The Gospel According to . . .
Charlie Brown, Tony Soprano, and other unlikely spiritual guides.
The early church was awash in gospels. Yet early bishops managed to winnow the field, and for well over a millennium, Christendom knew of just four “evangelists.” In the gothic chapel of the seminary I attended, they stare down imposingly from niches above the altar, four carved figures with enigmatic expressions, sometimes looking a bit alarmed at the content of the sermons.
Do you suppose we could fit Tony Soprano in there somewhere?
“For Christians,” Kemp writes with an apparently straight face, “this Voom is the restoring power that came in Jesus Christ.”
On my desk, in addition to The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, are The Gospel According to Harry Potter, The Gospel According to The Simpsons, The Gospel According to Disney, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and The Gospel According to Dr. Seussa canon-within-a-canon of recent religious explorations of popular culture. Nearby is the coffee-table book The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors, and Sinnersa cornucopia of photographs, charts, and essays on American athletes produced by ESPN itself. (Alas, restricting myself to nonfiction meant that I had to pass over Christopher Moore’s 2003 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.)
Nearly buried under the pile is the book that started it all. In 1965 The Gospel According to Peanuts was a faintly scandalous title. Robert L. Short was not exactly the first to apply the phrase to writers other than the canonical evangelistsone Woods Hutchinson wrote The Gospel According to Darwin in 1898. But before Short, at least according to the Library of Congress catalog, no one had applied the phrase to an artifact of mass culture. Peanuts was an early breach in the wall, now reduced to rubble, between high and pop, sacred and profane, Sunday sermons and Sunday comics. It sold ten million copies, and has never been out of print.
The success of Peanuts must have been something of a shock to John Knox Press, now Westminster John Knox. It was eight years until Knox tried a similar volume, to which Short contributed a foreword, and I sense something half-hearted in the title alone: The Gospel According to Andy Capp. Nor did the 1975 entry The Gospel According to the Wall Street Journal make much of a splash, though its cover is a reminder that even 30 years ago, an endorsement from Martin Marty (“emphatic, consistently informative, almost over-gentle”) was already the nihil obstat of mainline Protestant publishing.
But Short’s book has endured. (A second edition was released in 2000 with a foreword byof courseMartin Marty.) Short managed to marry high culture, or at least furrowed-brow seriousness, with pop culture. The first chapter, “The Church and the Arts,” begins with a tour de force that would get chopped into attention-sized bits today:
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4 RSV) is a question the Church, always finding itself in but not of the world, urgently needs to reconsider today. For it not only needs to reconsider how it can best make meaningful contact with the particular men of our particular time, with all of their own idiosyncrasies; but the Church also needs to re-examine its strategy of communication to men of all timessince the objection all men have to the Church’s message is fundamentally the same: it is that universal hardness of heart lying far more deeply and steadfastly within them than any objection men can usually hold consciously.
Whew. More than one reader, expecting a book about, well, “Peanuts,” surely stopped right there. Even those who waded through the imposing syntax would arrive at the disconcerting substance: for Short, the gospel begins with original sin. Art, including “Peanuts,” is thus an end run around sin“disguising the truth in order to get it through the enemy’s defenses.” Short proceeded to offer a kind of illustrated neo-orthodoxy, correlating Kirkegaard and Lucy, Barth and Snoopy. If he treated the drawings more as sermon illustrations than as art worth interpreting in its own right, the fact that Schulz was a Sunday school teacher seemed to justify a few critical liberties.
The book that revived Westminster John Knox’s franchise was Mark Pinsky’s 2001 The Gospel According to The Simpsons. The changing face of American religion is summed up in the distance between the two booksand not just the distance from Charlie Brown’s puzzled innocence to Bart Simpson’s knowing smirk. Where Short was a Christian pastor, Pinsky was a Jewish religion reporter, albeit one who took pains to appreciate the perspective of Christians. (In yet another sign of the times, the foreword for The Simpsons was written by crossover evangelical Tony Campolo.) Pinsky improved markedly on Short as a criticas a reporter without an evangelistic agenda, he simply watched nearly every Simpsons episode and collated the show’s religious themes. The book was a hit (though, at 100,000 copies, only one percent of the hit that Peanuts was), propelled by a surprising message: the famously cynical show was infused with religion and even a kind of reluctant reverence.
This time around Westminster John Knox did not miss the marketing moment. Pinsky’s new book, Disney, is part of a properly branded series that includes Harry Potter and Tolkien, along with David Dark’s forthcoming The Gospel According to America. (Tony Soprano and Dr. Seuss are from other publishers.) Pinsky has once again performed a yeoman’s job by sitting through every Disney animated feature, from Snow White to Brother Bear. But this time he is dealing with a massive entertainment company whose “fear of offending and fear of excluding” has rarely produced anything half as interesting as Homer and his brood. So Pinsky is reduced to chronicling just how Disney has bowdlerized various religious (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and cultural (Mulan) sources, still managing to offend many groups along the way.
