Friday, December 28, 2007

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Carol 4

`Why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.'
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears immediately after Scrooge's visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Present; for the first time, there is not even a token return to Scrooge's bedroom. The Spirit's appearance is obviously intended to be reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, and the typical way of understanding this section is to focus on death itself: Scrooge is going to die, this fact is revealed to him over the course of several visions, it is ultimately brought home to him by his seeing his own tombstone, and he falls into a total repentance due to his terror. The only problem with this interpretation is, it's implausible.

Unlike Tiny Tim, who clearly has a disease from which, presumably, he could recover given proper medical care, there has been no hint in the story that Scrooge is ill in any way. Nor is there any explanation for his death given in the visions that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him. Scrooge is elderly, and it appears that he simply dies from natural causes and old age. The point is, a change of heart is not going to prevent this from occurring, and nothing in the story suggests that it will. Scrooge is smart; he knows that he is elderly, and the certainty that he will one day die cannot be new to him. So having that fact pointed out by the Spirit cannot possibly have a significant effect on Scrooge. Nonetheless, the visions shown to Scrooge do have that effect. So the point of the visions must be something other than simply the fact that Scrooge will die.

The Spirit first shows Scrooge some seemingly random conversations among businessmen, discussing the death of someone they knew.

`It's likely to be a very cheap funeral,' said the same speaker; `for upon my life I don't know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?'

`I don't mind going if a lunch is provided,' observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one!'

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,' said the first speaker, `for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I'll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I'm not at all sure that I wasn't his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.'

And from another conversation,
`Well,' said the first. `Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?'

`So I am told,' returned the second. `Cold, isn't it?'
The discussions are not merely about the death of someone: they are disinterested discussions. The general mood is indifference.

The Phantom next leads Scrooge to a rundown shop in a bad section of town, in which three people meet to sell some wares to Old Joe, the proprietor. It soon becomes evident that what they are selling they have stolen from the dead man. The items produced by the first two are simply odds and ends, but the last woman produces bed curtains and blankets from the bed on which the dead man was lying, and the shirt that had been put on him for burial.
`Ha, ha!' laughed the same woman, when old Joe, producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their several gains upon the ground. `This is the end of it, you see. He frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead! Ha, ha, ha!'
And then suddenly the Ghost and Scrooge are in a room alone with a corpse, covered with a sheet.
He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.

He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.
The Spirit indicates for Scrooge to move the sheet and reveal the face of the dead man, but Scrooge can't. Instead, he begs the Ghost to show him someone who feels emotion at the man's death. The Spirit shows him a conversation between a man and his wife.

`We are quite ruined!'

`No. There is hope yet, Caroline.'

`If he relents,' she said, amazed, `there is. Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened!'

`He is past relenting,' said her husband. `He is dead.'

She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.

"The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure." Scrooge then begs to see "some tenderness connected with a death," and is shown Bob Cratchit's house, in which is being mourned the recent death of Tiny Tim. By contrast to the dark, empty room in which the dead man had lain, the room in which Tiny Tim is lying
was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face.
So Scrooge finds tenderness, but not for the man lying on the bed.

The Spirit finally conveys Scrooge past his place of business and his home, to a churchyard. "It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds." Before even seeing the stone, Scrooge begins to plead with the Ghost. But in all his pleading, Scrooge never once mentions dying, or expresses a wish not to die. What he asks is, "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?"

It is not merely the fear of death that so affects Scrooge: it is the fear of being alone, uncared for, unmourned; that no one will have any emotion other than relief or satisfaction from his death. It is being cut off from all of humanity, and all his wealth having become meaningless. He has finally understood that while he can manipulate and control people through his wealth during his lifetime, only kindness and participation in their lives can gain any reciprocal kindness from them once he dies. He wants, not never to die, but to have been a part of others' lives when he does.

It is worthwhile to look at our own dealings with others. If we hold people at a distance, use them for our own ends, manipulate them to do what we want, ignore them when they're inconvenient, place wealth or personal possessions or accomplishments higher than them, then we have no cause to expect or hope for their kindness to us when we are in need, or past needing anything in this world. Our net worth is not something to be found in bankbooks and ledgers; it is to be found in the place we've made for ourselves in others' hearts. Our accomplishments and accumulations mean nothing if they are not valued by others, and we create value only by investment--investment in the hearts and lives of others.

