The link below is to a book review of ’40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline,’ by Jeremy M. Kimble.
The link below is to a book review of ‘The First Folio,’ by William Shakespeare.
Everyone knows the story of Scrooge, a man so miserly his name has become synonymous with penny-pinching meanness. Scrooge’s conversion from miser to benefactor has been told and retold since Charles Dickens first wrote A Christmas Carol in the fall and winter of 1843. Ebenezer is a wonderful character, so richly portrayed and fascinating he’s echoed in stories from The Grinch to It’s a Wonderful Life.
Pop culture has embraced both Dickens and his tale. With this season’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, Hollywood has done it again.
But who was Scrooge before he was, well, Christopher Plummer? The inspiration for the crotchety Christmas-hater may have been those who put Dickens’ own father into debtor’s prison and were responsible for young Charles working in a shoe-blacking factory.
Some Dickens scholars believe the author’s 1843 visit to sooty Manchester, or to “the black streets of London,” (as he described them in a letter to a friend) influenced him. It may be that the fable was a moral reminder from Dickens to himself, as he teetered on financial ruin. This is the theory proposed in the book by Les Standiford on which this year’s movie is based.
Did Dickens in fact invent Christmas, as we know it? Hollywood may think so, but others, like David Parker in his Christmas and Charles Dickens vehemently disagree.
Whatever your opinion, the prevailing wisdom is that A Christmas Carol isn’t particularly religious. As a professor of biblical studies at Concordia University and also a Lutheran minister, I have a different reading.
It’s true that the celebration of the season which Scrooge discovers has much more to do with generosity, family gatherings and large cooked birds, than the Nativity. But maybe those seeking explicit scriptural references in Dickens’ story are underestimating the Victorian novelist’s skill — and his audacity. Perhaps A Christmas Carol contains an alternative to the Bible rather than a simple borrowing from it. And perhaps that’s the point.
Jesus was a master story-teller
Jesus, by all accounts another master story-teller, told a parable that, stripped of Dickens’ English waistcoats, ledgers, fog and shutters, could almost be a mirror to A Christmas Carol:
“There once was a rich man. A poor man named Lazarus lived at his gate, with nothing to eat. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died.”
There follows, in Jesus’ tale, an exchange between the rich man, who is in torment, and Abraham, who acts as the guardian of paradise. It’s hard not to think of the innocent Lazarus as a precursor to Tiny Tim.
First the rich man asks for his own relief from hell. When that’s denied, he pleads: “I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. Let him warn them so they don’t come to this place of agony.” Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets. They must listen to them.”
“No, Father Abraham!” cries the rich man, “But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change” (Luke 16:19-31).
One can almost hear the chains of Morley’s ghost rattling. What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of A Christmas Carol.
Let’s not forget that the people of our western English-speaking past, especially artists and writers, were imbued with Biblical references and ideas. As Northrop Frye, among others, has argued, they lived and created in a world shaped by the rhythms, narratives, images and conceptions (or misconceptions) of the King James Bible.
Was Dickens familiar with Christian scriptures? All evidence points to the fact that he was more acquainted than most. Despite an antipathy to organized religion, from 1846 to 1849 Dickens wrote a short biography of Jesus for his children, titled The Life of our Lord.
He forbade that his small retelling of Jesus’ life should be published, until not only he, but also his children, had died. The “Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” was one of eight stories of Jesus that Dickens chose to include in that volume. But in his story of Scrooge, Dickens was too much of a writer to leave Jesus’ parable as is, and his age too suspicious of scripture to leave it “unbroken.”
A Christmas Carol unites the deliciously horrific sensibility of the Gothic movement with the powerfully simple narrative style, joined to moral concern, typical of parables.
Was Dickens perhaps dozing off some Sunday while the rector droned on about Lazarus, until he wakened with a start dreaming of Scrooge? We will never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.
Happy endings for the rich
Surprisingly, the Sunday after Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey, Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, preaching on exactly this text, spoke of Dickens as the “parabler” of his age. Stanley said that “By [Dickens] that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man…was made to see and feel the presence of Lazarus at his gate.”
I would go further: Dickens took the parable, and then retold and changed it, so that the rich man gets a second chance. As a privileged societal figure who had gone through financial difficulties and who cared about the poor himself, Dickens freely adapted Jesus to come up with a story that’s ultimately more about love than judgement.
When confronted with Marley’s spectre, Scrooge, unnerved but unrepentant, addresses the apparition: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”
The perceptive reader (or viewer) of A Christmas Carol can point a finger at Marley’s ghost and add: “Or maybe you’re an ironic but hope-filled riff on Jesus, by a famous nineteenth-century author who wanted to write his own story of redemption.”
Dickens not only invented this Christmas genre, but imagined a happy ending for himself in it. He penned an enduring story about the second chance even a rich person can receive, if haunted by persistent-enough ghosts.
A place of spacious dimensions, and large population, with fine bazaars. It contains numerous mosques, and there is no wall around it.
To the modern reader, this is perhaps one of the more striking descriptions the medieval Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, offered of the places he visited. Not because it contains anything shocking, but because of the town it portrays: Gaza.
For the city, and the war-torn strip of coastal land with which it shares a name, are today defined principally by the walls around it. Gaza has been held under siege for the best part of the last decade, since Hamas came to power in the territory.
