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God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author.

God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. By Gary L. Colledge. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-58743-320-7. Pp. xix + 202. $19.99.

As I look up from my desk, I see a portrait of Charles Dickens, sitting at his desk, dreaming imaginatively about the characters in his novels, a picture I acquired visiting the Dickens home and museum in London, England. Through his characters, Charles Dickens portrays the Christian values we should portray as Christians, rather than through the study of doctrines and argumentative disputes in theology. Caring for children', widows, and orphans comes alive in the novels of Dickens. This imitation of Christ is what Gary L. Colledge attempts to describe as he gives a voice to Dickens' Christian walk in his study, God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. His purpose is not a "systematic theology of Dickens' Christianity or theological speculation" but to demonstrate that "Dickens' Christian faith and Christian worldview undergirded all that he wrote" (xii).

As a boy, I too was enthralled by the imaginative characters in Dickens' works, especially Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843), but I did not know the extent of Dickens' Christianity until later, after my study of C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, and others, and especially now, after my reading of Colledge's critique of Dickens' works. Scrooge learns about his relationships with others from the teaching and example of Jesus being fully human. His messenger of the gospel, the good news of his transformation, comes, however, from Jacob Marley:

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob." At this, Marley's ghost is filled with both outrage and regret, and almost chastising Scrooge, he cries, "Business! 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!" (121)

Marley's voice becomes Christ's character traits and the basis for Charles Dickens' "Real Christianity": giving oneself away in service to others.

In addition to extensive reflection of Christian characters in Dickens' works, Colledge presents a concise historical and theological review of the movements in nineteenth-century theology and the church in transition during the "best of times; the worst of times." He chastises, through Dickens' voice, the theological arguments, the poor preaching, and pitfalls of the church, including the lack of community involvement. Instead, the reader finds a fresh voice advocating character formation and virtue in what Dickens calls "Real Christianity," Authentic Christological Christianity is "committing to follow the example and teaching of Jesus; to imitate Jesus as we give our lives in service to others; to be forgiving, generous, and compassionate" (xvi) as his characters demonstrate in his novels. As C. S. Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity (1952), we are to be "little Christs," or, for Dickens, "simply imitating Jesus" (xvi). For his support, Colledge uses Dickens' letters and his novel characters as examples, addressing religious issues, rather than didactic treatises against the church or Christianity. Dickens especially cared for children and did not want to "frighten children into desired religious and moral behaviors" (5), a ploy of the Dissenters and Nonconformists of his day, including the Middle and Low Anglican Church movement against Dickens' conservative High Church stand. He abhorred preacher jargon, including theological jargon, and especially the "distorted Calvinism" (6) of the Dissenters and Nonconformists; instead, he trusted the New Testament, telling his son, Edward, in a letter, "The New Testament is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world; and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty, can possibly be guided" (7). In David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge, the characters confront "gloomy Christians with an eternal frown" (7). Dickens believes his characters are cheated out of discipleship in Christianity.

In Colledge's first chapter, "That Great Christian Writer,' Dickens defends himself in a letter to the Reverend David Macrae's criticism that Dickens presented no Christian characters. Dickens attempts to teach about "our great Master, leading the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are derived from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving"(3), attributes of Jesus himself. What is missing in the Christian walk is charity, or "true service, not the pretense of service" (11). By the sixth chapter, the reader discovers Dickens himself was involved in service to many charities, to the Orphan Working School, including the funding of the school with his royalties from writing. He established the Elton fund in addition on behalf for Ragged Schools, "free schools for adults and children" (125-127). He established the Urania Cottage, a private home for "fallen women" (133). Truly, he cared for the widows, the orphans, and the poor as in a "Real Christianity:' In other words, Dickens' theology produced "praxis" often missing today in our churches, in the true sense of charity or love. Dickens remained a conservative member of the High Anglican Church, although he was attracted for a time to Unitarianism, especially to Ellery Channing in America, who "practiced Charity and toleration" (146). As a child, however, it is interesting that his parents and he attended a Baptist Church out of "convenience;' where he acquired a "distaste for Nonconformist Evangelicanism of the dissenting sort" (140). In addition, "Tractarians were challenging a more orthodox Anglicanism with Anglo-Catholicism" (142). No wonder Dickens turned away from doctrinal squabbles into a "Real Christianity" centered upon Christ. Chapter two centers on Jesus, the heart of Dickens' focus, not upon doctrine or dogma. Dickens detested "the person whose Christianity is only profession and intellectual assent to a body of data," (112) and today would criticize the Christian as a "mere profession." The training and education of pastors has often become "professionalized" today as well. Dickens writes in one of his letters, "I discountenance all obtrusive professions of and tradings in religion, as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world ... with unspeakable dread and horror, those unseemly squabbles about the letter which drive the spirit out of hundreds of thousands" (111).

In the concluding chapter, Colledge allows us to explore the literary genius of Charles Dickens, advocating a rereading and re-visioning of his works with a Christian worldview in mind. The strength of the book is the excitement generated by a fresh approach to Dickens' work with this hermeneutic, not lending itself to former socio-economic, class struggle interpretations by Marxist literary critics. The Christian voice of Charles Dickens is heard loud and clear, and Colledge should be commended for his fine scholarship. The only weakness in the book is repetition of some statements, especially in letters of Dickens, throughout the chapters; however, the repetition might allow the reader to grasp the essential themes of"Real Christianity" being presented and reinforced. Then again, Colledge is not writing as a recognized literary critic, but as a "real Christian" urging us to rediscover the voice of the Christian Charles Dickens and become closer to Jesus Christ by listening to their true voices.

Harvey Solganick

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Le Tourneau University
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Author:Solganick, Harvey
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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