Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dickens and Christianity Again

Happy Sixth Day After Dickens’s Birthday! Yes, just a little extra planning would have cut that first exclamation by fifty percent and leant it a more powerful compactness. But I spent my planning efforts of the last few days on a different kind of preparation. In anticipation of the return to My Favorite Book (about which more in the coming weeks), I squeezed in a recent volume called God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author, by Gary Colledge. A pastor and an instructor at Moody Bible Institute, Colledge doesn’t always go into a great deal of nuanced depth, and repeats himself often like a man giving a sermon: I think he could have cut the book by the ratio I would like to have applied to my opening sentence, without any damage or loss at all. But even after having read Dickens and thought about his Christian message for forty years (you can see some of my thoughts on the subject here), I still learned several things from God and Charles Dickens.

I understand why Colledge says he’s recovering Dickens’s Christian voice. Many critics don’t find Dickens’s Christianity convincing or important, either personally or with regard to the plots of the novels. Colledge also points out the consistency with which even the best recent BBC adaptations excise Christian expressions by the characters. And I have to admit that over the years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether the author of A Christmas Carol actually did anything more than add a veneer of Christian terminology to a sentiment for joviality and ethical action. After all, this is the man who wrote to his children, “It is Christianity To Do Good always,” a man who flirted with the Unitarians for a while. But Colledge pointed out several new facts to bolster my confidence in Dickens. Dickens, for instance, had volumes of Christian theology in his library and spoke about them in some detail from time to time in letters. He also says at various times in his correspondence that Jesus was divine and that He died on the cross to save humanity. In the light of this evidence, it’s very difficult to maintain, as some critics do, that Dickens rejected the basic beliefs of the Church. On the other side of the problem, Dickens explains in a letter that he worked with the Unitarians for a couple of years because they practiced charity, saying nothing about their differences in belief. All this documentation was new to me, and I have Colledge to thank for introducing me to it. (I have the Dickens letters on my plan for the Third Decade.)

The question remains whether Dickens should have expressed orthodox tenets more clearly in his works rather than giving some readers of later centuries the impression that, for him, “Christianity” was no more than his name for being nice. The first, obvious answer is that the brilliant creator of Bill Sikes, Wackford Squeers, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, and Sydney Carton can say as little or as much about doctrine as he thinks appropriate and has no obligation to satisfy my notions on how much of such matter a great novel needs. But Colledge turns again to some letters to offer more specific explanations. Dickens spent his career in the context of an Anglican Church concerned more with determining for its priests what to wear and which direction to stand for prayers than in relieving the plight of the poor, the homeless, the fallen, the ignorant, and the ill that filled the streets of London. As Colledge explains, Dickens didn’t aim to reform society in some generic sense. He addressed his novels and stories to a specifically Christian society and to a specific established Church. And, this Christian society not being in need of correction on basic theology, Dickens delivered the urgent tocsin: “Wake up! Imitate Christ! Do!” To minds that see the doctrine of salvation as the only Christian topic worth thinking about, I suppose this looks like a statement of belief in salvation by works. And hence some of the doubts about Dickens’s orthodoxy.

But given the circumstances, Dickens said exactly what an orthodox Christian should have said. The difference in importance between feeding the poor on the one hand and the size of a priest’s collar on the other is like the difference between a rhinoceros and the fading memory of the smallest gust of wind. Just this morning I read in Lewis’s Mere Christianity, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.” And, as it happens, I also read in the prophecy of Amos this morning: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These two passages echo Dickens’s message exactly, yet no one endlessly debates the sincerity of their authors’ beliefs.

PS Blogspot's text editor recognizes "Ebeneezer," "Scrooge," and "Micawber" but not "Wackford" or "Squeers."

No comments:

Post a Comment