Being More Like Charlie Brown: Finding Love in Complete Hopelessness

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“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” – Charlie Brown

Christmas isn’t always “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for many it can be perhaps the most difficult time of year. It can remind you of loved ones you’ve lost, it can remind you of your lack of love, it can accentuate your poverty, it can frustrate you with its barren commercialism, it can show you how much you hate your job, it signals another year in which you failed to accomplish your goals, and it can make you feel like you’re isolated. Sometimes it can be disappointment in society, but generally it’s disappointment in yourself. You don’t feel the way you think you’re supposed to feel. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be good, or magical? Shouldn’t it make me happy despite how poorly my life is going?

If this is how you feel about the coming of Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas was made for you. If not, that’s wonderful! Praise God! But there’s still a lot you can learn from this unassuming little TV special from 1965.

There’s many articles on the internet that examine the fascinating history of the special. There will be even more in the next few days as the special celebrates its 50th anniversary! To summarize, it was produced on a shoestring budget with little to no expectation of it actually succeeding. It was completed ten days before it was due to be aired, and there was nary a person that thought it was a winner. As we know, they all turned out to be wrong, and now 50 years later the special is a staple of the American consciousness. It solidified the Peanuts gang as a worldwide phenomenon, used real child actors for the first time in animation, was an introduction to real jazz music for many, and its message and style spoke so deeply that for thousands of people it is still an annual tradition.

–  What makes the special so, well, special? And how does it speak to issues in my life? 

If you found yourself relating to that opening paragraph, you’ll probably find this opening sentence of the special remarkably accurate.

“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.
I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.
I always end up feeling depressed.” – Charlie Brown

philosophybrownTo have the opening line to what is assumably a show geared towards children deal so directly with themes of depression and anxiety in its very first piece of dialogue is nothing short of remarkable. The scene of the show is very clearly set at the get-go. It’s Christmas time. The kids and Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy are all enjoying the onset of the season. They’re skating around the frozen pond with abandonment singing the lyrically joyful “Christmas Time is Here.” Charlie Brown and Linus take a walk to their favorite philosophizing wall (it’s really the Peanuts version of the ancient Greek Agora), and Charlie Brown poignantly confesses his discontent with the supposed season of cheer.

Charlie Brown is quickly rebuked by Linus, who complains that Charlie is the only person he knows “who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” Unfortunately, Linus mistakenly emphasizes Charlie Brown’s isolation by agreeing with his manipulative sister Lucy’s judgment: “Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.” Just like every human being, Linus is no perfect example. He makes an enormous mistake here. He could have carefully and thoughtfully addressed Charlie Brown’s concerns with Christmas, but instead he foolishly dismisses the issues with an ill-conceived putdown. While we see later that Linus is capable of intellectualizing his faith, he disappoints when he had a chance to put it into action here.

I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season.
I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it? –
Charlie Brown

peanutsAfter Linus’s missed opportunity, we see Charlie Brown continue to wax philosophic on his seasonal depression. He checks the mailbox to see if anyone sent him a Christmas card this year. No one has, of course. He eventually seeks out the assistance of the town’s self-made child psychiatrist, Lucy.

After pre-paying for her services, he summarizes his problem for her. She proceeds to imitate the psychiatrists she’s seen on TV by trying to “pin-point” the fear so that they’ll be able to “label it.” She’s not as interested in actually helping out Charlie Brown as she is in feeling pride in her ability to correctly label his fears scientifically. This scene is quite funny since it satirizes the modern urge to correctly “label” an issue, or to point it out, rather than to actually just help when you see a problem. Not to mention that when Lucy finally says she sympathizes with Charlie Brown, she says her depression is due to getting toys or bicycles for Christmas instead of the real estate she really wants. Good grief.

Lucy does have one suggestion for Charlie that he decides to try out. The school needs someone to direct the Christmas play, and what better way to get into the spirit than to “get involved in some real Christmas project”? As Charlie Brown makes his way to the school to direct his play, he discovers that even his own dog and sister have both sold out to the commercialism of Christmas. All Snoopy and Sally want this year is “money, money, money.” This disgusts Charlie Brown and furthers his increasing isolation.

