Embracing the Simple

 In Jim Lyon

Lee Mendelson died on Christmas Day 2019, at age eighty-six, near San Francisco, a city he always called home. He was a Stanford University grad, an Air Force veteran, a guy who worked for a local Bay-Area television station, and at last an entrepreneur, who founded his own television production company in the early 1960s. He was awarded a dozen Emmys over the course of his storied career. He is survived by his wife, four children, a stepson, and eight grandchildren.

But, beyond the circle of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who knew him well over the years, he left his mark on the larger world by a key role he played in a cultural phenomenon that has flourished for over a half-century. He was the guy who first imagined and then became the champion of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the 1965 television special that has been fairly described as “the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced” (see the Washington Post, December 28, 2019). His passing on Christmas Day gives us pause to wonder.

Mendelson loved baseball. So did Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, a cast of comic-strip characters that Schulz launched in 1950 and which, within a decade, had become a global brand. The two Bay-Area fans became friends over baseball, cheering on Willie Mays. Schulz, as some of you may know, found Jesus in a Church of God congregation in the Twin Cities, following the sudden and unexpected passing of his mom, when he was in his late teens. The local pastor befriended the grieving young man who was then uncertain of his future and encouraged him to publish his artwork, paving the way for Charlie Brown and company. The rest is, as they say, history.

In the spring of 1965, Coca Cola approached Mendelson about the possibilities of producing a Peanuts television special for Christmas that year. CBS television bought into the project; Mendelson persuaded a reluctant Schulz to get on board and engaged a San Francisco jazz musician (Vince Guaraldi) to create an original score.

The finished product, an animated twenty-five-minute debut of Charlie Brown and company on television came down to the wire; it came together just ten days before it was scheduled to be broadcast. A Charlie Brown Christmas was then screened for CBS television executives in New York. They hated it. If CBS had not already advertised the program in the weekly magazine TV Guide, the network would have scrapped it altogether.

Why didn’t they like it? A Charlie Brown Christmas broke what were then thought to be the rules of successful audience engagement. First, there was the simple, straightforward animation. Schulz’s comic-strip characters did not translate into the slick, quick movement of popular cartoons of the time. Then there were the voices: Mendelson and Schulz insisted on using real children to voice the characters, instead of adults pretending to be children. Again, it had never been done.

And then, there was the music. The laid-back jazz and piano-centered soundtrack was unconventional for television and certainly for animation. Where were the strings? The up-tempo energy of contemporary television production? Guaraldi’s understated score was considered a disaster by everyone at the network.

And then, there was the whole program’s slow pace. Compared to what was considered to be the standard—the necessary—timing of dialogue, phrasing, and scene development, CBS thought it was a sleeper. A yawner. Who would sit through this? Furthermore, Schulz refused to allow an artificial “laugh track” to underscore the program, which was a television staple at the time; it was another innovation thought to be a death knell.

And, at last, most controversially, there was the Scripture. You know, the scene where Linus (the character Schulz later described as a representation of his spiritual self) stands up on a stage and reads the Christmas story, word-for-word, straight out of Luke, Chapter 2:8–14. Linus then observes, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” answering the central question Charlie Brown and his friends had struggled to answer throughout. This storyline emphasized that Christmas was not about buying things or shiny objects—the holy grail of commercial television and retailing—but, instead, was about something that was, well, actually holy.

No way. CBS said that the Scripture was a step too far. “Religion does not belong in cartoons.” Even Mendelson was skeptical, advising that the Linus monologue be cut. But Schulz would have none of it; he was adamant: the story of Jesus’ birth, as recorded in the Bible, was the heart and soul of the whole project. “If we don’t do it, who will?” Schulz rhetorically asked clearly, telling CBS and his production team that without Linus telling the Christmas story from Luke there would not then or ever be a Peanuts animated special on television of any kind.

And so, on December 9, 1965, at 7:30 PM (pre-empting an episode of The Munsters normally seen at that time), CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas, as originally conceived, without edit. It blew everyone away; it was an immediate and overwhelming success. Almost half (47 percent) of all television sets in the United States that night tuned in. Critics offered universal and unmitigated praise: “A gem of a television show,” (San Francisco’s Chronicle); “Linus reading the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season,” (New York’s World-Telegram); “Delightfully novel and amusing,” (Hollywood Reporter); “Fascinating and haunting,” (Variety); and “A Yule classic,” (Philadelphia’s Inquirer). Coca Cola beamed. CBS executives, who just days before had panned the whole as an utter failure, suddenly ordered four more Peanuts specials.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired in prime-time by CBS every year until 2000, when ABC bought the rights to the program; ABC has aired it in prime-time every Christmas since then—often twice in the same year. In some years, it still beats all other programs in its time slot, as new generations and old stop and watch what is undeniably a Christmas classic.

The soundtrack has also become iconic. The jazz underscore proved to be perfectly matched to the cast and storyline. The musical vocals (including “Christmastime is Here” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”) were performed by kids in a Bay-Area church choir; the church’s choir director wanted the performance to be “perfect;” Mendelson and Schulz chose a slightly off-key recording of the children singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” instead—again defying convention and bringing the fresh air of authenticity to the animated special’s message.