This insight, by the way, is not merely of temporal value, or related only to people's thoughts and memories of us after we are gone. 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Christmas Carol 3

`Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?' asked Scrooge.
`There is. My own.'
`Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?' asked Scrooge.
`To any kindly given. To a poor one most.'
`Why to a poor one most?' asked Scrooge.
`Because it needs it most.'
The Ghost of Christmas Present represents the sheer joy of the holiday. What the Ghost does is relatively simple: he merely shows Scrooge other people who are enjoying Christmas with one another. In some ways, this is the most far-ranging portion of the novella; we are given the impression that the Spirit shows Scrooge a multitude of people and celebrations over a large area. The main point is that people are enjoying themselves together, and there is little relationship between their financial situation and the joy they experience--except for the fact that poverty can endanger the actual lives of those in its clutches, and thus cause grief, opposing joy. But wealth in no way ensures joy; in fact, all the people Scrooge sees are less well-off than he is, and full of much more joy.

But the two main places that the Spirit takes Scrooge are the houses of Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew. At Bob Cratchit's house, Scrooge becomes acquainted with his clerk's family. Bob's wife is "dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence"; his oldest son Master Peter Cratchit is proudly wearing his father's shirt, with a "monstrous shirt collar" playing a prominent role in the day's festivities; Martha and Belinda, the older girls; two smaller Cratchits, a boy and a girl; and Tiny Tim, the youngest son, crippled by an unknown illness. Charges that A Christmas Carol is overly sentimental may derive from Dickens's portrayal of poor characters, and Tiny Tim in particular, as impossibly virtuous. But the description of the joy and pleasure of the Cratchit's feast is wonderful, despite the fact that the foods described are those accessible to a poor family.
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.
And about the Christmas pudding, "Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing."

The point to be made upon Scrooge is that the Cratchits are altogether unlike his own discontent self:
They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.
At the house of Scrooge's nephew, Scrooge learns that his own position is not only not shared by others, but can be positively comical to them:

`He said that Christmas was a humbug, as I live!' cried Scrooge's nephew. `He believed it too!' [...] `He's a comical old fellow,' said Scrooge's nephew, `that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'

`I'm sure he is very rich, Fred,' hinted Scrooge's niece. `At least you always tell me so.'
`What of that, my dear?' said Scrooge's nephew. `His wealth is of no use to him! He don't do any good with it. He don't make himself comfortable with it.'
Scrooge enters in to the singing and the merriment of this party which he had steadfastly refused to attend on Christmas Eve afternoon, even though he is the butt of the Yes and No game. Once he has been persuaded to measure things on a basis other than that of money, he finds a great deal of joy in many things he had disdained for many years.

On two occasions, the Spirit has occasion to repeat Scrooge's words from the beginning of the story. The first is when Scrooge asks whether Tiny Tim will die, and is told that he will not last until the next Christmas: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
`Man,' said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child.'
And then later, when the Spirit shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want:

`Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.
`Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. `Are there no workhouses?'
I wrote earlier that Scrooge was not merely a miserly, crotchety old man; that he actively enjoyed his own malevolence. Yet even he did not recognize the damning impact of thoughts and attitudes such as his. His cruelty was to dismiss others less fortunate than himself, assuming them to be lazy or otherwise unworthy, and thus suffering justly the consequences of their own decisions. And then he thinks no more of them. But those others have to live out the implications of Scrooge's thoughtlessness. Having been to Bob Cratchit's home, he now cares whether Tiny Tim will live or die; if he had not gone there, Tim would have died without Scrooge having ever known about it. Those are the implications of such thoughtlessness, as Dickens presents it.

I see an attitude growing today: whether the liberal attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my body," the conservative attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my money," or the libertarian attitude, which says both. The attitude, at bottom, is this: "I am me, alone; I am not part of anything larger; I owe nothing to anyone apart from myself." This is Scrooge's attitude. And it would be funny, if it weren't so sad.

The gift-giving and get-togethers and festivities at Christmas, hopefully, remind us that we are not merely ourselves, and that we have a responsibility to others. Paul writes in Galatians 2:10, "All they [the Jerusalem apostles] asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." When's the last time you heard an evangelical pastor preach on that verse? We are not alone. If we are salt and light, then we are called to salt and enlighten something other than ourselves. May we enjoy, in our festivities, our connectedness with others, and may we touch lives, as best we can, for their benefit and encouragement.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas Carol 2

"I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."
--Belle, to her erstwhile fiance Ebenezer Scrooge

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey through various Christmases of his earlier life. The temptation of a 20th or 21st century author would have been to "psychologize" Scrooge, to see what terrible circumstances in his youth had made him into the man he now is. To some degree, this does happen in this section of the novella, but Dickens does more than merely blame Scrooge's demeanor on a bad upbringing. He deals with Scrooge's responses to life experiences.

Scrooge first sees himself as a child, abandoned at a boarding school, unable to return home for Christmas, with only his books for companions. His mother has evidently died, and his father, possibly grieving, refuses to allow him to come home. While young, he populates his time with the imaginary inhabitants of his books; a few years older, he spends his time "walking up and down despairingly." But on the latter occasion, his sister Fan arrives to bring him home, since "Father is so much kinder than he used to be." So although he has had painful experiences, he chooses his response to them, and good things happen as well as bad.