Charlie finally makes it to the school to direct the play, and it goes disastrously. Charlie thinks it’s his inability to do anything right, but it’s really the fault of his crew. His direction is clearly superb, but no one is willing to respect him or stay disciplined. They goof around and complain about their parts or their lines. Charlie is clearly losing the battle, and Lucy reminds him that “Christmas is a big commercial racket” anyway (run by an eastern syndicate, no less). But Charlie is determined for his play to not be commercial. He decides that what they need is a tree, so he takes a break from the play to go find one with Linus, not without being instructed to “do something right for a change” from one of his cast members.

treepicking.pngThe following scene where Charlie Brown chooses the Christmas tree is at the center of the thematic crux of the show. The rest has been a build up to this moment. Charlie Brown has been consistently failing to succeed, and this is his big chance to prove himself to his friends and family. He’s been instructed to get “the biggest” aluminum tree with the brightest pink paint, but his convictions are pulling him elsewhere. To bring some Dante Alighieri into this, Charlie Brown could be seen as the Dante figure (the hero undergoing salvation) here with Linus being his Virgil (guide). They descend into the underworld of the most brash commercialism. The lights are bright and the beauty of the Christmas trees surrounding them are literally hollow and fake. Linus taps the aluminum tree and sarcastically quips:
“This really brings Christmas close to a person.”

Charlie Brown isn’t having any of this, and slowly we see the camera pan over the sea of artificiality to finally rest on the sole wood tree of the lot. “Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Linus asks with sincere surprise. The rest of the dialogue is worth quoting:

Charlie: This little green one here seems to need a home.
Linus: I don’t know, Charlie Brown. Remember what Lucy said? This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit.
Charlie: I don’t care. We’ll decorate it, and it’ll be just right for our play.
Besides, I think it needs me.

Charlie Brown already understood the real meaning of Christmas right here, simply on a general revelation (an understanding of God from nature). After feeling confused and disillusioned with the commercial nature of the season, Charlie sought truth and meaning in the Christmas season. When no one was willing to support him and all of his friends and family had turned against him, Charlie Brown still made the right choice and saved the lost and helpless. Charlie Brown became a Christ-figure in this scene. He was surrounded by the temptation of not fulfilling the duty he knew he needed to perform deep down, but he triumphantly rescued the real tree from its helpless isolation. He willingly sacrificed the approval of the world he so desired in favor of performing the compassionate action that no one else he knew would be capable of making. Not only was he willing to buy the most undesirable tree, but he saw immense value in it! He didn’t care that it didn’t fit what his friends expected, he knew with the proper care that it would be “just right.”

Besides, I think it needs me.”

I remember being floored by this selfless act of love when I was young and I would obsessively watch this special. In fact, it made me feel horribly convicted even then! I remember thinking to myself: “If it had been me, would I have bought the ugly little tree instead of the bigger beautiful aluminum ones I was pressured to get?” My answer to that was essentially a disappointed “no.” I felt like I would have sacrificed my convictions in favor of worldly approval, which deeply bothered me. Charlie Brown made me feel like it was me who didn’t understand the true meaning of Christmas!

Charlie Brown returns from his greatest moment to these words.

Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.
What kind of a tree is that?
You were supposed to get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?
I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right.
You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.
Completely hopeless.

When you go against the wisdom of the world, the world kicks you down.
This cacophony of lies causes Charlie to seriously doubt his decision. He mistakenly believes he’s once again caused a disaster. He’s gone from his greatest moment of triumph to his darkest all in one fell swoop. He finally bursts out in agonized frustration, begging for an answer.

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

After being more or less a neutral deterrent for the majority of the episode, Linus speaks up with what he should have said at the very beginning.

Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

PeanutsChristmasWhat follows is without a doubt one of the most transcendent moments in television history, because Linus answers that question with nothing short of perfection. Instead of systematically explaining the reason for Christmas, he tells the story of a boy not too unlike Charlie Brown. A boy who was born into a world where He was more isolated than any person ever has been. The world hated Him, in fact, they attempted to kill Him on multiple occasions! But instead of bringing sadness, He brought great joy and love. This boy is the answer that Charlie Brown is seeking. Not only is He as authentic and uncommercialized as anything can conceivably get, but He saves the isolated and hated from their misery, and brings them the greatest possible joy. He is everything that Charlie Brown is looking for, and more.

