Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent and Good Old Charlie Brown

When the little tree falters and droops pathetically
under the weight of that innocent-looking
but fatal ornament, and Charlie Brown wails,
I’ve killed it, everything I touch gets ruined,
I feel for the guy: I know the sad prison
his heart’s doing time in.

-Troy Jollimore

This year watching the Peanuts movie I had a personal revelation. I am likely always going to feel this way. But what is "this way"? It is easy to diagnosis Charlie's "sad prison" as depression or perhaps as generalized anxiety disorder:

Lucy: Do you think you have Pentaphobia, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: What's that?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That's it!

This all might be true, but then there is the context of Charlie Brown's frustrations. Despite the fact that he is known for being a loser and failure he is often shown occupying positions of prestige. He is after all the pitcher on his baseball team and the director of the Christmas play.

Charlie Brown refuses to withdraw from life. Indeed it is his stubborn persistence that is the immediate context of a good portion of his suffering. Most sensible people would stop trying to kick the football, or sending Valentine's cards, or attempting to woo the red-headed girl. Indeed in the full version of the Troy Jollimore poem excerpted above he imagines Charlie Brown in a bar, taking a stiff drink, potentially an embittered middle-aged man undone by his succession of losses. Yet, this is emphatically not the Charlie Brown that Charles Schultz portrayed.

Charlie Brown cannot stopped striving and herein lies the source of his suffering. One might like to offer old Charlie Brown a bit of Buddhist wisdom and remind him that maybe he shouldn't expect so much out of life. However, this doesn't seem to be possible because Charlie Brown (or rather Charles Schultz is a Christian.)

There is no doubt that Christians can learn a great deal from other religions, or that there is a steep and sturdy tradition of mortification of desire in the Christian tradition. However, I think in Advent we are especially forced to remember the "sad prison" our collective hearts are "doing time in." Like "Good Old Charlie Brown" we are prisoners of our hope. Or to cite another theologian of hope:

Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope

Hope isn't a very urbane or sophisticated vision of the world and it certainly isn't entirely comforting, but it is the only option left for us when we cannot accept that the promise that "each will live under their own vine and fig tree" applies only too a small minority of people capable of living out some sort of Jeffersonian, agrarian American dream.

...or when we cannot accept that the "lion laying down with the lamb" can only ever amount to a kind of non-tested, sentimental good-will between closely related neighbors.

...or when we cannot accept that the baby lying in the manger is a sign that God not only "so loved us" His enemies, but also that God "so loved" our enemies.

I guess this isn't the most optimistic post--my connecting Christian hope to Charlie Browns constant attempts to kick that darned football--but after 2,000 years of turning, ever turning in the widening gyre, of unconsummated consummation, it is better than nothing, or better than nihilism, or better than not suffering because we no longer desire something better.

Christian hope: the strange prison our hearts are doing time in...