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"God bless us, every one"

Books | Dickens's exploration of faith shines in his Christmas tales

Issue: "Lifelines: No little people," Dec. 14, 1996

Charles Dickens is arguably the most influential novelist in the English language. His plots, his characters, his images, and his creativity define for us the modern literary standard. And nowhere has he had greater impact than in his Christmas stories.

Born in 1812, the second of eight children, his earliest memories were supremely unhappy. His father, a lowly government clerk, was imprisoned for his debts and the young Dickens was sent off to labor in the dismal factories and workhouses of the day. His education was necessarily postponed until he was a teenager--he thus had the odd experience of going from the world to school instead of from school to the world.

The shame of that difficult and impoverished childhood haunted Dickens for the rest of his life--shaping his literary and political sensibilities. When he was finally able to escape his pauper's beginnings, he devoted his abundant gifts to shining a searchlight of scrutiny on the lives of the poor, the frustrated, and the unfulfilled.

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His first successes came quickly--when he was 24 years old and working as a struggling journalist, the serialized Pickwick Papers were published to great acclaim. A whole string of blockbuster novels followed in short order--Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. His was a rags-to-riches dream come true.

Though his search for meaning led him in some negative directions, the great fascination of his life was the Christian faith. At the heart of most of his novels is evidence of an impassioned quest for significance--in and through the spiritual system that ultimately gave flower to the wonder of Western civilization. He wrote innumerable essays on the disparity between Christian teaching and Christian practice. He lectured widely on the nature of Christian ethics and society. And he penned a groping, probing, yearning sketch of the life of Christ.

The forum for his most sophisticated musings on the faith came in his annual Christmas stories, which were written beginning in 1843, when Dickens was at the pinnacle of his writing prowess. The first--and probably the best--was A Christmas Carol. It is the familiar story of Scrooge, Marley, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and ghosts from the past, present, and future. With unsurpassed artistry Dickens paints a picture of depravity, dispossession, and depression with an impressionistic palate--while vividly portraying the power of repentance, redemption, and resurrection with the clarity of a photo.

Not only does Dickens do something special for Christmas, but Christmas does something special for Dickens. It is no wonder that this story has become a holiday tradition. And although George C. Scott's screen portrayal is brilliant (and there is no better animated interpretation than Mr. McGoo's), there is really no substitute for reading the original text aloud with loved ones gathered around--perhaps with a roaring fire and mugs of warm cider in hand. Most modern unabridged versions of the small book are fine, but the purest and most uncorrupted text is probably the Penguin Classics edition--available in paperback almost everywhere.

So, wrap up in a comforter, snuggle close to the kids, and explore the richness of the mysteries of the incarnation with Dickens and his alter ego Scrooge. You will quickly sense with new certainty how Christmas affects the very fabric of our interpersonal relations. And that'll be an experience you shan't soon regret.

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