A Denver Journal Review
God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author
Gary L. Colledge, God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012. $20.00. Paperback. xix + 202 pp. ISBN 978-1-58743-320-7.
Charles Dickens was one of the great novelists—if not the greatest—of the English language, at the very least in the nineteenth century. His life and times have been studied from all sorts of angles, so an examination of his religious convictions is a welcome addition to that fund of research. This is especially true for this reviewer. Ever since my days at university, where I majored in English literature, reading and learning about Dickens has been a favorite pastime. Several shelves in my personal library at home contain his works (not limited to novels), several biographies, a Dickens dictionary, and studies of Dickens’ London, his social concerns, political convictions, and personal and professional matters. There is much to enjoy from this nineteenth century literary giant and larger-than-life personality in regards to literature, of course, but there are also lessons for Christian faith. Colledge agrees. The argument and structure of God and Charles Dickens make this clear.
The author is adjunct professor at Moody Bible Institute and Walsh University, and this is not his first volume on Dickens. Colledge knows the Dickens corpus well, and this expansive familiarity is obvious in his discussion, but also from his suggestions in the Introduction for further research, as well as the extensive endnotes (pp. 175-89) and lengthy selected bibliography (pp. 191-96), both of which are in double columns. Several chapters are divided into two sections. The first section surveys an aspect of Dickens’ Christian faith. The second, of varying length, comments on possible implications that can be drawn for the life of individual believers and the Christian church today.
The opening paragraph of the Introduction announces the deep conviction of the author: “Dickens’ Christian voice is conspicuous and pervasive in his work, even though that fact is not always recognized or acknowledged” (p. xi). God and Charles Dickens presents an array of evidence to sustain this claim. In his Introduction Colledge also alerts the reader that he will connect the concerns of Dickens’ faith to the twenty-first century church, an effort that he believes echoes Dickens’ own desire to make Christians of his own time more aware of the fundamental, though often neglected, dimensions of the faith that claims to follow Jesus: benevolence and social responsibility.
Chapter one (“Charles Dickens: That Great Christian Author”) begins Colledge’s case for Dickens’ Christian beliefs. The author cites personal correspondence and presents several characters and scenes from several novels. He contends that Dickens’ narrative world was shaped by his Christian worldview, especially by his understanding of the life of Jesus and the New Testament. What Dickens detested was the pomposity and hypocritical piety of some churchmen and church services and the strict, condemning Calvinism that he had encountered—all of this Dickens caricatured mercilessly. It would not be fair, Colledge believes, to judge Dickens as one might a professional systematic theologian. The writings of that great novelist reflect “a simple set of core beliefs characteristic of a popular lay Anglicanism” (p. 14), a point that Colledge makes repeatedly in God and Charles Dickens.
In the second chapter (“Charles Dickens’ Jesus”) Colledge endeavors to prove that “the entirety of the Christian faith was wrapped up in the teaching and example of Jesus as they come to us in the Gospels” (p. 31). The strongest testimony of this fact is Dicken’s Life of Our Lord (TLOL), a lightly annotated harmony of the Gospels that he wrote for his children (it was not published until 1934 after the death of Dickens’ last child). Jesus appears in TLOL, his novels, and correspondence with various designations, such “Our Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Master,” and “Son of God.” The character trait and teaching of Jesus that Dickens stresses is his compassion and humility. This emphasis should prompt Christians today to appreciate the centrality of the imitation of Jesus for their own life.
The third chapter (“Charles Dickens: Theologian?”) connects the works of Dickens to the theological concerns of mid-nineteenth century lay Anglicanism. Key theological themes in his writings include the providence of God and God as Creator of humankind—thereby bestowing dignity on all people and their right to be protected from exploitation and misery. Topics that commanded the attention of the Anglicanism of his time also occupy his works: death, judgment, and hell. What modern Christians can take away from Dickens’ weaving of his religious convictions into his work is the challenge of being theologically aware laypeople.
