drop off his work before heading back over to Minneapolis to work at Art Instruction. It could be exhausting, but he at least had his foot in the door.
Emotionally and socially, it was still a struggle being back from the war. “I know what it is to have to spend days, evenings, and weekends by myself,” he admitted.16 He shared a living space with his father, waited on job application responses from Disney and from Hearst without success, and got frustrated as local would-be employers could not tell a pen line from a brush stroke when he showed them his samples. Nightmares of the war plagued him some nights, causing him to wake up in a cold sweat.
On one Wednesday evening, shortly after Brother Forbes took his post at the Merriam Park church, Sparky was feeling particularly lonely. He decided to attend the midweek Bible study, walking the two-turn mile to church in the cool Minnesota air. The tiny church building had a tiny set of side rooms in which Marv, his wife, Ruth, and their three children lived. The church’s basement was built partially above ground, and the congregation would climb a short flight of stairs opposite the ground floor’s Sunday school area door in order to reach the sanctuary entrance. Turning from the sidewalk to begin up the steps, Sparky caught a glimpse of the lettering on the church’s sign out front. It was fading. He did not yet know the Scriptures like the others, but he did know how to draw letters. He took a seat inside, and when the study and prayer service ended, Sparky approached Brother Forbes and offered to repaint the sign. Marv happily obliged the young artist, and as Sparky remembered decades later, “Thus began a friendship that has lasted over forty years.”17
Sparky had begun building friendships with the several young adults near his age in the church group—Bernetta and Wally Nelson; Wa...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Good Grief. An Introduction and Author’s Note
  8. 1. Church Pillars
  9. 2. Land of Promise
  10. 3. The Christmas Special
  11. 4. The Gospel According to Pumpkins
  12. 5. Making the Strips Count
  13. 6. Filling the Screen
  14. 7. Shore to Shore
  15. 8. Secular Humanist
  16. 9. Sweet Hour of Prayer
  17. Epilogue. Peanuts after Sparky
  18. Acknowledgments
  19. Appendix I. Coding Procedure
  20. Appendix II. List of Animated Titles and their Awards
  21. Notes
  22. Bibliography
  23. Index