Gospel of Luke

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.

But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.

There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.

The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.

Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.

Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or amy-jill.levine@vanderbilt.edu. Witherington: benw333@hotmail.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.

The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.

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Why does the Bible include two different family trees for Jesus of Nazareth?

Why does the Bible include two different family trees for Jesus of Nazareth?

THE QUESTION:

In the accounts of Jesus’ Nativity in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, why are the genealogies so different?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Because there are no Christmas-y questions from readers awaiting answers, The Guy raises this Yuletide classic himself. When Matthew and Luke recount the birth of Jesus they present different genealogies with fascinating intricacies. The following can only sketch a few basics from the immense literature on this.

The Bible provides no roadmap, leaving us to ponder who was included, who was omitted, how the passages were structured, and what all this might mean. Reader comprehension is difficult due to multiple names given the same person, the lack of specific Hebrew and Greek words so that a “son-in-law” was called a “son,” legal adoption, and “levirate marriage” where a widow wed her late husband’s brother to maintain the family line.

Family trees were of keen importance for the Hebrews and carefully preserved. The central purpose in both Gospels was to establish Jesus within King David’s family line, a key qualification for recognition as the promised Messiah.

Matthew starts right off with the genealogy in the first 17 verses of chapter 1. Beginning from the patriarch Abraham, it extends through three sections of 14 generations each, down to the conclusion with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” The passage then immediately specifies that Joseph was not the biological father because Jesus was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit (1:18-21).

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Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

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 ...

Says what? 

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. ...

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What did Jesus mean in his Good Friday words to the 'daughters of Jerusalem'?

What did Jesus mean in his Good Friday words to the 'daughters of Jerusalem'?

KRISTYN’S QUESTION:

I’m having trouble discerning what Luke was trying to communicate when he referred to the women of Jerusalem on Jesus’ trek up to Golgotha [in Luke 23:28-31]. If this is exactly what Jesus said, I have no idea what he meant. Can you shed some light on this?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Thanks to Kristyn for something Christians might ponder during the Holy Week season of sorrow that precedes Easter joy.

Jesus’ saying was poetic prophecy that, yes, can be opaque. This shows the value of owning a good one-volume Bible commentary and a “study Bible” to help with understanding. The Religion Guy consulted a variety of such reference works and they generally agree on the meaning of Jesus’ Good Friday words and the Old Testament prophecies he was quoting.

Among the four New Testament Gospels, this material only appears in Luke chapter 23. The lead-up in verse 27 merits special attention. Luke reports that as Jesus struggled on the road to crucifixion he was followed by “a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him.” The Temple authorities had rallied crowd support in seeking execution by Rome, and anti-Semites have exploited this in the Christian past.

Luke’s account tells us Jewish opinion was split.

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