Chapter four (“Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist”) explores Dickens’ understanding of sin, forgiveness, and redemption. Readers of his fiction and his social reporting are constantly presented with characters of dark cruelty, as well as exemplary ones who self-sacrificially serve others. Children occupy a special place in his literary world and are often victims of their surroundings; not so adults. Some, though bad, do find a new life, while others appear beyond any hope of reclamation. They incarnate what Colledge labels “particular corruption.” Dickens’ points Christians today, the author contends, to pay more attention to the Fatherhood and goodness of God.
The title for chapter five, “Real Christianity,” comes from Dickens himself. By this phrase he meant, in Colledge’s words, “a practical Christianity grounded in the sublime simplicity of the New Testament versus mere professions of religion and the audacious interposition of vain and ignorant men” (p. 112). In his correspondence to those who questioned his Christian faith and wondered about the presence of godly characters in his works, Dickens explained that the good people of his stories embodied Jesus’ teaching and were designed to prompt his readers to do the same. The qualities that Dickens highlighted were humility, charity, faithfulness, and forgiveness. Some of these characters include Esther Summerson of Bleak House, Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son, Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit, and Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. The second part of the chapter points out Dickens did not just write about these values; he exemplified them in his support of the “Ragged Schools” that were created for poor children and the Urania Cottage, which he organized along with a philanthropist friend to help rehabilitate “fallen women.” Dickens stands, then, as an example of one whose rhetoric was mirrored in his own personal commitments to the common good.
The sixth chapter (“Dickens and the Church”) examines the novelist’s complex relationship with the Christian church. Colledge explains that he “goaded, chastised, lampooned, and chided the church in the hope that it might become a community of true disciples—that is, single-minded followers and imitators of Jesus” (p. 139). It was the evangelicals and other free church groups and ministers that were Dickens’ special targets. Colledge locates him within several of the theological and ecclesiastical debates of mid-nineteenth century England, such as those generated by the Broad Church movement. Although he appears to have been aware of some of these winds, Dickens comes off again more as a somewhat informed Anglican layperson. The lessons that Colledge draws from Dickens for the contemporary church deal primarily with being honest in self-assessment and working at imitating its Lord in the service of others; church leaders, above all, should be held most accountable.
The seventh and final chapter, “Reading (and Hearing) Dickens,” rehearses some of the main points of God and Charles Dickens. Colledge also is of the opinion that Bleak House and especially Little Dorrit best exemplify Dickens’ Christian convictions. This statement on page 170 summarizes well the premise behind this sympathetic work on the novelist: “We read Dickens because it is a good thing to do, because it cultivates in us ideas about honor, propriety, about integrity, about love, about forgiveness, about things that matter and make a difference.” All of this, he has argued, is grounded in Dickens’ Christian faith.
This is an informative book. It will make this reviewer more observant of religious matters in my reading of Dickens. It is apparent that the novelist swam in the religious waters of his day and that this greatly impacted his narrative world. Even after reading God and Charles Dickens, however, I still wonder about the profile of Dickens faith. Has Colledge read too much into Dickens’ words? We probably will never totally understand Dickens’ faith. Perhaps Colledge is correct to categorize repeatedly the novelist’s Christianity as that of a lay Anglican, who did not identify with the evangelicalism of his day or with what he disliked in the Church of England, even as he was grounded in basic Christian beliefs.
The other focus of God and Charles Dickens, Colledge’s appropriation of Dickens’ religious thoughts to orient modern Christians, is interesting. Dickens’s social concerns are well chronicled, and I possess several studies of this aspect of his life and publications. The connection of those interests with Dickens Christian beliefs, however, is helpful. Dickens could not separate his faith and social commitments; this wedding he saw in Jesus, and he strove to live that out to the best of his ability. This coherence between confession and action, Colledge rightly stresses, is exemplary, both then and now.
I recommend God and Charles Dickens to Dickens enthusiasts. That wonderful storyteller of another time can cultivate our moral awareness in his intricate and complex portraits of humanity that present people in all of their baseness and glory; he exposes us, too, to the harsh realities of personal and systemic sin in powerful ways. Now, what we might appreciate in a new way is that in his works Dickens also offers us wonderful models of charity through whom we might see the Savior and learn to live as more faithful disciples.
M. Daniel Carroll R., PhD
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament