July 28, 2016
Dear Hyde Park Family:
When I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with the Peanuts comic strip. Like millions of adults and children across the country, reading the latest entry in the newspaper was part of my morning ritual. I checked out and read every Peanuts collection in the school library. And rarely did a Thanksgiving or Christmas season go by where I didn’t join Linus in looking for the Great Pumpkin or in telling Jesus’ birth narrative.
By the time he wrote his last strip in 2000, Charles M. Schulz had amassed 350,000 readers worldwide, and wrote nearly 18,000 strips over a period of fifty years. Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University said that Peanuts was “arguably one of the longest stories ever told by one human being.”
It was his publisher, not Schulz himself, who decided to name the comic strip Peanuts, after the idea of a “peanut gallery.” Schulz hated the title throughout his life, which is why he would often subtitle the first panel of his strips with the phrase “featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown, after all, was the chief character in the story. Sure, there were side stories with Snoopy and Woodstock, the Flying Ace and the Red Baron, Marci and Peppermint Patty, Lucy and Schroeder. But this was Charlie Brown’s gang, Charlie Brown’s world, and Charlie Brown’s life.
When The Peanuts Movie came out last year, it was a bit different from the television specials of the past. The animation was computer-generated, the voice-overs were smooth, and the look and feel of the movie was modernized. But this was still Charlie Brown’s story, and watching it made me remember why I had fallen in love with him many years ago.
He still missed kicking the football. He still got his kite stuck in the tree. He still pined for the little red-haired girl. And every time it looked like our hero was finally going to triumph, he became the goat all over again.
Schulz often said that he wrote the comic strip in order to work through his own battles with anxiety, fear, and depression. Readers initially complained that he was being too hard on Charlie Brown. Couldn’t he let him win at least one time? But “happiness isn’t funny,” Schulz would say in response. Besides, Charlie Brown had become for many of us what Superman, John Wayne, and Luke Skywalker could never be: an empathetic figure that allowed us to identify our own defeats with his failure.
At an early age, I learned empathy from Charlie Brown. I learned to watch for the kids who were down and out. And as one who was sometimes the object of teasing for various reasons, I learned something very valuable from him: he never stopped trying. He always took the baseball mound to throw another pitch. He always lined up for another kick. He repeatedly stuck that kite in the air, without a single ounce of quit in his body. And he was always loyal to his friends. He was generous, kind, and never said a sour word to anyone except the occasional “Good Grief.”
This Sunday, we finish our five-part sermon series on Hollywood films, and I encourage you to find a way to watch The Peanuts Movie in advance. (Unfortunately, due to construction at Britton Plaza, we will not be screening the movie this Saturday.) If you are otherwise able to watch the film, consider the following questions that will help you prepare for this Sunday:
1. What has been your personal experience with the Peanuts comic strip? Which character do you identify with the most?
2. What do you think about Charles M. Schulz’s adage, “Happiness isn’t funny?” Would you have preferred to have had more happiness in the comic strip in the conventional sense, in which Charlie Brown triumphed more often?
3. Read Ecclesiastes 1:1-9, our Scripture text for the day. Ecclesiastes is certainly not a “happy” or “funny” book, but have there ever been times in your life when you have identified with it? Like the Psalms, or Lamentations, or other parts of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, does it help to have a book that you can relate to during times of anxiety or fear?
4. What are Charlie Brown’s noble qualities? How might those qualities encourage you during the tough times of your life?
See you at the movies!
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist