Tuesday, December 21

Dickens and Christmas

Charles Dickens burst onto the literary scene in England with a series of prose sketches published in a monthly magazine and later in a daily newspaper. The young journalist—who had endured dire poverty and deep shame as a child—was suddenly thrust to the forefront of celebrity and fame. The stunning success of those first sketches—later published in book form as Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers—was followed in quick succession by Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.

There was little doubt that Dickens had become the most influential novelist in the English language. His plots, his characters, and his images defined for many the Victorian dystopic standard. But more than that, his prolificacy, his versatility, and his creativity defined the modern literary standard. As G.K. Chesterton later said, “The boors in his books are brighter that the wits in other books.”

He became the Victorian equivalent of a pop-star—rich, famous, pampered, and lionized. His was a rags-to-riches dream come true. Never entirely comfortable with his exalted role though, Dickens began a deep and impassioned search. He tried his hand at lecturing. He dabbled in acting and theater production. He launched innumerable journals, tabloids, magazines, and newspapers. Finding little satisfaction even in these professional successes, he turned to arcane philosophies and sundry esoterica. He explored the occult. And he sated himself in the pleasures of the flesh.

But 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.

But the forum for his most sophisticated musings on the faith came in his annual Christmas stories. There, he not only rehearsed his own tragedies and commemorated his own injuries, but he cast about for some metaphysical meaning or comfort for them.

The stories 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. It is also the recollection of that strange mixture of joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, sanctities and perversities, approbations and imprecatations inherent in this poor fallen world.

With unsurpassed artistry Dickens painted 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. This was undoubtedly the master at his best. Not only did Dickens do something special for Christmas, but Christmas did something special for Dickens.

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