As I briefly discussed last week, the Christmas season is a season 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.
Another tradition that may help to reinforce the “good will toward men” mind-set of many otherwise frantic Christmas patrons is the proliferation of Christmas oriented films and TV shows that can be found on 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. I have two such examples in mind that I would like to discuss this week and next, but I must first make it clear what I mean by being “excellent representatives.”
Most Protestant Christians tend to think in “words.” This is certainly understandable because of the Protestant focus on the Bible as the sole authority (sola Scriptura) and the Lutheran concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” This primary focus on “word” and proper interpretation ends up killing the spirit of the message in favor of trying too hard to make sure the message is clearly heard. (For a further discussion of this see my review of Bella in the December 2007 issue of Biblical Worldview Magazine.) Dr. Thom Parham puts it this way:
Film excels at metaphor—forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn’t fare as well with text messaging. Show, don’t tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can’t seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
In other words, when Christians think about making “Christian movies,” they will invariably look for ways to present the Gospel in no uncertain terms. I have termed this the “Billy Graham Model” of filmmaking (see Facing the Giants review, BWM 11/2006), where the end determines the means and the story comes across as lifeless and artificial. For this reason, I would like to take a look at two well-known Christmas tales that transcend this trap of overt evangelism and manage to tell a Gospel story without having to resort to “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” as the conclusion.
The first 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 literatures’ 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 be hard pressed to miss the overt references to the Bible that can be found throughout the entire book.
Most film adaptations of A Christmas Carol are faithful to the overall story; yet leave out many of these biblical references and allusions. This is why I recommend that if you are going to get a copy of this story, get the unabridged version. Or better yet, get the complete dramatized version by Steve Cook that we offer. This audiobook, complete with sound effects, music and a printed copy of the book, is a quality production that enhances the reading of the story, but is not so over-produced that it leaves no room for the listener’s imagination to help paint the scene.
The general 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 one of greed and accumulation of material wealth, to one 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. St. 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 and any deviation from this alignment of priorities is sin. When three supernatural visitors upend Scrooge’s priorities, the result is something akin to the biblical model; and this is where the power of the story lies. The most amazing thing about Scrooge’s “conversion,” is the wretched nature 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 much sweeter. 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.”
 Thom Parham, “Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?” essay found in: Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi (editors), Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 57.