By Louise McEwan
Belief, doubt and theology of the ‘Great Pumpkin’
Almost 50 years after it first aired, the 1966 Halloween classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, remains popular. Despite the simple plot and rudimentary animation, it gets higher television ratings than more sophisticated shows. One reason for this could be its insights into human behaviour and the nature of belief.
The plot is straightforward. Linus believes in a Great Pumpkin, a Santa Claus-like figure who rises up from the most sincere pumpkin patch on Halloween to drop toys to faithful believers. The rest of the Snoopy gang mock and insult him. Even little Sally, who adores Linus, abandons him after waiting in vain for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. The show ends with Linus working through his disappointment and vehemently asserting his belief.
The cartoon touches on a lot of themes; one is the relationship between belief and doubt. In It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, belief and doubt are bedfellows, existing in relationship, not in opposition, to one another.
Linus holds fast to his belief in the Great Pumpkin despite the overwhelming evidence that refutes its existence, and the crushing disappointment he experiences on a yearly basis when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear.
(©1966, United Features Syndicate Inc.)
Yet Linus moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty, struggling to overcome the doubt that creeps in and threatens his belief every Halloween. He wants to believe, but the yearly no-show of the Great Pumpkin raises questions in his heart. As Sally storms off in anger, Linus begs her to wait, saying, “If (instead of when) the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Linus is not alone in the struggle to reconcile belief and doubt. From doubting Thomas in the first century to Pope Francis today, theologians have always recognized the presence of doubt and its importance to the spiritual life. Spirituality author and social psychologist Diarmuid O’Murchu said, “True faith is about doubt negotiated, not doubt avoided.” German theologian Hans Kung wrote, “In honest doubt there can be more faith — more considered faith — than in the unhesitating and unthinking recital of the creed . . . ” And more recently, Pope Francis has spoken about the importance of leaving room for doubt in the quest for God and the dangers of certitude.
Doubt is very much part of being human and of the spiritual life; it keeps us on our toes, forcing us to rethink our positions and attitudes. We cannot ignore indefinitely doubts about what we believe. Linus intuits this when he writes in his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin, “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Aside from the struggle that Linus has with belief and doubt, the cartoon uses the actions of its child characters to subtly probe the foibles of adult behaviour.
There is the example of Sally, who blames Linus for her decision to join him in the pumpkin patch. Angry and disappointed because she missed the fun of Halloween, she threatens to sue Linus, shouting at him, “You owe me restitution.” While her reaction is comical given her tender age, it pokes fun at the adult world. We might recognize in Sally’s anger our own desire to get even (through the courts if necessary), and our reluctance to consider the ways in which we may have contributed to a problem.
Linus and Charlie Brown, like Sally, have great expectations that quite literally fail to materialize. Linus comes away empty-handed from the pumpkin patch; there’s no reward for sincerity, belief or good behaviour. Charlie Brown ends the night with a bag of rocks, although he had every reason to expect a bag of candy. In their disappointment, we might recognize our own feelings of disillusionment when our actions fail to produce the desired results. We do not always get what we want or what we think we deserve.
In the bag of rocks we might recognize the pain of rejection. Perhaps we were not bullied, as Lucy bullies Charlie Brown but, at some point, we have been like Charlie Brown, on the outside looking in. We have carried that bag of rocks. Or maybe we have thrown rocks into another person’s bag.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown holds a mirror up to human nature. This may explain, in part, its enduring appeal despite its straightforward story and rudimentary animation in an age of superior technology and elaborate story lines.
Trail, B.C., resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at email@example.com