The anemic Christmas tree Charlie Brown chooses to decorate in the special became a popular emblem of authenticity itself. A “Charlie Brown tree” became almost a meme over the years and is credited with wiping out the market for artificial aluminum Christmas trees, which had enjoyed great popularity from their introduction in 1958 until A Charlie Brown Christmas aired in 1965; by 1967, they were no longer even manufactured. The program, in a way, turned the world upside down.

Mendelson’s passing has surfaced this amazing history once more. As I have packed away my Christmas decorations for another year and begun to look forward to what is to come, I cannot escape the powerful lessons A Charlie Brown Christmas brings to the fore, even for the Church of God.

We live in an age in which our churches struggle with production. Certain assumptions have been made—and have taken deep root—in our church culture about what is necessary to “reach an audience” or to be “missional,” or “escape being attractional,” even as we sweat every Sunday’s stage line-up (trying to communicate with an audience we have attracted to our houses of worship).

The music has to be amped up—or sung from a hymnal—or led by a worship team—or fronted by a choir—or be new and contemporary—or be familiar—or, you name it. The Sunday platform needs to be set like a stage, with props or sets or flowers or movie screens (with movie clips), spotlights suspended from a ceiling painted black, and, well, you name it. The people “on stage” have to have a certain vibe, or style, or performance gift-set, or, yep, you name it. The colors have to be right. The script has to be planned out. The teaching series requires months of planning, charted perhaps a year in advance, just like, well, er, uh, a television special or mini-series.

The Bible needs to be muted—you know people just aren’t into that so much anymore—or, the Bible has to be present “on stage,” but used primarily to underline some already determined relevant theme that will catch “the audience.” The storyline needs to avoid controversy, daring not to offend or dare those we have attracted to the meeting house, because we are “missional,” and can’t expose the Scriptures in a way that touches the headlines and all of the other stuff people talk about before and after church. We have concluded that we must be “missional” but curiously, also monasteries, devoted to a narrow bandwidth of our safe theological zones.

I know about this. Because, I have played on this field, too: pastoring congregations I fretted would not be current or up-to-date enough, trying to conform to what everyone else and the latest pastor-conference fad said was “the way to be,” “growing a healthy church.” Been there. Done that. Oh yes, don’t forget to get music into the parking lot.

But, as time has marched on and our civilization has become increasingly secularized, I am persuaded that Mendelson and Schulz were on to something, even fifty-five years ago. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes we need to break the mold and think up, on our own, in our own context, by the light of heaven’s direct inspiration, fresh air for the ministry.

Maybe we don’t need the worship band, but just a piano. Maybe some jazz. Maybe just a guitar, without amplification beyond a simple mic. Maybe the Scripture needs to be at the center of everything, unashamedly—the Source of, not peripheral to, the message and hour we spend together.

Maybe a children’s choir can be a bit off-key, if it is honest. Maybe the animation can be a bit flat, homely, in a way that indelibly etches on the heart. Maybe Jesus is the subject, after all—so much so that no one who visits one of our meetings can escape knowing about Him, that He is the answer and the key at the center of whatever is being discussed, sung about, or taught.

What if Linus was right, after all, and not just about Christmas: “This is what life is all about, Charlie Brown.” Jesus coming into the world. Jesus changing the world. Jesus still intervening in the world. Jesus bringing life and justice to the world. Bingo.

I have been much impressed by the vocabulary and ambition of an anointed pastor in Portland, John Mark Comer. His congregation has purchased the property of our historic Holladay Park Church of God, near Portland’s city center. Comer talks about practicing the Way of Jesus. It’s simple. Unadorned. Straightforward. True.

And how does he suggest we practice the Way of Jesus? Here’s how: (1) Be with Jesus, (2) Become like Jesus, and (3) Do what Jesus did. No bells and whistles. No clever stage sets and motifs. Just to the point. Less is more. Way more. And, authentic, too. I want to practice the Way of Jesus in 2020, in the same way.

Practicing the Way of Jesus will be at the heart of our Church of God Regional Conventions this year. It’s already informing much of what we do. We invite you to start walking in this way with us.

In 1965, Mendelson reached out to many Hollywood lyricists to craft lines for a melody that Guaraldi had composed to underscore some of the Peanuts Christmas special. All of the lyricists demurred. Everybody was too busy. Not enough time. Not enough buzz. What? A cartoon song? Charlie Brown? A comic-strip character? Seriously? No thank you. We have bigger fish to fry.

Frustrated, but quiet, Mendelson stared at his kitchen table. He picked up a pen, found the back of an envelope, and tried to focus on the message. Surely, every Christmas lyric that could be written has been written, he thought. But no, Guaraldi had come up with a new tune—so simple, so elemental, and yet, so beautiful. There must be words to match. He thought some more. And then, he began to write:

“Christmas time is here. Happiness and cheer. Fun for all that children call their favorite time of year. Snowflakes in the air. Carols everywhere. Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to share.

Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.”

We can. Love and dreams to share. This year. May the Lord hold us all close as 2020 unfolds and breathe fresh air into our souls, minds, and ministries. May Jesus be our subject. Perhaps this is the year that we, like Mendelson and Schulz two generations ago, turn our world upside down, for Jesus’ sake, by embracing the simple.

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