Friday, March 24, 2017

Was Charles Dickens a Christian?

Blimey Cow mentioned this question once upon a time, making a caricature of people Googling "is such-and-such a celebrity a Christian?" It's a question people have had from Thomas Jefferson to Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens can't be left out of the picture.

We know his themes were incredible--the interplay of justice and mercy in Great Expectations is one I love to read again and again. Dickens cares for the orphan and the oppressed, something that we find in the book of James, as well as God's commandments to Israel. But merely following biblical principles isn't a guarantee of a changed heart--and only a heart relying on the blood and redemptive work of Jesus Christ can truly find its precious rest as a child of God.

Gary Colledge, adjunct professor at Moody, has written about Dickens in more than one place--and his work God and Charles Dickens, goes in-depth on this famous author's life and beliefs. Colledge brings to the table a passion for Dickens' work, which I really appreciated, as Dickens is my favorite author. Colledge makes multiple references to Dickens' works, as well as biographies written about him. Also, as he evaluates the religion and Christian references in Dickens novels, he brings to the table an extensive knowledge of Anglican thought in Dickens' day and how it influenced his works.

The beginning of the book is not promising on Dickens' behalf. The first chapters about Dickens' work The Life of our Lord, and his view of Jesus, while they show Dickens earnestly wanting to follow Jesus' example, wouldn't give you any indication that Dickens was other than just an all around good guy who had chosen Jesus for the pattern of his life.

But as you dig further into the book, indications grow more promising. Dickens, in various private letters, shows that he has an understanding of the religious controversies of his day, and while he never was a theologian, he was a thinking man, in tune with the church and society. One reason that Dickens is so confusing is that he hated the cold Calvinism of his day that gave children frightening tracts about hell and did nothing to relieve the poor in the streets. Dickens cared more about taking Christian action than spending time discussing Christian thought. Because of that, it's easy to put him in a wrong and heretical theological camp, when that may not necessarily be the case.

Chapter 6 on Dickens and the Church was especially worth reading, as Colledge explored the things that especially bothered Dickens (intellectual sermons that didn't help the congregation, keeping Jesus the central focus and not just making Bible study an intellectual end in itself) and how we can keep an eye out for these issues in our church today. Colledge is careful to distinguish that Dickens wouldn't have written all these thoughts himself, but he draws from Dickens' ideas in creating his own thoughts in this section.

Was Dickens a Christian? Based on this book, I think it very likely he might have been. I think he had some serious gaps and flaws in his understanding of God and theology. Certainly, I disagree with his tendency to fit liberal scientific views with the Bible, and I think his hatred of the flaws in the church sometimes caused him to swing the pendulum too far away from some central doctrines of the Bible. But at the same time, I think he understands enough of the essential, foundational elements of the Christian faith (sin in mankind, Jesus as divine and man, and God's forgiveness of the repentant) that he could be considered very promising as a child of God. I'm looking forward to reading his books again with a fresh perspective, especially to trace the theme of forgiveness in Great Expectations.

God and Charles Dickens is a rigorous book. I would recommend reading it in a fairly short period of time so you can grasp the main ideas and keep the chapters connected to each other. I tried the first time to read it in a leisurely way and was always losing the train of thought. But recently I picked it up again and kept on, and got a much better picture of what it was about. It requires a lot of concentration, and the chapters are long, but I think it's an excellent book to choose to strengthen and exercise your brain. I love choosing a tough book now and then, and understanding Dickens' Christianity for yourself is well worth the investment of time and effort. 

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