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My Lunch with Sparky

[whitespace] By David Templeton

CHARLES SCHULZ has been on my mind a lot lately. Since he announced that he'd be ending his comic strip in January--a surprising resolution that sparked a worldwide maelstrom of commentary and condolence--I've been thinking of the afternoon, over four and a half years ago, that I had lunch with the Peanuts creator.

I met him in the restaurant at his Redwood Empire Ice Arena. Though I can't recall much about the food, I remember Schulz vividly. Though I was there to interview the man behind Charlie Brown and Snoopy, I soon found myself drawn into an unexpected conversation about religion and Christian fundamentalism with a somewhat pessimistic craftsman--he often referred to himself as a "lowly cartoonist"--who was nevertheless warm, open-hearted, and sharp as a tack.

Just the week before, Schulz--whom his friends call Sparky--had been attacked in print by a fundamentalist media pundit who disliked his creative use of Scripture in a recent Peanuts strip.

"They're so narrow-minded on things," he said with a laugh, clearly taken aback at the criticism. "They're either offended that you've quoted Scripture, or delighted."

Schulz revealed that in the years following World War II he'd been quite involved in the Church of God in Minneapolis, occasionally dabbling in what he called "some very lousy preaching."

Though his philosophical views evolved over the years--"The term that best describes me now is 'secular humanist,'" he explained--his characters continued to quote biblical passages, occasionally musing about the darker inconsistencies of religion. These thoughtful reflections were never heavy-handed; rather, Schulz had become the reigning master of the lighter-than-air, spiritually resonant comic-strip koan.

"I'm the only one who's done it," he shrugged, smiling his somewhat baffled smile.

He was right. While some critics occasionally dismissed Peanuts as being old-fashioned or irrelevant, Schulz had, in fact, crafted a determinedly philosophical comic strip that, if not exactly edgy (read: angry), was nothing if not intellectually daring.

"I despise those shallow religious comics," he said. "Dennis the Menace, for instance, is the most shallow. When they show him praying--I just can't stand that sort of thing, talking to God about some cutesy thing that he'd done during the day. I don't think Hank Ketcham [Dennis' creator] has any deep knowledge of things like that."

He cringed when I mentioned Family Circus, the strip by Bill Keane that is strewn with cutesy references to Jesus (who wants to protect children on school buses, but can't because of laws about separation of church and state!) and those sickly-sweet images of invisible deceased grandparents looming protectively over the kids.

"Oh, I can't stand that," Schulz laughed. "You could get diabetes reading them, couldn't you?"

Kindly, he added, "Bill's a nice fellow, though. A very decent person.

"I don't like to offend people," he finally admitted. "I could never be a political cartoonist, because I refuse to blast people I don't know. I suppose that's why they say Peanuts is no longer on the cutting edge."

With a chuckle, he added, "I think that's absurd. What's cutting edge, anyway? Insulting the president? Delighting in meanness? If that's cutting edge, then I don't want it."

Bravo Mr. Schulz. And thanks for the memories.

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From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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