It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! turned 50 on October 27. We have a deep appreciation for Charlie Brown around these parts, and Mr. Sides has been writing about the theology of Charles Schulz’s Halloween animated special all month in our weekly Summitviewer emails. This post is a compilation of his thoughts from those emails, with a couple extra pieces of candy just for fun.
Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.
— Franz Kafka
It is not great faith, but true faith, that saves; and the salvation lies not in the faith, but in the Christ in whom faith trusts.
— Charles Haddon Spurgeon
FACT: October is the best. To celebrate, let's see what elements of the gospel story are hidden in Charles Schulz's classic Halloween special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
We’ll be looking at a handful of clips from the show and then pulling out some gospel themes from the "text."
Augustine on broadcast television
Schulz was a master of the cold open, and the intro sequence of It's the Great Pumpkin
is full of charm, humor and foreshadowing. (When Lucy "kills" the pumpkin, we get a good idea of how this tale ends for poor Linus.) But there is also a poignant representation of Linus's devotion to the Great Pumpkin: The pumpkin that he and Lucy pick is so big that it
ends up rolling him
down the sidewalk—he can't stop it.
As a children's TV special, we can overlook the significance of this scene, but Schulz may as well have been quoting Augustine when he wrote, "My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me."
Our loves, the things that fill us with desire, are not static. They will take us somewhere.
As the deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
The opinions of others
The football sequence in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
introduces us to the basic structure of the story, which traces the parallel calamities suffered by Charlie Brown and Linus as they search for acceptance in the eyes of others. This is poignantly expressed by Charlie himself when he tells Lucy, "I don't mind the dishonesty half as much as I mind your opinion of me. You must think I'm stupid." Lucy certainly does, even as she convinces Charlie that he can trust her this time. She yanks the football away at the last second (again) and he lands flat on his back (again).
Your opinion of me
. The way Charlie Brown says this phrase is loaded with emotion—fear, anxiety, insecurity. He is a hurting soul and he lets Lucy's opinion of him drive him to a deeper place of shame. When we let the opinions of others dictate our attitudes and actions, we will find ourselves in a winless game. Let us remember the opinion our Father has of us who are in Christ:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)
To the unknown pumpkin
There are lots of little gems in the scene where Linus writes his letter to The Great Pumpkin. Two stand out: Charlie Brown's explanation of the Great Pumpkin-Santa Claus schism ("denominational differences," 4:54) and the way Schulz gets meta by putting Lucy on the cover of the TV Guide edition that Lucy is reading (6:50).
This scene offers a revealing look at the life of faith. Linus is earnest in his belief. He's also shamed by his peers, laughed at by a beagle and, even though he finds encouragement from and solidarity in Sally, still wrestles with doubt. The last line in his letter—"P.S. If you really are a fake, don't tell me. I don't want to know."—is not a cowardly excuse for religion; rather, it reflects our desire for
something transcendent. This is the same desire Paul found at the Areopagus in Athens. The human condition is primed for belief, whether it's in The Great Pumpkin or "the unknown god" (Acts 17:23). Novelist David Foster Wallace wrote:
. . . in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism.
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get
is what to worship.
Linus chooses a mystical, gift-bearing gourd. Charlie Brown chooses something a little more tangible in social acceptance (7:21). But Wallace observed that even the worship of things—such as money, material possessions, body image (or social status)—"will eat you alive" because they never deliver on their promises.
Thankfully, Christ has proven himself real by rising from the dead (not a pumpkin patch), thus ensuring that all of God's promises "find their Yes in him" (2 Corinthians 1:20). This gives us ample cause for real, genuine worship.
Nothing feels good, or the basis of life is tragic
The guys who made Breaking Bad
never produced anything so tragic as the final half of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
There's disappointment, shame, isolation, despair. Charlie Brown has nothing but a bag full of rocks after a night of Tricks-or-Treats (and also gets humiliated at the Halloween party). Sally has nothing but regret after waiting in vain for the Great Pumpkin with Linus. And Linus, well, Linus has no one—all of his friends (including Sally) leave him to spend the rest of the night alone in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, who never arrives.
Aren’t animated shows for kids supposed to be happy? How do we account for such an unhappy ending where no one feels good? By making an account for sin. As Oswald Chambers
It is not being reconciled to the fact of sin that produces all the disasters in life. You may talk about the nobility of human nature, but there is something in human nature which will laugh in the face of every ideal you have. . . . In your bodily relationships and friendships do you reconcile yourself to the fact of sin? If not, you will be caught round the next corner and you will compromise with it. The recognition of sin does not destroy the basis of friendship; it establishes a mutual regard for the fact that the basis of life is tragic. . . .
Jesus Christ never trusted human nature, yet He was never cynical, never suspicious, because He trusted absolutely in what He could do for human nature.
Our lovable but flawed characters don't need more candy or a more sincere pumpkin patch. They need reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Or a good emo playlist
. Or both.
The need for reconciliation in the face of tragedy was not lost on the original generation of viewers, as evidenced by their reaction to Charlie Brown and his bag of rocks. “This so outraged the audience’s sense of fair play that viewers of all ages sent sacks of candy to Charlie from all across the country,” Schulz said
“I got a rock” is not the way the world should be, and deep in our hearts we all know it. A full response must include both wrath (the outrage) and grace (the candy). As David F. Wells
recognizes, "[God's] wrath is instead about restoring to an unchallenged position all that is good, pure, true, beautiful, and right."
Faith and doubt in a secular age
The final scene in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
prompts us to consider the object
of our faith. Charlie Brown had faith in a certain community, a certain experience and a desire to "fit in"; Linus had faith in his ability to appease the Great Pumpkin with sincerity and an all-night vigil. Throughout this story, both boys expressed tremendous amounts
of faith even in the face of doubt and skepticism (in themselves and from others). What Schulz has given us is a poignant picture of life in a secular age.
Secularism, according to James K.A. Smith
, is less about unbelief and more about the "contestablity" of our beliefs—regardless of how "religious" or "irreligious" (to borrow Keller's terminology) those beliefs are. This constant contestabiity leads to doubt, which can lead to a disenchanted view of the world. We see this with Charlie Brown. He's given up. But Linus is unwilling to give up hope in something transcendent; he is haunted by a desire for meaning. "Better to pray in the ruins than settle for disenchantment.
Jesus "haunts" our (misplaced) faith in objects that we hope will bring meaning and joy to our lives. He longs to show us that the truth of the gospel is the only thing that "enchants" our world. There is
something transcendent; Someone is
worthy of our belief and trust; we don't have to spend the night alone in a pumpkin patch. Our Savior has dealt bountifully with us, and it's in him where we find rest from all the contests of faith and doubt (Psalms 116:7).