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What the Dickens?

A most loved tradition in my house is the annual reading of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Several chilly nights a year the kids huddle around me and we read this wonderful story of new beginnings. What I find interesting is that Dickens, who was so great a social critic would not only write a book about the Christian Faith and ones' need to conform to it, but also identify that process of conforming or converting as the single most important event one can experience in this world to better it.

Indeed it is interesting especially when you consider his contemporary, Karl Marx. Writing and living in London at the exact same time, these two gentlemen saw and experienced the same things. But compellingly they came to different conclusions.

Marx saw the problems in the world and taught people to point their fingers. He'd exclaim, "Look at that problem! Over there! See it?!" We'd look, and nod. Then he'd point his finger in another direction and state "They did that to you, go get them!"

Dickens seeing the identical things, born to a common clerk in abject poverty, concluded that ultimately interior conversion will save the world. He would never point the finger in any direction other than himself or one of his memorable caricatures.

There is a brilliant exchange between Marley's Ghost and Scrooge that proves this very point. Somewhere in the first stave, we find Scrooge defending himself to the ghost, trying to find common ground to prove his usurious innocence to no avail.

We begin with Scrooge as he congratulates Marley's Ghost on a job well done as a specter that travels the world warning others of their pending doom. (Emphasis Mine)

"You travel fast?" said Scrooge

"On the wings of the wind." replied the Ghost

"You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years," said Scrooge

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance. "Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed!" cried the phantom, "not to know that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian Spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

Funny that so soon after meeting the ghost Scrooge is "applying" it's conditions, bound in chains, miserable, hellish.... to himself. This is Christian conversion through and through.

But, it gets better.

The next line: "Business!," cried Marley's Ghost wringing his hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."

The kids don't get it yet, but the wife and I do, and frequently throughout Advent and into Christmas we are remembering the line and saying it to one another because it cuts like a knife. Is there any single thing more essential to the understanding of our faith than the above?

Our self-knowing, that even the smallest charity is repaid, but our continual lacking in virtue over the course of our short life will forego a vast usefulness for Our Lord and for others around us. And even best, Dickens, an absolute destroyer of utilitarianism in his works is not suggesting some utopian dream, but an internal conversion and conforming to God's Will as the only method to better the world.

To think that Marx, as a devotee of Dickens read those lines and still published his Manifesto a few years later boggles the mind. (1843 and 1848 respectively)

What delusion must a man maintain to not see plainly the advice of one someone admires?

Diabolical Delusion. What the Dickens, indeed.

All excerpts are taken from our family copy of A Christmas Carol published by Chancellor Press ca 1929, facsimile edition 1984

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