Friday, October 29, 2010

As Good As God

Turning to Charles Dickens in middle age and as a relatively recently minted priest (we call ourselves "midlife vocations"), I've been especially curious about his many references to God, faith, and the church.

As for his denominational status, the Unitarians make this apparently reliable claim:
Although Dickens was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life, he turned to Unitarianism in the 1840s as a Broad Church alternative. He associated with Unitarians until the end of his life. Early experience with Dissenters gave him a lifelong aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal disputation and sectarianism. Equally unsympathetic with High Church Anglicanism, he feared that the Oxford Movement might lead the English back to Roman Catholicism.
That adds up. In Bleak House he makes several references to the beautiful language in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but evinces no regard for its underlying doctrines (such as the pretty thoroughly Calvinist 39 Articles). A Christmas Carol stresses fellowship and compassion as the virtues of true religion. According to his father, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim offers a bit of Christ talk pertaining exclusively to the Savior and his healing work:
Somehow [Tim] gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.
In my current read, The Old Curiosity Shop, a unnamed London passerby serving as narrator in the first few chapters says this on encountering the central character, little Nell:
I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.
I wrote earlier in the week about Dickens as liberation theologian because he says the poor are especially close to God. So too in chapter 41, when young Christopher Nubbles, called Kit, goes looking for his mother to help in a scheme to persuade his beloved Nell and her grandfather to return to London. Kit, getting ahead in the world by virtue of his honesty, industry, and decency, had taken his mother, siblings, and friends to the theater and an oyster dinner the night before. When he arrives home the next evening to collect her for her mission, she's apparently gone to church -- not an Anglican one, mind you, but what we would call an urban evangelical storefront called Little Bethel where the pastor thinks he knows (as some also insist today) who the real Christians are:
Little Bethel might have been nearer, and might have been in a straighter road, though in that case the reverend gentleman who presided over its congregation would have lost his favorite allusion to the crooked ways by which it was approached, and which enabled him to liken it to Paradise itself, in contradistinction to the parish church and the broad thoroughfare leading thereunto.
Kit finds the preacher in full voice and his mother and most of the congregation fast asleep. Rousing her and propelling her into the street, the usually equable and kindly young man waxes prophetic. He thinks the evangelist is exploiting her misguided shame over the prior evening's innocent indulgences:
"What was there in the little bit of pleasure you took last night that made it necessary for you to be low-spirited and sorrowful tonight? That's the way you do. If you're happy or merry ever, you come here to say, along with that chap, that you're sorry for it. More shame for you, mother, I was going to say."

"Hush, dear!" said Mrs. Nubbles; "you don't mean what you say I know, but you're talking sinfulness."

"Don't mean it? But I do mean it!" retorted Kit. "I don't believe, mother, that harmless cheerfulness and good humour are thought greater sins in Heaven than shirt-collars are, and I do believe that those chaps are just about as right and sensible in putting down the one as in leaving off the other -- that's my belief."
Kit seems to mention shirt collars to signify the kind of well-off people he's now working for -- decent and honorable, as it happens, but just as likely not, as in the case of Scrooge and especially Nell and Kit's bete noire, the odious Quilp. Here Dickens' straightforward gospel is that being rich won't necessarily get you into heaven and indulging in simple human pleasures won't keep you out.

What does get us in? Dickens knew it when he saw it, as in the case of his sister-in-law, Mary, who died a few years before he wrote The Old Curiosity Shop. As we approach All Saints Day, Dickens seems to be teaching us to find divine inspiration in the recollection and emulation of those who have made our lives and world better. I don't like to think about it, but little Nell will die at the end of the novel, and as she does, a kindly friend will say:
There is nothing . . . no nothing innocent and good, that dies and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith or none. . . There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work in those that loved it here.

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