Rats! Charlie Brown and his pals are leaving us!

As everyone knows, the final "Peanuts" strip appears Sunday, Feb. 13. Saying goodbye to Snoopy and the gang is breaking the hearts of millions. It is, say cultural historians, a painful milestone for everyone from cartoonists to theologians.

Why are we overwrought about bidding farewell to Charlie Brown, a boy incapable of kicking a football or flying a kite? What makes intellectuals write volumes on Snoopy, a dog who wants to be a World War I flying ace? Or religious leaders ruminate over Linus, a child addicted to his security blanket?

"Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz, who turned 77 in November, is retiring the comic strip because he is ill with colon cancer. One reason for the widespread mourning of its passing is the cartoon's longevity. United Feature Syndicate began distributing it in 1950, and today the comic runs in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and is translated into 21 languages.

Merchandising from "Peanuts"--greeting cards, MetLife commercials, stuffed animals and clothing--brings in more than $1 billion annually. "Peanuts" has been there for many of its 355 million readers for all or most of their lives.

"I was born a few months before 'Peanuts' began. I grew up with it," said Doug Marlette, 50, the creator of the "Kudzu" comic strip. "As a third-grader in Durham, North Carolina, I delivered the papers that ran 'Peanuts.' "

But there are also deeper cultural and theological reasons.

People are sad that "Peanuts" is ending, said Jeffrey Mahan, professor of ministry, media and culture at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, "because like a Norman Rockwell painting, it presents America as we'd like it to be. It's suburban. We don't see broken homes or racial or gender conflict."

"The 'Peanuts' kids have problems. The challenges are personal," Mahan added. "Charlie Brown keeps trying to obtain the love of the red-headed girl. Lucy won't let Schroeder alone. We recognize these problems from our own lives. But they aren't sociopolitical challenges."

According to Mahan, "Peanuts" depicts an idealized, mainstream Protestant viewpoint. "Religion is an enriching part of the characters' lives, but not all-consuming," he said. "Quotes from Scripture break into 'Peanuts' sometimes, but don't dominate it. Charlie Brown's baseball team isn't like a Texas Southern Baptist team where the players pray before every game."

Schulz has never studied theology and doesn't attend church, although for years he taught Sunday school at a Church of God near his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., a spokeswoman in his office said. In 1989, he published a cartoon book for teenagers titled, "I Take My Religion Seriously."

The cartoonist did have some religious grounding for his work. Early in his career, after serving as a machine gun squad leader in France during World War II, Schulz lettered cartoons for Timeless Topix, a Catholic comic book series published in St. Paul, Minn., where he grew up.

To Hamilton Cravens, a cultural historian at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, "Peanuts" has been "a primer of morality for postmodern, post-World War II America. The strip presents a broad-based, secular version of morality."

Unlike Mahan, Cravens doesn't believe "Peanuts" depicts an idealized view of America. He said the strip "has a somewhat tragic sense of life. In the 19th century, between the 1830s and 1890s, people were more optimistic. They believed that if you were moral citizens and worked to improve yourself, you could solve your problems."

This isn't the case in "Peanuts," Cravens said. "No matter how hard they try, the kids in 'Peanuts' can't solve their problems. They don't learn lessons from life. Linus never stops looking for the Great Pumpkin that never comes. Charlie Brown always loses. 'Peanuts' teaches us that life isn't a bowl of cherries, that it has its limitations."

But, he said, "Peanuts" doesn't have an amoral or totally pessimistic view of life. "Despite life's difficulties, the kids have to be responsible human beings. They have a conscience. The only character who lacks a conscience is Snoopy, and he's a dog. 'Peanuts' tells us that we can behave responsibly, morally, toward each other in a universe filled with limitations."

People are nostalgic about "Peanuts," Cravens said, because "it presents a view of shared public morality that doesn't exist now. It's a throwback to a time when certain types of behavior were deemed inappropriate for the public sphere. Since 1950, our culture has believed less and less in tradition and in setting uniform moral standards. People feel fragmented and disconnected. Losing 'Peanuts' increases this sense of disconnection."

For much of his career, the Rev. Robert L. Short, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Monticello, Ark., has used "Peanuts" to illustrate his view of Christianity. In 1965, Short wrote--in collaboration with Schulz--the best-selling "The Gospel According to Peanuts," and Westminster/John Knox Press has just released a 35th-anniversary edition. Short later wrote "The Parables of Peanuts," also with Schulz, followed by "Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts."

"Peanuts," according to Short, presents the symbols and beliefs of Christianity, depicting a world filled with sin, most clearly expressed through Lucy, who, Short said, is often "a little devil." The "Peanuts" children show what it's like to worship "false gods" as Linus worships his blanket.

Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Short said, are Christ figures. "Who better embodies the crucified Christ than Charlie Brown with his shirt of thorns, getting hit on the head by Lucy or called a blockhead?" he asked. Yet "Peanuts," like Christianity, isn't all gloomy, Short said. Snoopy is "the hound of heaven," who is constantly leaping for joy.

In theological circles today, "Peanuts" is identified with a softer, gentler stage of the culture, according to Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

"Now theologians want something with more bite, like the 'Non Sequitur' comic strip," said Marty, a historian of American religion. "But that doesn't mean that there's nothing there for them in 'Peanuts.' Theologically, 'Peanuts' represents a world in which Protestant neo-orthodoxy and humanist existentialism combine to ask, 'How do you find meaning in a world filled with absurdity?' "

Short, Marlette said, "is onto something" with his view of the strip. "Humor comes from pain. I love 'Peanuts' because I care about the characters. We identify with people who are crucified, who lose. Nobody cares what happens to a winner. We need someone to lose who we can root for."

Marlette said the strip draws people in because it tells a great story. "The religious symbolism may not be conscious in Schulz. It never is in the artist," he said. " 'Peanuts' is an artistic instrument which hits on universal basics that influence the culture."

Schulz mainly uses his strip to make people laugh, said his friend and fellow cartoonist Bill Keane. But Keane, also 77, creator of "The Family Circus," said "Peanuts" has a spiritual and moral point of view.

"He's not preaching," Keane said. "Schulz and his strip embody the moral decency and clean humor of the World War II generation."

People will miss "Peanuts," he said, because "it's one of the few places where you can find anything spiritual in the funny papers."

CAPTION: Asked which strip he would want to accompany an article on the theology of "Peanuts," Charles M. Schulz suggested this one, from Feb. 17, 1974.

CAPTION: Schulz, shown in 1997, is retiring the popular "Peanuts" comic strip because he has cancer.