Wednesday, January 2, 2013


In Part I, I illustrated some of the positive characteristics of Charles Dickens’ Christmas writings. One of those positive aspects was Dickens’ exposure of the dark side of Victorian England. In The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, a spirit reveals to the protagonist who the young poverty stricken boy at his feet symbolizes:

“…No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no one humanizing touch, to make a gain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!

“There is not…one of these—not one—but sows a harvest that mankind MUST reap! From every seed of evil in this boy, a field of ruin is grown that shall be gathered in, and garnered up, and sown again in many places in the world, until regions are overspread with wickedness enough to raise the waters of another Deluge. Open and unpunished murder in a city’s streets would be less guilty in its daily toleration, than one such spectacle as this.

“There is not a father…by whose side in his daily or his nightly walk, these creatures pass; there is not a mother among all the ranks of loving mothers in this land; there is no one risen from the state of childhood, but shall be responsible in his or her degree for this enormity. There is not a country throughout the earth on which it would not bring a curse. There is no religion upon the earth that it would not deny; there is no people upon earth it would not put to shame.”

In A Christmas Carol, Marley’s ghost sends the three Christmas spirits as a warning to Scrooge of fate of those who fail to care for those less fortunate. Scrooge was given a vision of this fate before the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared:

“The air filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

As mentioned in Part I, Dickens was adept in portraying people living in the most deplorable conditions, yet being able to find happiness among one another that transcended circumstances. In The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, Gabriel Grub is given three visions. The first vision is of a large family living in poverty. The mother and children anxiously await the return of the father. When he finally comes in from the snow, all is joy and contentment in the midst of want. The second vision is of the same family. The youngest child is on his death bed surrounded by his brothers and sisters. When he dies, they know he is in heaven. The third vision is of the parents in their old age. Apparently half of the children didn’t survive them, but the parents and the surviving siblings were joyful and content, grateful for the memories of those departed. When the parents die, the surviving children mourn, yet do not despair, as they know they will be reunited with all their departed loved ones.

Yet there is a contradictory message running throughout Dickens’ Christmas writings. On the one hand, he condemns in the strongest language, in the most forceful prose, the degradation visited upon the most vulnerable by their fellow human beings. Yet he also portrays a world that in spite of all the wrongs committed by mankind is still not really such a bad place. All that is revealed to Gabriel Grub leads him to conclude, “that is was a very decent and respectable world after all.” Now I recognize that even in works portraying human despair it is advisable for authors to leaven them with some humor and traces of hope. Readers need to be provided with a form of relief, or they may put the book down and give negative reviews of it to their friends. The result is that the author’s message will remain hidden from readers who would benefit from reading the entire work. Yet I think Dickens can undermine his purpose when his characters conclude that this is a “very decent and respectable world after all.” Dickens’ purpose in writing stories such as The Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man was to rouse his readers to act for the betterment of the least fortunate. Whether he was trying to foment societal action or change the hearts of individuals toward those society looked down upon, he was doing battle against the complacency of Victorian England. By sending the message that this world is a decent place, he feeds the very complacency he was fighting against. I’m sure that many Victorian middle class readers read Dickens’ avidly yet allowed themselves to gloss over his message because of the counter message within his own writings. Those who are convinced that the world is a decent, respectable place will not be goaded into action for the world’s betterment.

This is a convenient place to begin to differentiate between Dickens’ Christmas message and the message of the Gospel. While Dickens asserts that this world is a decent, respectable place, this is not the biblical witness. The world, according to the Bible, is a wicked place marred by sin. God destroyed the world once because, “…the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) In telling Noah that He was about to destroy the world, God declared, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:13) In saying that the earth is filled with violence, God is declaring that everywhere man is violence is perpetrated by man against the rest of humanity. After God makes a covenant never again to destroy the world through flood, God still declares man’s wickedness: “…the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth…” (Gen. 8:21) This view of man is not limited to the Old Testament. Paul tells us that man’s heart is darkened because, though he knows God, he is not thankful to God, nor does he worship God. (Rom. 1: 21) Because of this, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” (Rom. 1:20) When Jesus spoke of his return and the coming judgment, he reminded his hearers, and us, about how evil the world was before the flood: “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Mt. 24: 37-39) Is there anything sinful about eating or drinking? Or marrying? Of course not. What Jesus is saying is that before the flood, all of humanity was concerned with the activities of everyday life with no thought of God and His Law. Man will be just as complacent when Jesus returns. The world has never been a decent place, and it will get worse before Jesus returns. This message is in stark contrast to Dickens’ message that the world is a decent, respectable place.

