Interview with the late Robert Short, the “godfather” of “Gospel According to …”

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WJK Press published this news item on Robert’s passing:
    Louisville, Kentucky—The Rev. Robert Short, who pioneered the study of religion through popular culture, passed away on July 6, 2009, after a brief illness. He was 76. Born in Midland, Texas, in 1932, Short is perhaps best known for his landmark first book, The Gospel according to Peanuts.
Upon its release in 1965 it became the top nonfiction bestseller in the
United States, selling over 10 million copies in eleven languages. It
was lauded by The New York Times Book Review as “a ‘perilous experiment’ that comes off” and earned the admiration and respect of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

THIS is an in-depth interview ReadTheSpirit published with Robert … (We also published a Dr. Seuss quiz in his honor.)

R
obert Short couldn’t Email a fresh photograph of himself to me—because he doesn’t own a computer. All we could get to illustrate his smiling face today was this quaint portrait.
    But, don’t misunderstand. He’s no hermit.
    In fact, he’s hitting the road once again, crisscrossing the U.S. So, it’s possible to meet him and hear him weave his fascinating reflections in person—but, no, there’s no Web site you can visit to track his travels. (We’ve got specific details, at the end of today’s story, on some of his travels to Michigan March 9, Arkansas April 4-6 and California May 30 through June 1.)
    But, pretty much, Bob told me, “I use the good old-fashioned telephone and, you know, the kind of mail that’s delivered every day to your house. That’s it.”

    OH, and — by the way — in his mid 70s, he’s decided to organize a whole new Protestant denomination. Or, at least, it sure sounds like that.
    But, no, he doesn’t plan to rent a high school auditorium in the suburbs like the big, new emergent churches prefer to do.
    Heck, no. Bob just plans to invite some folks over to his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and start the church right there in his living room. That’s the way he likes to do things.

    Now, I am absolutely fascinated by a guy who sounds like Andy of Mayberry — and yet remains the “godfather” of one of the most influential genres in spiritual media. Recent editions of his “The Gospel According to Peanuts” say that his 1965 book sold more than 10 million copies.
    Consider that the 100,000-sales mark typically earns the official “best-seller” tag — which means that this “more-than-10-million” mark is way up there in the “Harry Potter” Stratosphere.
    What’s most amazing about Short’s creative stroke 43 years ago is that it was not, as the British like to say, “a one off.” Short continued his creative streak with “The Parables of Peanuts,” “The Gospel According to Dogs” and now — hot off the presses — “The Parables of Dr. Seuss.”

    (CLICK on any of the book covers in our stories — and you’ll jump to our reviews and, if you wish, you can even order copies through Amazon. Note: As of publication time, today, Short’s “Seuss” book was so new that its cover image isn’t showing up on Amazon — but the book is ready to ship, we know.)

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    Here are highlights of my Conversation With Robert L. Short:

    DAVID: In the preface to current editions of your “Gospel According to Peanuts,” the historian Martin Marty tries to explain to readers the major impact your book has had on American life. But, Marty points out that it’s almost impossible in this era to understand what a surprise — what a jolt — your book was back in 1965, since so many new churches welcome contemporary culture into the pulpit every Sunday.
    Marty says, “The shock value of this book has worn off. In 1965, worship was more formal, preaching more stuff — but not worse — than it is today. The occasional preachers who would risk quoting Peanuts or Pogo were considered avante-garde.”
    So, what do you recall from that era? What was the reaction like?
    ROBERT: A lot of people were dumbfounded by this because it was the first time this had been done. The whole idea of coupling something as serious as the Christian message with something like “Peanuts” –- mixing faith and folly –- it was shocking to a lot of people.
    A lot of people thought Christianity was something you’re supposed to be deadly serious about. That’s why we dress up and behave ourselves when we go to church. This really did shock a lot of people.

    DAVID: I think your book stands up very well, after all these years, but we have to admit there are some signs in the text that it was written in the early 1960s. It’s a classic and I don’t think I’d change it.  But, there are a lot of references to “man” and “men” in the book as pronouns for all humanity.
    ROBERT: It does have that problem with language and in the newer editions some sexist language was deleted. We tried to smooth out some of that. But that’s the way the Bible still reads in most churches -– and Schulz also used that language about “man” for humanity. I don’t feel that’s too much of a problem. People still get the main point.
    DAVID: Oh, I agree with you. The book’s a classic. And, the basic point is stronger than ever.
    But it’s fascinating how much has changed. In fact, in that original book, you spent quite a bit of time just trying to convince people that it was appropriate to let popular arts into their churches. Today, popular culture is everywhere in churches. You really were prophetic about what was coming.
    ROBERT: Yes, I think “The Gospel According to Peanuts” helped to open up the door. Martin Marty is right about that. These things that once shocked us wouldn’t shock anyone anymore.
    I tell people that book was like getting the first olive out of the bottle. After you manage to get that first one out of the bottle, the rest are a lot easier to get out.

