Friday, January 8, 2016
Have You Heard of Linusian Christianity? I Hadn't Either Until I Made it Up
What is this thing called Linusian Christianity? Its founder is the character of Linus from Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and its foundational text is the famous soliloquy. The Peanuts gang has become exasperated with its attempts to produce a more elaborate version of the Christmas story. Charlie Brown has become the scapegoat for the failures of the production, even though the problem is the ADHD distractions of the gang. Desperately, he calls out “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” and Linus responds as if providing revelation:
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
What is important in the CBC story here is the minimalism of the presentation. Linus asks for a spotlight, and gets one so subtle that it barely distinguishes him from the surroundings. The theme is apparent to adults and children alike: Christmas is about removing oneself from the appearances of piety by keeping it real with childlike humility. Further reflection sees this expressed ironically in the Book of Luke story itself. The shepherds are surrounded by the appearance of glory and worldly power only to be presented with an example of humility and helplessness. Unfortunately, it seems many still miss that irony. We look to the heavens when we should have been just looking around us. Linus’ spotlight is not transcendent and overpowering.
What is also important about the text itself is its theological minimalism. It says that a savior is born; it says little else. It doesn’t involve arguments for the correspondences among other biblical texts in establishing a cosmology; it doesn’t suggest specific moral claims, supported by ecclesiastical tradition and bible study; it doesn’t recommend a foundation for an elaborate system of religion. The point of the the text is the same as that of the CBC story: to be religious is to look for peace and humility among chaos and cheeseball glorification.
More radically expressed, it requires us to set ourselves apart from religion. Indeed, evangelicals have been saying for years that Christians need to avoid religion and focus on the savior. What evangelicalism seems to do, however, is build up the Bible as a regal edifice. On the contrary, even the bible should be seen as a humble, relatively weak attempt by people to understand the religious spirit. Linus gives one of the stories from the bible, without referencing the bible. To do more would be distracting from the beauty he is describing.
Philosopher William James identifies the essence of the religious impulse in a simply need for deliverance. After providing anecdotes showing how “man’s original optimism and self-satisfaction get leveled with the dust”, he identifies “the real core of the religious problem: Help! help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these.” Charlie Brown has been ridiculed and forsaken by friends, and even by his dog. The call for help is answered simply: you must remove yourself from the chaos of exaggerated expectations about religious truth. The savior is found in a community working cooperatively in creating beauty. The frantic expectations for perfection are replaced by the frenetic hands that work a failing tree into a beautiful display.
I offer just three tenets of the Linusian faith: 1) The Christ child saves us. This is ironic, because we expect to be saved by something more dramatic. 2) This Christ child wants peace and good will for humanity, and to see this we must be willing to remove ourselves from the ordinary world of unreflective religious displays. 3) The Christ child creates peace and good will through the community itself.