By Jeff Sharlet
Charles “Sparky” Schulz began his cartooning career at a Catholic magazine called Timeless Topix, but the strip that became his contribution to American letters–“Peanuts,” aka Charlie Brown–was the result of a Zen Buddhist-like meditation.
“Meditation,” writes Laurel Maury in the New York Press, “requires sameness, safety and routines. Schulz’s life had all three–as did 1950s America. Meditation works best when people believe theirs is the best of all possible worlds. With its set schedules of work and leisure, its dedication to a single set of ideals and its sense that there was nothing else worth striving for beyond more of the same, life in 50s suburban America looks like Zen meditation. Zen with cocktail parties, to be sure, but a year in a Japanese monastery would probably leave most people craving martinis. The mind-trips of the 60s began not with drugs, but among children on green lawns among houses all the same. Consider this sameness as the sameness of Buddhist rock gardens. Sometimes a prison, a restricted life, can also be the gate to endlessness.”
Maury’s essay on Schulz, in honor of the first two of Fantagraphic’s projected 25-volume edition of his entire oeuvre and augmented by Maury’s own interviews with Schulz’s widow, is a brilliant example of one of my favorite genres of religion writing: Since stories in this category doesn’t have a name, let’s call them “revealers,” essays in which the author uncovers religious ideas in pop culture — sometimes, symbols buried so deep the artist in question may not have been aware of them.
Did Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” really intend to offer up a Christian parable, as Christianity Today has claimed? Are “The Sopranos” really a reflection of Catholic orthodoxy, as Godspy suggests? Is Superman really a resurrection of the Jewish golem figure?
Maybe so. But Schulz’ alleged Buddhism belongs in another category, since Schulz himself was a Christian, a Sunday school teacher in the Church of God (Anderson), a conservative Presbyterian denomination. One of the bestselling works of modern theology has to be The Gospel According to the Peanuts, published 39 years and 10 million copies ago. Writing inReligion in the News (one of The Revealer’s favorite journals) not long after Schulz’ death in 2000, Dennis R. Hoover provides an excellent overview of religion in “Peanuts” — Christianity, he notes, accounts for the subject matter of around 10% of the 18,000 strips — and the ways in which the press saw and did not see the faith of Charlie Brown.
Ironically, those who got Schulz’ Christianity recognized in it a Buddhism that Laurel Maury misses: The First Noble Truth, suffering. In a Washington Postobituary, Henry Allen called it “the American sadness,” comparing Charlie Brown to Willy Loman and writing that “in the Bible, God is testing Job. In ‘Peanuts,’ bad things happen for no reason at all.”
Of course, to Schulz, there was a reason — original sin — and a solution — Jesus — but even if the Buddha never figured in his theology, Maury is on as solid ground connecting Snoopy to Siddhartha Gautama as she is in drawing out the strip’s roots in high modernism (Schulz, she notes, was just a few degrees of separation removed from T.S. Eliot). Schulz’ Buddhamind, she argues, was the result of the peculiarly American Zen of the 1950s — not that of Kerouac, Burroughs, and the Beats, but of backyard barbecues and keeping up with the Jones as a kind of spiritual practice. Schulz was a conservative man, and Maury finds in his creation a conservative calm (or is all calm inherently conservative?), a mood that, for her part at least, seems to be as much about rejecting the flurry of contemporary culture as it is about celebrating the alleged peace of fifty years ago.
So Maury, like Schulz often did, is presenting a parable, a story about one thing that is really about another. So, too, do most writers who explore religion and culture. The trick is to understand the story you’re telling, and why you’re telling it. Revealing religion in pop culture requires looking beyond the artist’s intentions, to the swirl of cultural influences in which he or she worked and the whirlwind of cultural influences in which we receive the fruits of the artist’s labor — the pop culture blizzard in which the zazen of a silent beagle offers some kind of serenity, if not redemption.