Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dickens and Christianity

The title of today's post is ambitious. A few paragraphs can only suggest the upper point of the summit of the tip of this iceberg. But my title is not quite as ambitious as the title of Dennis Walder's 1981 book, Dickens and Religion. While I've been reading David Copperfield, I've also been doing a little reading about Dickens, and over the last few days, I've looked a bit at this book by Walder and come away disappointed. The issues aren't extremely simple, but I've read about Dickens and about his faith for quite a while and even presented a paper at a professional literature conference about the expression of Dickens's faith in A Tale of Two Cities, so I have at least a right to think Walder is wrong about a few things.

But first, here are some things we agree on: (1) Finding out exactly what Dickens believed about many points of Christian theology is difficult. (2) Dickens freely shared his scornful view of Christian humbugs and sourpusses by including many such characters in his novels and depicting them in distinctly unfavorable light. (3) Dickens does not have his Christian characters quote scripture on every page, and when they do, they never begin by saying, "John 11:25 says . . . ."

But I must part company with Walder, for instance, when he says Dickens had "no tolerance" for Catholics. Dickens may never have written a book presenting Roman Catholic characters as lovable heroes with a right view of Christianity and a firm grasp on the kind of good life that he so highly valued, but that doesn't mean he had no tolerance for them. In fact, his little-known gem Barnaby Rudge tells a story set during the anti-Catholic riots of  1780, and the characters who have no tolerance for Catholics are clearly the villains of the tale. Perhaps Dickens simply disagreed with Catholics regarding the correctness of Catholicism, but nevertheless thought them no more deserving of humiliation, torture, or death because of it.  Why is that position so difficult to recognize? I suppose it's because our current culture, with no toleration for intolerance (or for tolerance, either, if truth be told), recognizes no middle ground between celebrational embrace of others' viewpoints and outright hatred for them.

Similarly, Walder says that Dickens usually portrays fervent prayer as the practice of a hypocrite. Yes, many of his characters pray for "sinners" (i.e., other people) without showing love to them, or shine with missionary zeal while letting their own neglected households decline in the dark. But many good people in his books pray, as well; I thought immediately of Mrs. Jerry Cruncher from A Tale of Two Cities who prays repeatedly for her husband despite his violent insistence that she stop, yet sees him changed by the end of the book and grateful for her constancy. About her Walder says merely that he is unconvinced of Dickens's sympathy for her. (I'm convinced.)

Most puzzling, though, is Walder's claim that "Dickens was not a religious novelist; nor were any of his novels primarily religious in intention or effect." It's odd first of all that Walder would drain his title of almost all interest (on page 15 nonetheless), but it's also odd considering Dickens's own declarations of his religious intentions and considering the novels' religious effects at the time -- both of which Walder cites.  The epigram to Walder's chapter 1 quotes from a letter by Dickens to a Reverend Macrae:
With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion; but I must admit that to a man (or a woman) they all arise and wash their faces, and do not appear unto men to fast.
Dickens says here clearly that he "always" but "unostentatiously" pursues a Christian agenda in his writing, and the quotation ends with an allusion to scripture defending the unostentatious approach.  In a similar vein, Dickens wrote this in 1870 to a Mr. John Makeham: "I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour . . . . But I have never made proclamation of this from the house-tops."

As for "religious effect," Walder tells the reader about the Social-Gospel Christians' fondness for Dickens early in his career and for the Evangelicals' ultimate embrace of the author in later years. But his claim that "Dickens was not a religious novelist" becomes even weirder late in his book when he points out that Dickens's later novels showed clear religious themes. He dismisses the late religious streak as sounding "contrived" (I disagree), but he admits it's there. So why doesn't he start his book by saying, "Dickens was a religious novelist, but he disguised the religion at first and later revealed it only in a contrived way"?

I think the answer is that Walder thinks Dickens was not a "religious novelist" because he thinks Dickens wasn't a very religious person. Several times he seems to try to convince the reader that Dickens's Christianity wasn't quite the real thing, without saying it that bluntly. He points out that Dickens resented being taken as a child to a hellfire-and-brimstone service. He points out that Dickens's sister Fanny claimed later to have become "serious" about religion, and concludes from that statement that the family she grew up with (including Charles) was not serious. And he opines that for Dickens, moral action was more important than doctrine.

I respond thus: (1) I would have resented being taken as a child to a hellfire-and-brimstone service. (2) The degree of a family's religious seriousness does not always follow that of its oldest daughter. (3) At the separation of the sheep and the goats, Jesus does not give a doctrinal test. (4) Dickens was not entirely void of orthodox Christian doctrinal understanding. With no apparent cynicism or irony, his novels proclaim (sometimes in the narrator's voice, sometimes in that of a character) God's ability and desire to forgive, Jesus's power to perform miracles, and the grounding in his life, death, and resurrection of all our claims to mercy, new life, and hope for eternal reward. And he penned this hymn:

Charles Dickens

Hear my prayer, O heavenly Father,
Ere I lay me down to sleep;
Bid Thy angels, pure and holy,
Round my bed their vigil keep.

My sins are heavy, but Thy mercy
Far outweighs them, every one;
Down before Thy cross I cast them,
Trusting in Thy help alone.

God alone can truly judge the sincerity of anyone's faith. I can only say that for thirty-five years now, the writings of Charles Dickens have had profound religious effects on this Christian.

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