"But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die." ~ Ezekiel 18:21
"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins." ~ Matthew 1:21
Late on Christmas Eve this year, I will do as I have done consistently since my children were small. After our traditional Christmas Eve supper of fried oysters, ham, pumpkin pie, and apple cider, (Just a tad “hard”) I will sit down with whoever will join me (Usually one or two of my daughters) and watch one of the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) literary classic, A Christmas Carol. The version I most often watch, and probably one of the most popular and best done, is the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sims as Ebenezer Scrooge and Mervyn Jones as Bob Cratchit.
Christian purists may scoff at such an activity on this holiest of Christian holidays but Dickens’ story of a hateful, selfish, old man’s transformation into a joyful, generous old man offers a wonderful opportunity to contemplate the transforming affect that the Incarnation has had upon society. It is interesting to note that while Dickens would not be considered a true follower of Christ by Biblical standards, it is undeniable that the miraculous story of Christ’s birth made a dramatic impact upon this prolific author.
Dickens’ classic Christmas story certainly espouses a Christian worldview. The beginning of the Victorian period in Britain had seen a decline in the celebration of Christmas. This was due to two factors. The lingering Puritan influence of Oliver Cromwell’s rule had discouraged the celebration of the holiday and the industrial revolution then gripping England permitted little time for holiday festivities. But Dickens’ story, published in 1843, rekindled both Britain’s—as well as America’s—desire to celebrate the holiday in grand fashion. And while much of the story is not explicitly Christian, the novel does focus on the Christian holiday and the biblical concepts of charity, repentance, and forgiveness.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire (England) on February 7, 1812. He moved to London in 1822 where he would reside most of his life. During Dickens’ formative years, Dickens’ father often brought the family to the brink of economic disaster by his extravagance and poor management of the family finances. For a time, young Dickens’ had to leave school and work in a factory due to his father’s confinement to debtor’s prison. This was an influential experience in Dickens’ life and one sees his sensitivity to the underclass and what he considered the oppressed all through his writings.
Another powerful influence on Dickens was the Christ-centered revival that took place in England during the 1830’s. The Christian activism that sprang from this revival took root in Dickens’ political philosophy. At the center of much of this reform movement was the Christian statesman William Wilberforce, whose faith, hard work, and evangelical zeal eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the British Isles (1833). Wilberforce also led the efforts for prison reform and relief for the poor. Much of Wilberforce’s work and thought would manifest itself through Dickens’ characters and stories. While there is plenty of room for critical analysis of Dickens’ works, as well as his theology (Dickens attended an Anglican Church, but most would consider some of his beliefs Unitarian), the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his miraculous transformation is filled with allusions to biblical principles and Christian allegories. Though Dickens’ theology rejected the need for Christ alone for salvation, he could not escape the beautiful and unparalleled truths contained in the Incarnation. It is evident from the story line in A Christmas Carol that Dickens was well versed in the Biblical principles and need for redemption.
First we see the utter depravity and selfishness of mankind expressed in the character of Scrooge. Dickens’ description of Scrooge is vivid:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.
In an opening scene in Dickens’ story, we see Scrooge’s nephew cheerily enter the old miser’s counting-house and greet him with, “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!”
“Bah, Humbug!” is Scrooge’s gruff reply.
A few moments later two men enter Scrooge’s office soliciting funds for “the least of these my brethren” or in the words of Dickens, the “Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.” Scrooge denies their request of benevolence and suggests it would be better if the poor wretches die “and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge aptly lives up to Dickens’ description. His comment also reminds us that modern American culture’s disdain for what it considers the weak and valueless or, what the founder of Planned Parenthood and the architect of modern birth control and abortion, Margaret Sanger, called “human waste,” is nothing new.
We also see the persecution of the righteous in the character of Bob Cratchit. A church going, hard working (If not very bright) father who labors faithfully for Scrooge and whose only joy comes in the love of his wife and children. Cratchit’s universally loved but crippled son, Tiny Tim, exemplifies Christian contentment and charity in his prayer request for Scrooge, “God bless us every one!” as his father proposes a toast to the man who has just “sacked” him on Christmas Eve.
Scrooge’s conscience is “awakened to righteousness” as he is visited on Christmas Eve by four apparitions. First, the “ghost” of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley and then, “the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come.” One can see the workings of the Holy Spirit depicted by these visitors as one by one they bring Scrooge face to face with his sins of greed and selfishness.
Marley bemoans the course he chose in life as he admonishes Scrooge: “Business’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
The allusion to Christian themes is obvious. In the end, Scrooge comes to himself, repents of his selfish ways and makes restitution to his fellow man. Dickens most certainly linked Scrooge’s transformation to the new birth:
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk -- that anything -- could give him so much happiness.
While Ebenezer’s “conversion” was to human goodness rather than to Jesus Christ, Dickens had to resort to Christian principles and metaphors to make his point. Despite Dickens’ unorthodox beliefs, he could not escape the impact of Christ’s birth—and neither can anyone else. While ironic and sad, Dickens’ humanistic quest for redemption is an admission of his need and illustrates what we so often see in our family, friends, and acquaintances at this time of year—being drawn to the warmth and love of Christ, but ultimately grasping at the false and deceptive humanistic trappings of the Christmas season. Perhaps this Christmas God can use us to show them that redemption can only be found in that One born in the manger who ultimately died on the cross so that we could be saved from our sins. Mankind is Christ’s business. Mankind should be ours.
Merry Christmas from
Huckleberry Hollow, Virginia!