Friday, March 2, 2012

Dickens’s History of the Soul

In looking up some things for one of my recent posts on Dickens’s Bleak House, I came across an article in Christian History & Biography magazine analyzing Dickens’s faith. The author, Stephen Rost, basically says that Dickens’s Christianity does not seem to have been the real thing; the most he can say is that Dickens didn’t hate Christ. And Rost is not alone by any means; most treatments of Dickens and Christianity attempt to separate the two. Unlike the authors, though, who want to distance a religion they reject from an author they love, Rost seems to want to distance an author he rejects from the religion he loves.

As I’ve said before, although I’m comfortable reading Dickens as a Christian author, I’m aware of the problems in his life. I acknowledge with Rost that Dickens devoted himself more to social action than to corporate worship, and I agree with him that the Life of our Lord that he wrote for his children disappoints in its failure to explain the cross as anything other than a moving example. But I disagree with Rost when he says that Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion comes from an encounter with self rather than with Christ. The first half of his critique is certainly true: Scrooge must face himself in the story, just as everyone who turns to Christ must look at himself and see his sin. But how does Scrooge not have an encounter with Christ? The three Spirits of Christmas, who bear the Lord’s title in their names, are, respectively, a creature of light who is ancient of days and yet ever new, a bestower of joy and an abundant life, and an angel of death: Christlike figures, all. And along his ghostly travels, Scrooge must compare his life with those of Bob and Tim Cratchit, who go to church and talk to each other of Jesus’s power to perform miracles.

Scrooge provides just one example of a story that Dickens tells over and over: the story of the soul that has departed from its childlike state of faith and must return. We encounter characters in every book whose hearts are hardened by a fairly consistent set of corrupting influences. Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, tells him that he has learned to worship a golden idol: greed has turned him from his path. Many rich characters also suffer from the pressure of English High Society to maintain an unruffled countenance at all costs. In Bleak House, the Dedlocks consort with
ladies and gentlemen . . . who have agreed to put a smooth glaze on the world and to keep down all its realities. For whom everything must be languid and pretty. Who have found out the perpetual stoppage. Who are to rejoice at nothing and be sorry for nothing. Who are not to be disturbed by ideas.
Important in the story of almost every hardened heart is what Dickens calls in Bleak House a “distorted religion” that “clouds the mind.” The replacement of “reality” with a distorted religion (whether a severe Christianity or idol worship) “shuts up the natural feelings of the heart like flies in amber and spreads one uniform and dreary gloss over the good and bad, the feeling and the unfeeling, the sensible and the senseless.”

This topic of hardened hearts that need restoration came to my mind in reading Bleak House last month, as I noticed it offering a representative catalog of the influences Dickens usually credits for guiding the return journey of the lost soul. These spiritual restoratives include beautiful scenery, music, and displays of compassion. The birth, life, and death of children play a large role in many characters’ spiritual dramas in the Dickens oeuvre; Bleak House includes a baby whose birth recalls his father to his senses, a baby whose death elicits healing compassion, and a young crossing sweeper whose death Dickens uses to shame the hardened souls of all England. The death of a child with pure faith – Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Paul in Dombey and Son, or Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol – should bring adult characters and readers alike to think of a what a blessing it is to have lived an entire life without succumbing to greed, without growing up to preach a merciless religion, an entire life spent in the freedom to display all the natural emotions of joy and sorrow.

For Dickens, though, the strongest possible healing influence is the story of the life of Jesus. Scrooge hears a part of the story from Tim via his father; Nell takes her grandfather to a church to find peace; and Sydney Carton, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities, finds the courage to sacrifice himself for love in recalling words from the Anglican burial service that quote Jesus’ promise of eternal life to those who believe in Him. And in Bleak House, Dickens’s narration makes it explicit and crystal clear that Jo the crossing sweeper needs Rev. Chadband to stop preaching at him as if dirtiness is next to ungodliness and instead to tell him about Jesus and to teach him to read the New Testament for himself. I don’t know why so many people work so hard to try to prove that the man who wrote that narration wasn’t a real Christian, but I know that their time would be better spent helping Jo to become one.

1 comment:

  1. I've not ever heard that Dickens was not a "real" Christian. What is a "real" Christian, anyway? Who are these people who are trying to prove this? Dickens wrote a child's history of Christ--to say he wasn't a Christian is silly. I do, however, find it rather tiring when people think that through the lens of Christianity is the only valuable way to interpret his works. It might be the intended way, but it's not the only valuable way. I think that's part of the power of his work, and the reason its still around is that it is inspiring to people regardless of faith, as Human Beings. Perhaps, like the best Christian works, the works of Dickens exude the Christian spirit through example, not through preaching.