Charlie Brown thus receives his special revelation (an understanding of God through the supernatural) of what the Christmas season truly means through hearing the Word of God. Its meaning is a celebration of the birth of the world’s Savior: Jesus Christ the Lord. What Linus recites is Luke 2:8-14, the scene where the angels tell the shepherds of the Messiah’s birth: “And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Charlie Brown is rejuvenated by this discovery of Christmas’s true meaning, and he sets out into the night to show everybody just how great his little tree can look. He discovers that Snoopy won the first prize in the contest which promised oodles of money, but he refuses to let this lavish commercialism impede him. He takes one of Snoopy’s ornaments and attempts to dress the tree with it. When this causes the tree to completely droop over, he thinks he’s “killed it” and that “everything he touches gets ruined.” He runs away in shame.

When all his friends come back, they find Charlie’s tree and begin to appreciate it. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
They take Snoopy’s first-prize-winning decorations and dress the tree up into a magnificent piece of art. Charlie Brown returns, and is stunned. His friends wish him a Merry Christmas, and they all join together to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

This is the point of the holiday season, Charlie Brown. It’s there because of the one person who will always love you even when the world hates you. Just like a little bald boy loved a sad looking tree in the middle of a lot when no one else wanted it, this person completely sacrificed everything out of His deepest love to save the smallest and ugliest trees. He doesn’t want to see you waste away in a lot where you don’t belong, feeling unloved and forgotten. That’s precisely why He was born on that Christmas day long ago, so that He could come down and rescue you from your death: your loneliness and alienation: your fear and anxiety.
In His love, these things are no more.
You’re not completely hopeless after all, Charlie Brown.

 Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!” 

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Thank you so much for reading all the way through this post! It’s a bit longer than I was expecting, but I felt like I needed to make all the points I did. I hope it encourages you to be more like Charlie Brown this season. Not by feeling depressed due to whatever may be going on in your life, but by seeking the answer that will make all of your problems null. Charlie Brown actively seeks answers to the things in life that bother him, and he takes radical action in showing the love for others like him that he seeks for himself. I pray we can be more like that this season.

This is the second post I’ve done surrounding Christmas this month, and I’m planning on doing a few more (my next one I’m planning is about my favorite Christmas book that barely anyone has read). If you have any topics or questions that interest you about Christmas, send them to me, and I might turn my answer to you into a post!

Thanks again for reading, and I pray that this Christmas is one of discovery of true meaning for you.

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

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A Counterfactual Christmas: God, George Bailey, Scrooge, and Alternative Futures

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As The Beatles once said: Christmas time is here again! That means it’s time to crank the Phil Spector Christmas album and deeply ponder philosophical issues surrounding the direction your measly existence is taking (and whether you can change it or not): putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas, obviously!

I’ve decided to address/consider some of the philosophical/theological questions that may arise around the advent season through a short series on my blog. The first question that we’ll be exploring is:

Does the concept of alternative futures based on possible choices make sense with Christian theology?

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas movies a lot. I would watch just about anything that had people dealing with various struggles around Christmas. Most of the time it was saving Christmas (it apparently needs a lot of saving) or changing someone’s negative opinion of Christmas. There were a few “adult” (i.e. no Mickey Mouse) Christmas movies I would watch that I didn’t feel like I fully understand the point of, but I watched them anyway because I enjoyed aesthetic aspects of them. There are two movies on which my whole opinion has utterly shifted as time has passed: It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooge.

I loved both movies as a child, but it took time and maturity for their meaning to seep into my soul. Obviously there are a hundred versions of Charles Dickens’ masterful A Christmas Carol (which if you haven’t read yet, you absolutely must this year), but I specifically mention Scrooge because it is the best version, and I will fight you over that.