Recent political developments, in the form of a unity government, mean that there may be more future movement through the southern border, with Egypt. Still, Gaza remains fenced in to the north and east by the Israeli Army, which vastly outguns any enemies it has in the territory. To the west lies the Mediterranean. Some shores of that sea are famous for tourism; stretches of its eastern edge are more readily associated with armed conflict, human suffering and wasted potential. Gaza definitely falls, along with Syria, into the latter category.
Without the beaches, life in Gaza would surely be immeasurably worse. The currents there make swimming hazardous; winter storms can be surprisingly violent. Yet the sky and the waves offer some relief in the form of light and air to a place where life can seem suffocating.
Flared, and died
As Donald Macintyre observes in his important new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, the sea might also offer economic salvation. The discovery offshore of a gas field, Gaza Marine – estimated to hold a trillion cubic feet of natural gas – promised the solution to many of Gaza’s economic and energy woes.
Perhaps predictably, politics and conflict have conspired to stop that happening. Gaza Marine remains unexploited. Like the “telegenic background of a huge gas flame shooting into the air” – against which Macintyre describes the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, announcing unfulfilled plans to draw the wealth from beneath the waves – it has flared, and died.
It was into that sea that I watched for the final time a bright orange sun set in the spring of 2004. Since 2002, I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. At the time, I was the only international journalist permanently based in the territory. The kidnapping of my successor, Alan Johnston, in 2007 just as he was due to finish his posting, means that while correspondents continue to visit, they do not live there.
Johnston’s experience reporting “the descent into anarchy of which he himself was now a victim” (as Macintyre puts it) was a journalistic challenge which Johnston took on admirably. His fate – thankfully he was released after 16 weeks – ensures, however, that managing editors have since been rightly nervous about basing their journalists in Gaza ever since.
Watching the sunset that evening, I reflected on another theme which Macintyre rightly raises. I knew I was leaving. I knew I had always been there only as long as I felt like being there. With the exception of days when fighting made it too dangerous to approach the border crossing – and there were a few – I was free to come and go as I wished.
The people among whom I was living were not. Macintyre makes this point, in all its complexity, not only in the book’s shortest chapter – “They will always miss home” – but throughout. It is a complex point because while Gazans long for the opportunities which life outside can bring: study, work, and, in the case of a would-be Olympian, sport – they do not want to abandon their home.
To do so might make them feel that they were turning their backs on their people, and leaving them to their suffering. Gazans with jobs or university places outside are sometimes nervous about returning home for visits. A deterioration in the conflict could leave them trapped and, in consequence, unemployed. Some just leave for good, but the “unresolvable contradiction”, as Macintyre succinctly puts it, remains: “Gaza as a prison to escape from, but also forever home.”
It is in telling these individual stories that Macintyre really excels. Many journalists have been fascinated by Gaza on short visits; few have bothered to try so hard to understand the story beyond the bloodshed. Macintyre’s meetings with the jeans and juice manufacturers; the music students; and that marathon runner bring the people of Gaza to life in a way that daily news reporting rarely can.
Their deaths are recorded too, of course – and, even to news audiences grimly accustomed to reading about violent deaths in the Middle East, some will shock. The Gazan mother who keeps Israeli soldiers waiting at the door – only to open it just as they have decided to blow it apart with explosives – is one that is hard to forget.
All the individual stories are in turn directed by the larger political ones. Macintyre proves himself a well-informed chronicler of the intra-Palestinian conflict: principally between Fatah and Hamas, but also between the latter and newer Islamist rivals. Gaza: Preparing for Dawn also offers wise analysis of the conflict with Israel – and international attempts to address it.
Lest we forget
Macintyre is perceptive about the gap between what even the most senior diplomats say in public, and what they seem really to think. John Kerry, the last US secretary of state to try, and fail, to solve the conflict, is reported here as saying ironically of an Israeli bombardment that killed 55 civilians in six hours, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation”.
Diplomatic dispatches I saw when researching my last book, Headlines from the Holy Land accused Israel of “taking measures that would not be acceptable in most societies in the 21st century”. Such phrases rarely grace the more mealy-mouthed official statements. They are all the more revealing when they come to light.
Because for now, for the people of Gaza, there is little prospect of change. As 2018 approaches, one is reminded of the UN report of 2012 which asked whether the territory would be liveable in 2020. Despite that, there is no meaningful diplomatic process which might end Gaza’s misery. John Kerry failed. President Trump has shown little personal interest. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been touted as a possible player – but there are no signs of concrete progress so far.
Israel’s approach of recent years has concentrated on “mowing the grass” – a phrase designed to explain the policy of launching military operations every so often to strike at armed Palestinian groups. The euphemism also ignores the fact that the majority of deaths in major operations are civilian ones. As Macintyre points out, even if leaflets are dropped telling civilians to leave, they don’t instruct them “where to find safety after fleeing their homes”.
Journalists covering conflict will sometimes agonise over whether their work makes a difference. If airtime and column inches alone could bring peace, then the sheer scale of coverage would have guaranteed a settlement long ago. It cannot, of course – but books such as Gaza: Preparing for Dawn do a vital job in reminding the world what goes on there. One day that knowledge may just be part of a solution.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,’ by John Donne.