Monday, February 10, 2014

The Faith of Charles Dickens

In God and Charles Dickens, Christian author Gary L. College argues that Dickens was an important Christian voice, and the messages of faith that his stories are rife with are seldom discussed or appreciated. Some have argued that Dickens was only nominally a Christian, and even that his works were overtly anti-religious. While it is very true that the author was very critical of how the tenants of the Christian faith were abused or preached hypocritically by those in power, a closer reading of his text reveals that Dickens was NOT condemning Christianity itself--far from it. As I've argued elsewhere, citing hypocrisy among Christians (or those who identify themselves as such)is a very poor way of finding fault with the faith itself. In fact, as College argues, it was the Christian faith of Charles Dickens that lead him to attack hypocrisy he identified in the religious as he sought to change it. The subject of Victorian religious hypocrisy brings almost immediately to my mind the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bumble in Oliver Twist, the gross, hypocritical Mr. Bumble in particular famous for preaching Christian charity with wallowing in gluttony in front of the starving poor. A line from the 1982 movie stands out in particular, spoken by the future Mrs. Bumble: "Forgive these children their sins; their sinners every one of them; they wouldn't be here is they wasn't. Help me make them better Christians, Lord." Also of particular not note is the incident in the book where Mr. Bumble deliberately lies to Mr. Brownlow about Oliver's good nature.
      College spends time discussing a little-known work of the author, The Life of Our Lord, in which he expounds on the life and acts of Jesus Christ, and their relevance to his present world. This work is little known precisely because it was never intended to be sold to the public; it was a private work intended as a guide to Christian living for his children, and only brought to light years after his death. But even a casual reading of Dickens reveals what amounts to an essentially Christian world-view. While A Christmas Carol is sometimes criticized by the religious as almost entirely secular, Tiny Tim Crachit's enduring phrase God Bless Us, Everyone!, and Bob Crachit's observation of Tim's wish that people would see he was a cripple so that they should remember "Who made lame men walk and blind men see," speak volumes, as do the final pages of Oliver Twist, which reference God and heaven and speak of the narrator's belief that the shade of Agnes Fleming (Oliver's deceased mother) will visit her gravesite. College goes further, pointing out the good characters in Dickens' novels exemplify Christian values, while his villains demonstrate their antithesis.
   One thing that struck me in particular while reading this was how much emphasis Dickens placed on human charity and working for the common good, and how this so contrasts with today's evangelism, in which "good works" are continually downplayed, sometimes to the point of vilification, while "faith" is exulted. Often (though not always) such evangelists recognize that a saving faith will produce works, though it does not always come across that way. Dickens, however, put the importance of charity and defense of the weak, poor, and disenfranchised at the forefront of Christian living. Nor did he confine such philanthropy to his fiction; as College shows, Dickens own life shows much evidence of personal charity.
    So different from the culture-war oriented evangelism of today that often dumbs down faith to a "get out of hell free card." Not that Dickens disbelieved in or disregarded hell's existence: he did not. College provides passages where Dickens strongly suggests that certain non-repentant characters, such as Fagin and Sikes in Oliver Twist, and Rigaud in Little Dorrit were beyond moral redemption at the time of their deaths.
      Curiously, however, College neglects to mention a very powerful presentation of a damned soul, perhaps the most powerful in literature: Jacob Marley. However, as I'll discuss in my next post, it is possible that Marley was not as beyond moral redemption as one might have thought--although I'll say right now that that is according to a different author's interpretation.

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