It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both a bit similar when you get down to it. They’re both movies that involve a character being granted a chance to see “what could have been and what could be.” George Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide, and Ebenezer Scrooge leads a meaninglessly greedy existence. Both characters receive a visit from supernatural creatures that reveal what their life choices mean in the grand scheme. Bailey is shown an alternative future where he never existed, while Scrooge is shown the way his choices in life would and could affect the world.

Getting back to the question: does this idea of alternative futures make sense in Christian theology? Depending on your theology, yes!

First of all, we’ll say that God is omniscient. This is a standard attribute that we believe God possesses, but what does it mean to know everything? According to Dr. William Lane Craig, omniscience “is defined in terms of propositional knowledge of knowing only and all truths, but not necessarily having all non-propositional knowledge.” To say that in lay terms, it means that God knows all truths, or facts. There is no true statement that God does not know. For instance, “I am Garrett Cash” is a truth that He knows. But this does not mean He also has all non-propositional knowledge, since that would cause Him to think erroneous and absurd things. Instead of me just being Garrett Cash, now He also thinks that I’m William Lane Craig, or Brian Wilson! Maybe non-propositional knowledge isn’t so bad after all!

Joking aside, having all non-propositional knowledge would certainly be a “negative property,” as Dr. Craig points out. What I do believe that God has, however, is something called middle knowledge. According to Kirk R. MacGregor, middle knowledge is “God’s foreknowledge of all things that would happen in every possible sets of circumstances, both things that are determined to occur by those circumstances and things that are not determined to occur by those circumstances.” If you could read through the philosophy-ese there, you’ll see how this relates to our tales of Christmas!

This is to say that not only does God know all of the things that will happen in the world, but He knows all of the things that could happen! For instance, if you walk into the bookstore you’ll meet someone who’ll end up being your best friend. If you don’t walk into the store, you’ll never meet them and you’ll never be friends. God knows all of the various circumstances that could arise from the decisions you make over the course of your life. These circumstances that God has knowledge of are called counterfactuals in philosophy. To get technical, counterfactuals “refer to conditional propositions in the subjunctive mood and assume the following form: if something were the case (when in fact it may or may not be the case), then something else would be the case. This encompasses not only statements that are contrary to fact, but also true conditionals in the subjunctive mood.”

potstatNow are you seeing how this relates to the stories? A large portion of both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol focus on what could have been and what could be. In the former, we see a dystopic present world that exists only in the possible world where George Bailey was never born. In the latter, Ebenezer Scrooge revisits the past and the present through the new lenses of his ghostly companions, and eventually sees the possible world where he perseveres in his avarice. These are all glimpses of counterfactuals that they are permitted to see. These things would be true under certain circumstances (e.g. George Bailey not being born, or Scrooge being greedy), but under other circumstances they become false.

Are there any examples from Scripture that would attest to this doctrine of middle knowledge? One of the most frequently cited passages, that I greatly enjoy, comes from 1 Samuel 23:6-13:

 “Abiathar son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, and he brought an ephod with him.When it was reported to Saul that David had gone to Keilah, he said, ‘God has handed him over to me, for he has trapped himself by entering a town with barred gates.’ Then Saul summoned all the troops to go to war at Keilah and besiege David and his men. When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, ‘Bring the ephod.’ Then David said, ‘Lord God of Israel, Your servant has heard that Saul intends to come to Keilah and destroy the town because of me. 11 Will the citizens of Keilah hand me over to him? Will Saul come down as Your servant has heard? Lord God of Israel, please tell Your servant.’ The Lord answered, ‘He will come down.’ Then David asked, ‘Will the citizens of Keilah hand me and my men over to Saul?’ ‘They will,’ the Lord responded. So David and his men, numbering about 600, left Keilah at once and moved from place to place. When it was reported to Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he called off the expedition.”

Dr. Craig comments on this passage in his book The Only Wise God:
“This story was understood to show that God knew that if David were to remain at Keilah, then Saul would come to get him, and that if Saul were to come get David, then the men of the city would hand him over. For if God’s answers through the ephod are taken as simple foreknowledge, we must conclude that his answers were false, since what was predicted did not happen. But if the answers are understood as implications of what would happen under certain circumstances, then they were true and serve as proof of God’s middle knowledge.”