There is another contrast between Dickens’ Christmas message and the biblical message. As I wrote above, Dickens was adept at portraying the contentment of ordinary people who live in the midst of poverty and other misfortunes. This would seem to be in line with what scripture says concerning contentment. Paul wrote from prison, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Phil. 4:11-12) Just how does Dickens differ from scripture? The answer lies in the very next verse. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The secret to Paul’s contentment lies in his relationship to Christ. Paul doesn’t rely on any natural reserves of human strength to cope with and eventually overcome adversity. He relies on Christ who strengthens him through the Holy Spirit. This kind of contentment does not appear in the Christmas writings of Charles Dickens. He urges a contentment that is nothing more than the force of will. In A Christmas Episode of Master Humphrey’s Clock, there is a scene where the narrator approaches a stranger who is obviously suffering some emotional distress on Christmas Day. The narrator attempts to comfort the stranger: “…I stepped across the room, and sitting down beside him laid my hand gently on his arm. ‘My friend,’ I said, ‘forgive me if I beseech you to take comfort and consolation from the lips of an old man. I will not preach to you what I have not practiced, indeed. Whatever be your grief, be of good heart—be of good heart, pray!’” This is counsel to deal with sorrow from human strength, not from the strength Christ gives. It doesn’t matter that many Christians give advice running along the same lines as Dickens’. It is not the comfort Christ gives. In this and other passages, Dickens seems to be sending the message that the way to deal with grief is to suppress it. It seems that one of the purposes of Christmas is to forget the sorrows one is laboring under as well as any animosity among family members through sheer human resolve. Near the end of Christmas Festivities, Dickens writes, “And thus the evening passes, in the strain of rational good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbor, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived.” The narrator of Master Humphrey’s Clock was glad to believe that at Christmas time half the world of poverty was gay. Perhaps that is the case. How would I know? I don’t live in poverty. But Dickens celebrates a gaiety that only lasts a season, not the contentment from Christ which is enduring. It is also a gaiety which denies how grief works itself out in the human heart. Here is the most prominent example of this in Dickens’ Christmas writings. It is from Christmas Festivities:

“Look at the merry faces of your children as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty—one slight form that gladdened the father’s heart and roused the mother’s pride to look upon, may not be there. Dwell not upon the past—think not that, one short year ago, the fair child now fast resolving into dust sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gay unconsciousness of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and a contented heart. Our life on it but your Christmas shall be merry, and your New Year a happy one.”

Can you imagine a pastor giving such advice? Unfortunately, many Christians tell people that the way to deal with grief is to ignore it. (They may go so far as to say that to grieve is a sin.) This is a denial of human nature, the way God made us. It is bad counsel. We should never preach a form of contentment which does not have Christ as its origin, its source of power, and which contrary to human nature.

Then there is the question of where Jesus Christ himself fits into Dickens’ Christmas message. Christ gets very little print in Dickens’ Christmas writings. In A Christmas Carol, Jesus being the reason for the season gets a perfunctory mention. It is through Scrooge’s nephew that Dickens’ makes his fleeting reference to Christ: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Did you find the vague reference to Christ in that long sentence? Apart from that reference, and a reference to the fact that the originator of Christmas was once a child, and Tiny Tim’s declaration, “God bless Us Every One!” God the Father and God the Son have no discernable role in A Christmas Carol’s message. In The Haunted Man, the protagonist is given the opportunity to forget all the sorrow he had endured. Without the memory of sorrow, he could not forgive; he could have no real sympathy for those who suffered. When he realized his loss, through the teachings of an angelic young woman, he said to her, “O Thou…who through the teaching of pure love, has graciously restored to me the memory which was the memory of Christ upon the cross, and all the good who perished in his cause, receive my thanks, and bless her!” Dickens message: because Christ suffered at the hands of evil men, he was able to forgive those who knew not what they did. Christ is an example in Dickens’ writings, but not as one we are to have faith in. Forgiveness and good works are for Dickens the salvation of humanity. They are certainly elements of repentance. And scripture does say, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble…” (James 1: 27) But scripture says more than this concerning the Christian faith. We are saved through faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2: 8-9) Who needs to be saved? Everyone: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:23) Salvation is for all men and women: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2Pet. 3:9) We aren’t just to look at Christ as an example, but we are to live by faith in the person of Jesus Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)

Dickens once wrote a book for his children about Christ. Hopefully someday I’ll have a chance to review it. Some Christians claim that Dickens was a Christian based on this one work. As there are some who would like to interpret Christian themes out of literature so to claim Christianity has had no meaningful role in Western literature, some Christians claim some literature as Christian because of the mere mention of Christ. I think that phenomenon is at work in the case of Dickens. I highly recommend Dickens’ work. I believe it is of great value. I greatly enjoyed his Christmas writings. But I would not recommend them to anyone as presenting the true meaning of Christmas.

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