In the next vision, Scrooge sees himself at the warehouse where he had been apprenticed. His boss, Old Fezziwig, puts on a Christmas party for his apprentices, his family, and their servants and neighbors. Dickens describes the party in some detail, and portrays both the younger and older Scrooges entering into the festivities wholeheartedly and praising Fezziwig lavishly. When the Spirit asks why he should be praised so highly for spending only a modest amount, Scrooge responds, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.... The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

The next sequence, however, indicates more than any other the change that makes Scrooge become the man we are introduced to in the beginning of the story. Scrooge is forced to watch as his former fiancee, Belle, breaks off their engagement. Her reasoning is telling:
`Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.'

`What Idol has displaced you?' he rejoined.

`A golden one.'

`This is the even-handed dealing of the world,' he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.'

`You fear the world too much,' she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.
Scrooge is afraid of falling back into poverty, so he has focused all his energies into gaining wealth. His "nobler passions" have been displaced by this overriding concern. Belle recognizes that the man he has now become would never have chosen her, "a dowerless girl," to marry. All he cares about is money. He has lost the capacity to value anything else.

The final vision is the only one in which Scrooge's younger self is not present. It functions as an epilogue to the last one. We have already seen where Scrooge's path has taken him; now we see Belle with husband and family. This is the life Scrooge could have had; one which he gave up for what he has now. The time frame is seven years earlier; Marley is lying on his deathbed, and even Belle's husband pities Scrooge, who is "quite alone in the world."

Scrooge gains one major thing in this section of the novella: he relearns the ability to view things from outside his own point of view. He recognizes himself as someone who could be seen as pitiable, not simply as the astute businessman he had regarded himself as before. More importantly, he learns to identify with others. He sees them in the images of his earlier self and in the people who were parts of his life before. His young self alone at the boarding school makes him think of the caroler whom he had frightened away; his sister fan makes him think of his nephew; his regard for Fezziwig makes him think of his own relationship with Bob Cratchit. In each case, he wishes he could have taken a different approach with someone he had met earlier in the day. That ability--to see ourselves in others, and to see ourselves as others see us--could have changed his whole life.

How often do we get stuck in our own heads, seeing only our own point of view? How often do we dismiss others' feelings and concerns, just because they don't fit the template of what we consider important? And in what ways have we changed, slowly, imperceptibly, over time? We focus on something because it seems necessary, because we're afraid of what will happen to us if we don't focus on it. And then it becomes the only way in which we can view life. It's so easy for our "nobler passions" to be replaced. We need consciously, actively, to fight that tendency and keep that from happening.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Christmas Carol 1

Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.
I've read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol many times since I was young, I recently had the pleasure of reading it aloud to my family, and my pastor is doing a sermon series on it. Although it contains few references to The First Christmas, and was never intended by Dickens as a vehicle for the gospel, I believe that there is a great deal of truth in it. It's one of the books that I return to repeatedly throughout life.

I've never really liked any of the film adaptations of the story that I've seen. The George C. Scott version I think perhaps best gets at Scrooge's character, but I've always thought that Jack Nicholson would be the best actor to play the role. Scrooge is not merely a miserly, crotchety old man; he's deliberately mean, nasty, and vicious--in Dickens's words, "Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping,scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." He's not just thoughtless and accidentally or unintentionally cruel; he positively delights in his own malevolence.

In the opening section of the book, Scrooge has four encounters as he winds down the workday on Christmas Eve. First his nephew, who angers Scrooge by inviting him to Christmas dinner (and by being genuinely merry and in love, although poor--things that Scrooge once was, himself, we will discover). Two portly gentlemen, taking up a collection for the poor, are met with Scrooge's heartlessness: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" Then a caroler begins singing outside Scrooge's door, only to flee in terror as Scrooge seizes his ruler as if to go after the singer. Finally, Scrooge confronts his clerk, reproaching him for wanting "the whole day" on Christmas, and to be paid for it.

We see here in Scrooge human nature in its worst form. He's not merely miserable himself; he hates happiness in others, as represented by his nephew. He's not merely miserly himself; he hates generosity, and has "an improved opinion of himself" for his sharp rebuke of the portly gentlemen. He's not merely unwilling to enjoy the music of the season; he must violently banish it from his presence. And as wealthy as he is, and as poor as his clerk is, he still considers it a type of theft--"picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December"--to be obliged to give a paid day off. Above all else, Scrooge is resentful--resentful of anyone or anything who makes any sort of claim on him, and anyone or anything who has anything he does not, including simple good cheer.

