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The Christmas season is one of traditions. Advent calendars, Christmas trees, egg nog, fruitcake, caroling, and good will toward men are just a few of the many traditions that have come to signify the entire experience of Christmas. While many may disagree about which traditions should or should not be celebrated (for instance, fruitcake does not even get an honorable mention during our Christmas festivities), we can all agree on the last one. No matter where I have lived or happened to be spending the Christmas holiday throughout my life, the days leading up to it are always characterized by a significant change in attitude and demeanor in the general population. As much as Christmas has been commercialized and secularized, there still remains a positive and unmistakable trend that we could classify as “good will toward men” as December 25 draws near.
One tradition that may help to reinforce “good will toward men” is the proliferation of Christmas oriented films and TV shows that can be found on nearly every television channel as the day approaches. While many simply emphasize the commercial aspects of the holiday—presents, flying reindeer, talking snowmen, and disgruntled elves—several stand out as excellent representatives of the true reason for the season, i.e.,the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
One of these traditional Christmas stories is A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ told and re-told, adapted and re-adapted account of the bitter and surly hater of everything Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge. Although it could correctly be objected that Dickens had ulterior motives in his beloved narrative of the Christmas Eve conversion of one of literature’s most famous villains, the surface level of A Christmas Carol is plenty deep enough to warrant a closer look, without getting bogged down in Dickens’ personal views of capitalism and social welfare. Victorian-era England was still very much aware of how Christianity was at the bottom of its culture and traditions. In fact, Dickens himself writes in such a way that most modern Americans, ignorant as they are of the Scriptures, would blithely miss the overt biblical references found throughout the entire book.
For example, how many film versions of A Christmas Carol have you seen that highlight the decorations of Scrooge’s fireplace? And yet, Dickens spends an entire paragraph describing them:
The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley’s head on every one.
Scrooge’s unyielding love of money would normally make him a materialist in the sense of living for the accumulation of things. But Scrooge defies the modern Christmas scoundrel by hoarding his money, rather than frivolously spending it on himself. In this sense he is not a materialist. Scrooge lives the life of a hermit, spending as little as he can to get by with the bare necessities. But Scrooge is a materialist of a different sort. His strict reliance on his “senses”—only believing what he can see, taste, smell, touch, and hear—makes Scrooge a materialist in the philosophical sense of the word. But even this is not an absolute as Jacob Marley’s ghost soon finds out.
When Marley asks him why he doubts his senses, Scrooge replies: “Because, a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Dickens’ clever turn of phrase about gravy and grave reveals the soft underbelly of the materialistic worldview. When all hope and trust is put into the five senses, an unexplainable phenomenon like Marley’s ghost will cause the materialist to quickly make excuses for his previously “unassailable” senses.
Dickens’ version of hell is also an interesting glimpse into how he believes the afterlife works. Like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, Dickens believes that “what we do in this life echoes in eternity.” Marley’s ghost informs Scrooge that “it is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” When Marley allows Scrooge a view of the spirit world before he departs, Scrooge sees “the air filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went…The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.” In his will, Charles Dickens wrote this: “I commit my soul to the mercy of God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teachings of the New Testament.” Perhaps Dickens’ final words to his family were motivated by something he learned from Marley’s ghost, some 25 years earlier.
The overall theme of A Christmas Carol is one of redemption; a life redeemed from an inward focus to an outward focus. The priorities of Scrooge’s life change in one night—from ones of greed and selfishness, to ones of benevolence and generosity. Clearly, Scrooge doesn’t “become a Christian” in the usual sense of the phrase, but he becomes one in his realignment of ultimate priorities. Augustine taught about the proper alignment of priorities based on the biblical teaching to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself. According to Augustine, the biblical hierarchy is God, neighbor, self; any deviation from this alignment of priorities is sin. When three supernatural visitors upend Scrooge’s self-centered priorities, the result is something akin to the biblical model; and this is where the power of the story lies.
The most dramatic part of Scrooge’s “conversion,” is the wretchedness of his former self. Dickens pulls no punches in his description of Scrooge’s selfishness to the extent that, “Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!’” It is this grim picture of a dark and cold human heart that makes the radical change so surprising. And such is the true nature of the Gospel, turning darkness into light and blindness into sight. As Zacharias prophesies in Luke 1:79: “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
While most film adaptations of A Christmas Carol are relatively faithful to the basic storyline, they overlook the many biblical references and allusions. This is why I recommend that you get this dramatized version, performed exclusively by Steve Cook. This audiobook, complete with sound effects and music, is a quality production that brings Dickens’ famous tale of redemption to life, but is not so over-produced that it leaves no room for the listener’s imagination to help paint the scene. Also included are MP3 versions of each chapter, which makes copying the book to your iPod quick and easy. I must warn you though, if you have never heard or read an unabridged version of A Christmas Carol, you might be shocked at how frightening and dark the story really is—but this is exactly the point. Light always looks brightest when it enters the darkest room, and Scrooge’s bedroom, like his heart, is one of the darkest to be found on a cold Christmas Eve so many years ago.