I had always assumed that God has middle knowledge just from my general conception of His sovereignty, and also from, you guessed it, movies like It’s a Wonderful Life! It only makes sense that God would know what would happen to you given any circumstances He places you in, considering His divine foreknowledge. What gets more contentious than simply affirming middle knowledge is the way it gets applied to the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Far from being a pointless debate, the implications of God’s middle knowledge in relation to this issue are precisely what gives these stories so much of their power and meaning for me! 

ghost_of_christmasA Christmas Carol is really the best example to use here. Here’s two questions that determine the way you view the situation theologically:

1. When Scrooge sees the future of his own making, is he seeing a future that is not actually possible because God had already predestined Scrooge to have a change of heart? This would mean that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is simply showing Scrooge an illusory future intended to frighten Scrooge into his predetermined fate where the real future will take place. This view would be theological fatalism.
Or:…
2. Is Scrooge seeing a future that is actually possible and will take place if he decides not to change his heart? That means that he is still capable of freely choosing whether or not he will live in such a way that the dark future shown to him will take place, or he can freely decide against that.

This is not to say in option two that God is not aware of which one Scrooge will actually pick (this position is called open theism). Luis de Molina, the 16th century Spanish theologian that founded the concept of middle knowledge, would have said that God foreknew which path Scrooge would take. In fact, God predestined Scrooge to be in the certain circumstances he was in so that he could bring about the effect that God wished for him to have.

Does this idea affirm theological fatalism, that because God knew this and predestined it, that Scrooge’s becoming a new man wasn’t a free act? Quite the opposite! Because of God’s middle knowledge, He was able to give Scrooge an absolutely free choice, knowing for certain which one he would actually choose. This doesn’t mean that Scrooge couldn’t have chosen otherwise; the nightmare of a future that Scrooge saw wasn’t an illusion! That was an entirely possible reality! For instance, I could choose to run out in front of traffic today and die. This option is entirely available and I am fully capable of carrying it out. Nothing is stopping me. But will I do it? No! Just because I know I won’t choose a certain circumstance doesn’t mean I don’t possess the free will to carry it out if I wanted to.

What this all means in the spirit of Christmas is what the stories embody. You have the power to make the right choice, and to change the future to be the one you will be proud of. Saying things such as: “I guess my *insert life shortcoming here* was meant to be” doesn’t make any sense on this view. You don’t have to be Scrooge: grouchy and dissatisfied with life. You don’t have to be like George Bailey either: deeply disappointed and dissatisfied with life. Each of them had remarkable blessings despite their personal hardships.

As Christmas comes around this year, let’s try not to grumble about all of our “first world problems” and other varying struggles of no consequence. Let’s also not let the big stressors like Mr. Potter or a history of broken relationships make our lives crippled and destitute. You have the free will to choose to make the most of your hardships by making a difference to other people, like Tiny Tim, or Ernie the Cab Driver. What if George Bailey had been aware of the impact he had on others? What more could he have accomplished if he had been aware? You have the same influential pull with many people, and you most likely don’t even realize it!

To choose a “Christian” life lacking vigor for being Christ-like is empty and meaningless. James says that people who say they believe in Christ without doing anything about it are “deceiving themselves” (James 1:22).
Let us remember these words from Deuteronomy 30:19-20:
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, love the Lord your God, obey Him, and remain faithful to Him.”

Choose life! Use your God-given free will to make the past you’re proud of, the present you’re making a difference in, and the future you want to see.

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I’ll be posting again soon on another one of my favorite Christmas staples: A Charlie Brown Christmas! But unlike most Christian considerations of the great TV special, this post will focus on Charlie Brown instead of Linus. Can’t wait to discuss, as usual!

Works Cited:

Craig, William Lane. “12 – Middle Knowledge.” The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. N. pag. Print.
Craig, William Lane, Dr. “Is God All Knowing? – Robert Lawrence Kuhn and William Lane Craig.” ReasonableFaith.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
MacGregor, Kirk R. “A Theological Reformer for the Universal Church.” Introduction. Luis De Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.