Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Dickens of a Good Story

Charles Dickens was an English social critic and writer who is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era (1837-1901) in Great Britain. He was born two hundred years ago, in 1812, and is the author of such highly acclaimed novels as The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39), David Copperfield (1848-50), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). 

The latter was required reading in my sophomore English class, but I was too young (or too immature) to appreciate it properly at the time. (It’s a shame that much good literature is “ruined” by requiring students to read it before they are mature enough to do so effectively.)

A Christmas Carol is undoubtedly Dickens’ most widely read work. It was written when he was a young man, in 1843. In contrast to his several quite long novels, A Christmas Carol is fairly short. And it is, indeed, a Dickens of a good story!
Through the years I have enjoyed various film versions of Dickens’ novella, but this month I have just read the book again—and once again found it to be delightful. As is widely known, A Christmas Carol is basically about Ebenezer Scrooge, an affluent but pitiful old grouch in London.
Sour and stingy Scrooge is transformed, though, through visits of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. At the time the third Ghost first appears, he exclaims, “I hope to live to be another man from what I was.” And change he does! From the tight-fisted employer seeking to get all he can out of Bob Cratchit, his long-suffering employee, he becomes a benefactor of the Cratchit family.
Because of Scrooge’s help, Tiny Tim does not die, even though that is what Scrooge saw when he was with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He realizes that by changing he has the power to make a positive difference in the lives of people around him.
We now hear about “class warfare” from time to time, but the plight of the poor and the criticism of the rich has been around for a long time. That was a theme common in the writings of Charles Dickens. In his longer novels, he became an outspoken critic of unjust economic and social conditions.
There are many who think that helping the poor such as Scrooge ended up doing for the Cratchit family, should be mainly up to individuals, or groups of individuals such as churches. And certainly that is a very commendable thing for people to do. Most employers, however, have more than one employee, and few can become as involved in the lives of their employees as Scrooge did.
During the Christmas season, much emphasis is placed on loving acts of kindness, including giving to the poor—as there should be. But we also need a system of social justice that operates all year long, not just during the Christmas season. As Joseph Fletcher significantly said in Situation Ethics, “justice is love distributed.”
I hope this Christmas season, and thinking about the message in A Christmas Carol, can encourage us all to be more generous in sharing with those less fortunate than us. Perhaps it can even help us feel happier to pay taxes that support social justice programs in our country.


  1. Thanks for the review of Dickens' great story. My favorite film version is the one with George C. Scott. It's nice to be reminded that it was Charles Dickens and not Barack Obama who started this assault on the "poor" rich people of the West. :D
    I'm embarrassed, though, because for years I've been attributing the quotation that "justice is love distributed" to Paul Tillich. :(
    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. :)

    1. Yes, I really like the George C. Scott version, too.

      Fletcher cites Tillich a few times, but as far as I know Tillich did not link justice and love to the extent that Fletcher did.

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, sent the following comments by e-mail, and I post them here with his permission:

    "Dickens continues to speak to our time, perhaps more powerfully than in the 19th century. I read the whole Dickens corpus year before last in chronological order. I recommend that anyone concerned for social justice do that. What a contrast to Ayn Rand!"

  3. Well, how timely. I am home to write this because Kansas City is having a blizzard this morning!

    A Christmas Carol has a profound alternate existence in theatre. From small costumed readings to major productions, it is a hit every Christmas. At the local Kansas City Rep it is the major production of almost every season. My wife and I are volunteer ushers at the Rep, and we were again amazed at how much stage smoke could be used in a production. Even spin-offs flourish, from a show we saw some years back that featured "the three Scrooges" to the amazing musical "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" last year at KC's Unicorn Theatre. Iggy re-imagines Scrooge as an aging rock star reconnecting with his inner good guy. Marley's ghost was the late musician Bob Marley, and the Ghost of Christmas past was an Elvis impersonator who had way too much fun singing "now we don our gay apparel."

    Yet, somehow, the people who proclaim "Greed is Good" also proclaim that they are the true Christians, and that if you do not agree with them, then you just don't get American Exceptionalism. As we watch them torturing logic trying to find a rationale for stomping on the poor (yet again) in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I am reminded that the shortest verse in the Bible is, "Jesus wept." Then again, Tiny Tim said, "God bless us, every one!" So I will go with that one today!

  4. Thanks for giving relevance to an old story...unfortunately the circumstances around the story still flourish 150 years later.

  5. I agree that it is good for individuals to bless others individually and personally. The problem, as I see it, is that not every person in need is lucky enough to be in the orbit of those who are both wealthy and compassionate. That is why we need organized, structured help to those less fortunate. I have a responsibility to help those with whom I come in contact to the best of my ability; but I also have a responsibility to contribute to the general welfare of those neighbors whose paths I will never cross.

    I can’t stay quiet about the related political issues:

    much was made of one candidate’s acts of personal generosity, but I kept thinking about the luck of being in his personal world and the misfortune of so many others who just happen to live in a different place and not go to his church;

    and the idea of giving tax breaks to those who are most fortunate while at the same time cutting the help to those least fortunate seems completely counter to Jesus’ teachings and life example.

  6. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson gave me permission to post his comments, which I much appreciate.

    "Once again you have written wise words. 'Perhaps it can even help us feel happier to pay taxes that support social justice programs in our country.' I hope we can change the narrative of our national conversation to 'Tax and benefit.' I celebrate living in a nation that provides services to all.

    "As a child, I was small enough to be carried so I played Tiny Tim is several church performances of "A Christmas Carol.' Today, I am bigger and am proud to be able to contribute to a variety of religious and services organizations. I am also able to joyfully pay my share of taxes to live in a compassionate country."

  7. Thinking Friend Truett Baker sent the following comments from Arizona where he lives:

    "Thanks Leroy for the timely and positive blog on Dickens and social justice. I could add nothing to enhance your voice for the subject. In my social work career, I learned much about the injustices and social inequity in our society and another voice affirming my stance is encouraging. May our government be so inclined!"