The Sad Gospel of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is an author who needs no introduction. Those who may not know him well likely still know of his more popular works, particularly A Christmas Carol. Even my children know him indirectly through the Disney character Scrooge McDuck. And something even those more familiar with Dickens might not realize is that he penned a version of the Gospel of Christ for his children.

But before he died he made it absolutely clear he did not want it published. It was a guarded treasure for years as it circulated through the hands of his immediate family.  But shortly before Dickens’ youngest child, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, passed away, he bequeathed the manuscript to his wife with these words, “Being his son, I have felt constrained to act upon my father’s expressed desire that it should not be published, but I do not think it right that I should bind my children by any such view, especially as I can find no specific injunction against such publication.”

It was then published as The Life of Our Lord in 1934, 64 years after Charles Dickens’ death. It also includes a prayer he penned for his children to memorize and recite in the evenings. It is in this prayer that we find a deficient, and to be totally honest, sad, understanding of the gospel, and perhaps a hermeneutical key for interpreting religious references in his other works:

 O God, “Who has made everything, and is so kind and merciful to everything He has made, who tries to be good and to deserve it ; God bless my dear Papa and Mamma, Brothers and Sisters and all my relations and friends. Make me a good little child, and let me never be naughty and tell a lie, which is a mean and shameful thing. Make me kind to my nurses and servants, and to all beggars and poor people, and let me never be cruel to any dumb creatures, for if I am cruel to anything, even to a poor little fly, God, who is so good, will never love me. And pray God to bless and preserve us all, this night, and forevermore, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

I wonder what it must have felt like for one of his children if they actually believed that their cruelty to a fly would prevent God from loving them. Sadly, this is a widespread misconception of God’s love that leaves one much like Ebenezer Scrooge trembling before the final spirit, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, instead of running to a Father who bids us come; No, better yet, a Father who visits us in our despair when we are incapable of taking the first step.

While Ebenezer’s acts of repentance and benevolence in Dickens’ famous story are touching, when seen in light of this children’s prayer, it reveals Dickens’ sad work-based understanding of the gospel.

The good news of the gospel is that we can never deserve God’s love, but while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly, even children with messy fly swatters. Shoot, I used to pull the wings off flies when I was a kid. I’m glad the gospel isn’t contingent upon our perfect treatment of insects. I won’t even mention what I used to use a magnifying glass for, but just know I took it upon myself to regulate the ant population in my childhood hometown.

Tim Keller offers a helpful contrast to this sort of misunderstanding of the gospel in his powerful summary of the meaning of the Incarnation:

 Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are. 

Now that is A Christmas Carol that really captures the heart of Christmas. And that is a message that I pray will captivate the hearts of my children.