All of which would merely be funny, if it didn't ring true. Who among us hasn't felt grouchy and irritated at some stupid-looking happy person? Who hasn't wanted, on occasion, to wipe the smile off the face of someone? There is more Scrooge in us than we'd like to admit.

When Scrooge goes home, he is confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had died seven years earlier. The device that Dickens uses to represent Marley's sufferings is a chain composed of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." Marley informs Scrooge that the chain he bears was fully as long as Marley's seven years previously, and has grown steadily since then. The sin of Scrooge and Marley was to have nothing but mercenary goals: Scrooge had earlier protested to the portly gentlemen that the welfare of others was not his business--"It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly"; Marley retorts, "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business."

Although not a man of "business" in Scrooge's sense, I am a very private person. Early life experiences of rejection taught me to leave others alone and want to be left alone myself. I am the type to have a few close friends. There's nothing, by itself, wrong with that; not everyone has to be a social butterfly, and one can't have deep friendships with everyone. Nonetheless, if my tendency toward solitude has the effect of isolating me and numbing me from the needs of others, then it's profoundly wrong.

We evangelicals have separated the "social gospel" from the Gospel, and in so doing, have divorced ourselves from a great deal of what Jesus taught, and what the Bible as a whole teaches. Jesus didn't say, "Tell everyone to repeat the Sinner's Prayer"; He did say, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and illustrated that love by the actively helpful actions of the Good Samaritan. He did say, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." He separated the sheep and the goats by the actions they took for the benefit of others. Attending to the Gospel would seem to involve attending to the "social gospel," and historically, it did so. It seems that that has been forgotten in recent decades, though. We identify with the interests of Scrooge--lowering taxes, blaming poverty on laziness--more than the interests of Bob Cratchit.

Perhaps if we emphasized what Jesus did, we'd secure an easier hearing for the Gospel.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

What Do You Want for Christmas?

Isn't that a strange question? "What do you want for Christmas?" Not, "What are you giving someone else for Christmas?" or "What are you most thankful for this Christmas?" Or even, "What do you hope your friends and family receive this Christmas?" No. It's, "What do you want for Christmas?" Because, of course, Christmas is all about getting stuff. And not just any stuff. The stuff you want.

It makes sense, I guess, if you're talking about Secular Christmas. But even then, the focus is, or used to be, on gift giving. We've made it about gift receiving. Of course, we're brought up that way and bring up our children that way. We ask them the Insidious Question, without thinking about its implications. We bring them to the Mall Santa for the expressed purpose of him asking them that question. We simply want to know what they would like; we want to get them what would make them happy.

Which would be okay if we sloughed off that attitude as we grew up. But Americans are now in the habit of never growing up. Throughout life, it's, "What do I want?" We hint, we connive, we read the ads and lust after the new toys or gadgets or fashions that are being displayed to whet our appetites. Christmas is an excuse to Get What I Want. It performs the same function as President's Day or Labor Day, only on a grander scale. It's the granddaddy of all marketing tools.

One sees the attitude in its rawest form in the way gifts are received. The disgusted expressions when a gift received is not What I Wanted. Or maybe it's not the right color or the right style. That's why it's so important to have that gift receipt, to preserve the fiction that the recipient does not know and should not care how much the gift cost, but is able to return the gift and so procure what was Really Wanted. I know, I know, sometimes it's a size issue, or duplicate gift issue. Not all returns are Bad Things. But really, where did we ever get the idea that a gift was anything other than a gift? That we shouldn't be appreciative of a gift just because it was given and because there was no obligation to give anything at all?

But of course, that lack of obligation that marks a True Gift is exactly what we don't want at Christmas. At least in our language we've become honest enough to call gifts what they are: exchanges. We don't give gifts, we exchange them. "I'll get you what you Really Want, if you get me what I Really Want, and then we'll both be happy." Until the bill comes.

So it merely makes sense that we end up just getting gift cards. Why bother shopping if the recipients are merely going to return the item and shop for themselves anyway? Perhaps a shopping spree is, in the end, what they Really Want. Eventually, maybe we'll all just cut out the middlepeople and just buy stuff for ourselves at Christmas. It would save everyone a lot of work.

But if you're celebrating Christian Christmas, I don't see how this whole mindset can enter the picture. Christmas is the day on which we celebrate the greatest gift God ever gave to us humans. "What do I want for Christmas? What do you mean? I've already received it--or rather, Him." It's not what we want, but what we have already been given, that we are celebrating. And it's worth celebrating, joyfully celebrating, and by all means, let's give gifts in the process. But let's give them without expectation of return, and let's receive them as gifts--as something unearned, to be enjoyed freely and thankfully. Let's not worry about what we want for Christmas. Let's give what we can and enjoy what we have received, from the gracious hand of our Father, who loves us and gave His Son for us, so we could have life, and life more abundantly.

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