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    DAVID: So, now, at age 75, you’re giving us your take on Dr. Seuss. On one level, people won’t be stunned about the idea of looking for spiritual lessons in children’s books -– but, on another level, I’m not sure everyone is willing to admit that Dr. Seuss intended to give us spiritual lessons in his books.
    ROBERT: Right. I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised by something like the “Parables of Dr. Seuss” -– except that someone found anything there that’s close to the Christian gospels. In the case of Charles Schulz, it was easy to point out these things because they were quite overt. And, also, Schulz said so. He gave all sorts of interviews at the time talking flat-out about preaching in his cartoons. He actually talked about that.
    The surprise in “The Parables of Dr. Seuss” is that Seuss might have been preaching. He never said anything like Schulz about this. Nobody ever claimed that he had a serious theological bone in his body. But, I think that he really did have some big-time theological bones in his body.
    DAVID: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because in our current online project, called Our Lent, one of the most critical days we’ve had in the 40-day series was a meditation that compared some of the almost chaotic creativity of the Cat in the Hat to Jesus riding into Jerusalem. There were some readers who questioned various parts of that chapter –- and some of the criticism was around thinking of Jesus as having anything to do with an image like the Cat in the Hat.
    ROBERT: Well, I devote a whole chapter to Jesus and the Cat in the Hat. When I talk to people about this new book, I say things like: “It lets Christ the Cat out of Dr. Seuss’s hat.” And: “It reveals the Good Neuss in Dr. Seuss.” And I say: “Theordor Seuss Geisel was really a secret Christian disciple.”

    DAVID: You do offer some intriguing evidence in your book. You point out that, while he was a student at Oxford in the 1920s, he got into this dispute over wanting to create a whole new illustrated edition of the Christian classic, “Pilgrims Progress.”
    ROBERT: The people at the Oxford University Press just didn’t understand what he was talking about. Think of what would have happened if they’d let him do that. But they didn’t.
    DAVID: And that contributed to his leaving Oxford, you say.
    ROBERT: I think he packed up and told himself that he’d show them what he could do –- except that he’d put his messages into books in ways that people might not even recognize at first.

Cat_in_the_hat
    DAVID: So, OK, the Cat in the Hat?
    ROBERT: That chapter in my book is actually a catechism based on the Cat in the Hat. I wrote that chapter in a question-and-answer format like a traditional catechism. You’ll be surprised how much gospel there really is in that story.
    I think the Cat does come in completely like Jesus on the donkey and he takes everybody by surprise. He tells them that he’s surprised they’re having no fun. And he brings along Thing 1 and Thing 2.
    DAVID: You point out that Jesus’ Great Commandment consisted of 2 essential things.
    ROBERT: And what are they carrying? Thing 1 and Thing 2 are carrying kites. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are represented by kites which have the cruciform in them -– as if they are held together by the cross of Christ. And, of course, the fish doesn’t like this at all.
    DAVID: Now, I know from my own study of Seuss that here’s one point on which Geisel himself was explicit. He compared the fish in an interview he did to Cotton Mather, the famous angry preacher from early American history. So, clearly, Geisel himself realized there was some kind of spiritual struggle going on in that house.
    ROBERT: Yes, I say that about the fish in my book –- Seuss compared him to Cotton Mather. The fish is the legalistic way of looking at Christianity.
    Then, think about what happens next. The mother is about to appear, but the kids run the Cat out –- and now they’re in a complete mess. They’re alone. They don’t have the Cat with them. Then, just when they’re really starting to panic, what happens? The Cat comes back in again, unannounced, and he cleans up everything. He straightens out everything at the end -– a parallel with what Christ says he came into the world to do. The Bible says Christ came “to reconcile all things.”
    DAVID: Well, you’ve sold me -– especially because you say honestly in the opening of the book that, even if people don’t think you’ve made the case that Seuss deliberately intended all of these messages to emerge –- that it’s still fascinating to see how Seuss’ world does point to a lot of Christian messages, anyway. You leave the door open to creative conversation about this.
    I like what you had to say about “Green Eggs and Ham,” since it wasn’t long ago that I was working on some reporting from the Burning Man festival out west and I was just stunned to find this entire village within Burning Man, called “Whoville,” devoted to reverently reading and celebrating Seuss’ books. And, the biggest hit at Whoville was “Green Eggs and Ham.” They actually served that each morning!
    I’m interested in promoting this new kind of programming that actually helps adults recapture the magic of these books that most people might dismiss as children’s books.
    ROBERT: Oh, there’s so much in Green Eggs and Ham! I found so many things to talk about in my book in Green Eggs and Ham.

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    DAVID: Clearly, you’re not afraid of great joy in your faith. That’s something I’ve always found exciting in your work. I’ve reported over the years for Knight-Ridder newspapers on a number of movements trying to bring humor and joy back into worship. And those are always wonderful stories to report -– because you meet Christians who are simply fun to know. They make you smile. That can’t be a terrible thing, right?
    ROBERT: Oh, I continue to love humor and cartoons. I think we need more joy.
    DAVID: OK –- let’s put you on the spot. What cartoons do you read, right now –- week in and week out, what are your favorites now?
    ROBERT: The ones I enjoy most right now are Pearls Before Swine, Pickles and Zits. I’ve always been a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, too.
    This shouldn’t be shocking anymore, because there are such close ties between Christianity and comedy! Christianity is all about such good news that laughter is a very appropriate response to this good news, when you hear it.

