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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