Friday, December 02, 2011

The Spirit of Dickens Past, Present, and Yet to Come

For new friends and old, a repost from two years ago, with new ideas at the end.


I love the story of A Christmas Carol.

We own at least five versions of the movie, and have seen several more renditions of the story on stage and screen.

Each version emphasizes different points — some take a more humanistic approach (i.e. Scrooge had it in him the whole time), and others focus more closely on the story's supernatural aspects (i.e. it took a spiritual awakening to force Scrooge to give up his greed and think of someone other than himself).

Some versions do a better job than others at setting the stage for Scrooge's redemption, unshrinkingly depicting the poverty, filth and horrors of London during the mid-to-late 19th century.

Still, we stubbornly cling to an idyllic, Department 56-like vision of Victorian London.

The 1980 movie Ordinary People contains a line that captures this notion of idealized perfection. The scene shows Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) trying to convince her husband Cal (Donald Sutherland) that going away to England for the holiday is the right thing to do: “You know what I think? I think Christmas in London would be like something out of Dickens.”

I've seen that movie a few times, and every time I hear that line I think, "Huh?"

I mean, what part of his work, exactly, would make one want to vacation in Charles Dickens’ London? Is it the air filled with coal smoke and soot, or the streets full of starving orphans and excrement? Puzzling.

In an article entitled The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol, Lisa Toland points out that Dickens' London was "a world more brutal than we sometimes imagine," and that his work was actually a "social tirade" intended to "awaken Britain's collective conscience."

We're far removed from Victorian London. Content to see only the charms of Dickens' writing, we may miss the application in our own day.

Who is Tiny Tim in our time? Toland answers compellingly:
While poor children in developed nations are mostly those living in former industrial centers, worldwide poverty and exploitation have even more faces. These are the modern-day Tiny Tims....

The culture of workhouses still exists, though under a different guise. Exploitive child labor and abuse are alive and well. And human trafficking, which preys especially on children, is a reality. For these children, the workhouse may be a house of prostitution. All of these things make our society look much like Victorian London. Fortunately, many governments, relief organizations, and the church—through various ministries and local congregations—are actively combating these hidden injustices.

Between the horror of reality and the fanciful coloring of his characterization, Dickens's classic maintains the power to awaken our social conscience. Yes, we are drawn to the romance of the Victorian Christmas, but we are also gripped and moved by A Christmas Carol's dark portrayals of real life, then and now.

For Scrooge, the ultimate moment of self-examination comes on the third night of his haunting, when he is visited by a silent, grim spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads him to a forgotten graveyard and points to a plain slab of stone engraved with Ebenezer Scrooge. At that moment, sinking in his own grave, Scrooge experiences the desolation of death without the promise of redemption.

Then, having glimpsed the ultimate terror, the spirit returns Scrooge safely to his bedroom, where he bursts with joy, immediately calling out his window to arrange the delivery of an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit's home—one tangible fruit of Scrooge's regeneration.

It's an ending filled with hope and implicit moral exhortation. Scrooge's newfound compassion pushes Dickens's readers of every age and culture to pursue their own courses of charity. For there will always be faces pressed against our windows.
If the Spirit of the One who is Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come is leading you to make a difference in the life of a Tiny Tim, here are a few organizations to consider:

Compassion International
Heifer International
Women At Risk, International
World Relief
World Vision

And check out Elizabeth's Merry & Bright series, where she highlights goods made by or in support of human trafficking survivors. Her latest post features items in every shade of green, and she's also featured red and orange.

May God bless us, every one.



  1. Anonymous5:16 PM

    I love, love, love this post - and it has nothing to do with my mention at the end (but thank you so much for that!) A Christmas Carol has long been a family favorite in our family and I love how you and Toland brought it into today. I'll be passing this along. Did you show it to Andrew?

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth! I'm so glad you liked the post!

    I didn't show it to Andrew, but his post about reading A Christmas Carol for the first time reminded me of it. :)


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