OK, close your eyes. You are watching television during the season before Christmas. To be specific, you are watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
So Charlie Brown -- I can't imagine calling him either "Charlie" or "Brown," under Associated Press style -- has purchased the sad little Christmas tree and all the other children are mocking him. Even Snoopy is laughing. Then they all exit, stage right.
The lovable loser shouts: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"
At that point, Linus van Pelt steps forward and answers in the affirmative. Then he walks to the center of the stage and, alone in a spotlight, says ...
Millions and millions of Americans know what Linus says in his pivotal speech in the classic television special. The question, in a "Christmas wars" update from The Lexington Herald-Leader, is what does Linus say in the controversial production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that is being staged at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County, Kentucky? Here is the top of this hollow story:
When students perform the play “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County on Thursday, the scene in which the character Linus quotes from the Bible is set to be deleted.
Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Salyer told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that Christmas programs across the district were being reviewed for possible modifications of religious references. That news had led people to protest outside school district offices for a second day. ...
Principal Jeff Cochran said all references to the Bible were removed from the Christmas play after he and others in the district received a message from Salyer on Dec. 11 that said in part:
“As superintendent of Johnson County Schools, I recognize the significance of Christmas and the traditions and beliefs associated with this holiday. Over the past few days, there have been several rumors indicating that there would be no Christmas plays this year at our elementary schools. I want to clarify that all programs will go on as scheduled. In accordance with federal laws, our programs will follow appropriate regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court and the 6th Circuit are very clear that public school staff may not endorse any religion when acting in their official capacities and during school activities. However, our district is fully committed to promote the spirit of giving and concern for our fellow citizens that help define the Christmas holiday. With core values such as service, integrity, leadership, and commitment, our staff and students will continue to proudly represent our district as recently demonstrated by our many student successes.”
The story does answer this question: What does Linus say in the unedited version of this classic piece of American pop culture?
In the Charlie Brown play, the character Linus recites passages from the Bible: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the 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, good will toward men.’ ”
Linus then says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”.
However, that information is not what readers really need to know in this story, which focuses on a real news event in the here and how.
What readers need to know is this: What are educators proposing as the content of the Linus speech in this new, edited version of the script, which presumably contains zero offensive trigger language linked to St. Luke or anyone else tied to Christmas.
Think about this: They can't leave a hole in the script, since the speech by Linus is the turning point of the entire story arc.
So what does Linus say? Did anyone ask? Did school officials refuse to answer? I think we can assume that Linus is not allowed to recite the First Amendment. If the answer to the question, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" is not linked to the Christmas story, then what do the script editors have him say?
Raise you hand if you think readers -- secular and religious -- would want to know.
Now, the Herald-Leader story does include one other strange reference, addressing the fact that the biblical material in this script has always been controversial.
CNN reported last month that Linus’ recitation of the Bible passages was also at issue in the development of the 1965 animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz wanted to include the speech, CNN reported, but the producers were hesitant. After much back and forth, the passage was left in, the network said.
CNN reported? This clash between Schulz and the network has been documented many times in much greater detail. Here's a large chunk of a GetReligion piece in 2010, pointing readers toward an excellent piece in The Washington Post. The key voices here are producer-director Lee Mendelson, animator Bill Melendez and Bay Area novelist Michael Chabon.
From the Post article:
Charles Schulz insisted on one core purpose: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had to be about something. Namely, the true meaning of Christmas. Otherwise, Schulz said, "Why bother doing it?"
Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include Biblical text in the special. The cartoonist's response, Mendelson recalls: "If we don't do it, who will?"
To Coca-Cola's credit, Mendelson says, the corporate sponsor never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages. The result –- Linus's reading from the Book of Luke about the meaning of the season –- became "the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation," the producer says.
In writing about the "Peanuts" special in "Manhood for Amateurs," Chabon -- a self-described Jewish "liberal agnostic empiricist" -- waxed: "I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing progressive commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christianity of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."
To which I added:
The only problem with that passage is that, for some reason, it misses part of the drama. While the sponsor may have embraced the vision of Schultz -- and Linus -- numerous accounts of the backstage proceedings stress that CBS executives opposed the use of the Bible verses.
But "Sparky" Schultz stood firm and a cultural classic was born -- Bible verses and all.
So here is the ultimate question, I guess, one hinted at in the drama unfolding in Johnson County, Kentucky: What are the odds that Schulz would win that standoff with CBS executives today? If that special was being produced now, what would Linus say?
This story in Kentucky is not over. The Herald-Leader team has a chance to cover the most fascinating element of this church-state drama, simply by asking one question. If you can't put the Christmas story in a Christmas play, what do these educators propose to put in its place? Why do this play at all?
So what is Linus going to be allowed to say?