If Pinsky’s struggle to make something out of Disney’s milquetoast mythology serves chiefly to remind us that all culture is not created equal, another pitfall for the “gospel according to” formula is inadvertently displayed in Dr. Seuss, a book of repurposed sermons by retired Methodist pastor James W. Kemp. When The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, you may recall from countless bedtime readings, the mischievous impresario stains the children’s world pink, a stain that starts in the bathtub and eventually spreads to the snow outdoors. To Kemp, this naturally recalls Isaiah’s words about Israel’s sin being like scarlet, while Cat Z’s serendipitous supply of magical pink-removing “Voom” recalls the atonement: “For Christians,” Kemp writes with an apparently straight face, “this Voom is the restoring power that came in Jesus Christ.” You can’t help feeling that in mobilizing the cartoon in service of the gospel, the cartoon has gotten the upper hand. Are our sins scarlet, or are they pink? Something tells me there’s a real difference. Cat Z may bemaybea Christ figure. But Christ is not a Cat Z figure.
In the unstintingly graphic HBO series The Sopranos, the sins are definitely scarlet. And yet Chris Seay, pastor of the arts-oriented Ecclesia community in Houston, falls into some of the same connect-the-dots temptations as Kemp. In the second season Carmela Soprano, the series’ most active churchgoer, is driven to an anguished prayer when her nephew Christopher is shot in the chest. After expounding on the admirable qualities of her prayer, Seay feels compelled to add: “When prayer and meditation become an integrated part of a diverse life, the cares of this world fade and joy is renewed”followed by quotes from Brother Lawrence and Oswald Chambers.
Even when he resists such bathetic sermonizing, Seay seems unable to place The Sopranos in a wider context that might validate, or perhaps undermine, the series’ spiritual significance. The book contains one cursory reference to The Godfather, whose shattering climactic sequencea baptism intercut with brutal assassinationsis indispensable to understanding the Soprano family’s gangster Catholicism. When Seay suggests that Carmela “is seeking truth, and her choice may shake the foundations of this criminal underworld,” he seems innocent of the commercial imperatives that guarantee that the future of The Sopranos, however packed with religious themes, will bring only more dramatic tension, not real repentance. The Tony Soprano who could actually write a gospel worth reading would not be a Tony Soprano worth watching.
So it is not enough to have rich source materialyou need a seasoned reader as well. And this is what makes Tolkien, by Baylor professor Ralph Wood, so extraordinary. Wood makes it clear that Tolkien’s world is “pre-Christian,” even if “the Gospel resounds in its depths.” We are not meant “to identify Gandalf as Christ, though he is a wizard who lays down his life for his friends in death and who is then miraculously restored to life. Neither is Frodo the allegorical Son who is sacrificed by Bilbo the Father figure.” Only after reading nearly a dozen Gospel According to books can one fully appreciate the sanity of these words.
“Tolkien is no sort of evangelist,” Wood observes. “Tolkien the Catholic is confident that the sacramental and missional life of the church will convey the Gospel to the world without the assistance of his own art. He wants his epic fantasy to stand on its own as a compelling and convincing story, without any adventitious props.”
Hence “a pagan sense of Doomthe notion that the world’s outcome is unalterably bent toward final destructionresounds like a dread drumbeat throughout The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien depicts the world with all the “deep fatalism that characterizes pagan life,” in both ancient and modern forms. And yet he also infuses this gloomy cosmos with hope, as in the dying king Aragorn’s parting words: “We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” Wood does not treat Tolkien as an opportunity to extract sermon illustrations. He simply, and profoundly, reads Tolkien.
The biggest and best surprise of the lot, however, is The Gospel According to ESPN, though certainly not because it offers any clear understanding of the Christian gospel. In the manner of generations of sportswriters, it merrily plunders the heritage of faith in search of metaphorsMuhammad Ali is a “prophet,” Pete Rose is a “fallen angel,” Secretariat and Ted Williams are “gods.” The book is full of over-the-top touches like this caption accompanying a full-page detail of Piero della Francesca’s painting “The Battle between Constantine and Maxentius”: “Emperor Constantine did for the Catholic Church what Pete Rozelle did for the NFLturned it into an imperial power.” At least you know that the writer is laughing too.
But the writers in ESPNa dream team including Hunter Thompson and the late George Plimptonanchor the transcendent in beautifully realized observations of the particular. “He was a gawky 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, with a toothy grin and fast, floppy, loose-limbed walk, more of a running lope, really, that made his arms flap and his long curly blond locks bounce with every stride.” That’s Le Anne Schreiber on Mark Fidrych (a “savior”), but any baseball fan would know exactly who she is talking about.
And though such close observation reminds us that their subjects are all too human (or equine), the writers of ESPN come closer to the gospel than they themselves may imagine. Tolkien memorably suggested to his not-yet-Christian friend C. S. Lewis that the Christian story was “a myth that happens to be true.” Sport is not exactly real lifemany athletes behave heroically on the court and pathetically off of itbut it takes place in real time, in a real place. It reminds us that real human beings can confront dramatic contingencies and still, at least occasionally, achieve mythic status. So sport offers us something, even if only in stylized form, that fiction does not. Charles Schulz never let Charlie Brown kick the football, but if he had, it would still have been just a story, no matter how it resonated with what the sportswriters call “redemption.” But when the Red Sox win the World Series, it actually happens. It’s a myth that happens to be true.
The game is, of course, only a game. But our games and our stories grope toward something beyond themselves, and in that sense they indicate the gospel by a kind of negative space, by the shape of their yearning. And this, it seems to me, is the reason to watch The Simpsons or ESPNnot so much to find the truth, but to find the space where the truth might fit. And to remind ourselvesas the best of these books dothat wherever we look in culture, that gospel-shaped space is there.