    DAVID: You’re ordained in the Presbyterian Church. But you don’t have a church right now. You’re retired?
    ROBERT: I’m retired, so now I’m doing a lot of freelancing, speaking in other churches. But what I’m really doing right now is putting together my own little church here in Little Rock. It will meet where I live –- in my living room.
    And the theology I want to advocate is not represented by any existing denomination that I know of –- in the way I plan to advocate it. I’m calling it FOCUS, which is an acronym for Fellowship of Christ-Clarified Unconditional Salvation. There have been a lot of people who go along with this idea –- really since the time of the New Testament.
    DAVID: You’re talking about universalism?
    ROBERT: No, I’m talking about taking all this talk of Hell out of our preaching. You know, it was the church really who made such a point of saying that all eternity will be divided into two sections: smoking and non-smoking. If you’re a minister in any existing denomination and you try to make the case that Hell is a myth -– I mean, if you really try to tell people there is no Hell in which people suffer and that kind of thing –- well, you’re going to make a lot of enemies immediately. In many cases, you’ll divide churches right down the middle.
    So, it occurred to me that there ought to be some recognized group somewhere that says this without angry people in the congregation giving the minister the heave ho. They can’t here –- we’re meeting in my living room.

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    DAVID: So you’re starting your own denomination, I guess it would be -– at age 75.
    ROBERT: FOCUS won’t be under anybody’s auspices. I’m still a member of the Presbytery around here. But I’m doing this on my own and I don’t think anyone in this Presbytery will object to this, although they might call it some crazy new idea that Short has.
    And it isn’t universalism as people think of that. It’s a Christian universalism. Actually, what I’m talking about can’t do without Christ. The reason is that there’s only one way, through Christ, to fully see the truths in your life. That’s the “Christ-Clarified” part. And that’s classical Christology to say Christ is the way –- that there’s only one way in this lifetime.
    But I’m also saying that everyone already is saved and is going to heaven. People’s first response to me is: How can you believe that? How can you know that? My answer is that we can know it’s true through the good news of Christ. That’s how the Holy Spirit moves in your life and how you know these truths.
    DAVID: You’re talking about your belief that there’s no Hell. And that all of us -– all of us –- Well, how are you describing it?
    ROBERT: I’m talking about salvation. In lay people’s terms, I’m talking about going to Heaven. I’m saying everyone will be in Heaven. You know, this isn’t as new as it may sound. I hear it in Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And it’s there in the New Testament, but the church fell out of talking like this when it became obvious that it’s very powerful to preach that your very salvation lies is in the back pocket of the church.
    DAVID: People may be surprised to read the end of this conversation — this new church you’re trying to form — but you’ve been saying this for quite a while, right?
    ROBERT: Yes. It certainly was there in “The Parables of Peanuts” and in the dog book that I did. I’ve been saying something like this, really, since “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” although I’m only now realizing how very important this message of joy and hope is to the world.
    I just want to spread that joy further.

CARE TO READ MORE?

    Try our Dr. Seuss quiz!

Robert Short on the Road (listed in 2008) …

    SUNDAY MARCH 9 — MICHIGAN:
    10:00 AM: Preaching both to children — then to adults — about lessons from “Green Eggs and Ham” at Nardin Park United Methodist Church, 29887 W 11 Mile Road, Farmington, Michigan 48336. (248) 476-8860
    5:45 PM: Dessert, music and a presentation by Short on “Christianity Without the Doom and Gloom,” including some lessons from Peanuts.
    Both events are free and open to the public.

    The pastor of the Nardin Park church, the Rev. Dale Miller, told me this week: “I think one of the things people get misled on, especially during Lent, is: Why do we go through the things we’re going through in Lent? It’s not just to suffer and sacrifice for its own sake. It’s to discover the deeper joy of what our faith is all about.
    “We often talk about what we’re giving up for Lent or how we’re sacrificing, but I think we should be taking on new disciplines in Lent that can enrich and make our faith grow — to lead us toward that joy that’s at the heart of our faith. That’s why I’m so glad we’re doing this with Bob during Lent.”

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    APRIL 4-6 — ARKANSAS:

    Short is one of dozens of featured authors at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock.
    He’ll be in great company there. One of the other authors we would recommend checking out at the Little Rock festival this year is Zachary Karabell, author of “Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East.” Like Short, Karabell is a hopeful and helpful voice in the midst of religious friction.

    MAY 30 to JUNE 1 — CALIFORNIA:
    Short will be among the crowd of authors at the mega-event, BookExpo America, in Los Angeles. That’s a huge, publishing-industry trade show. A number of big-name authors, including Tom Friedman, are headlining the event this year. (BookExpo starts May 29, but Short will be there starting May 30, he says.)

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