Michael Caine's greatest role is, without a doubt, the frog-exploiting, bunny-bullying, rat-terrorizing Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Providing my children's generation their first exposure to the holiday classic, the 1992 adaptation of the 1843 Charles Dickens novel (filmed after Muppet creator Jim Henson's death in 1990) softened the sharp edges of the Scrooge character and made the ghost visitations more palatable for G audiences of the time.
The story reveals the author's strong views about the hold that the elite establishment exercised over the lives of the poor and oppressed in mid-19th century London, including a lifeless religious system. That worthy theme is clear, but there is also the matter of how Dickens treats faith. Goodness, sacrifice, charity and reform emerge within the context of the Christian holiday of Christmas, so that makes it a Christian story, right? Not so fast. It seems to me as if there is merely a nod to cultural Christianity in the story rather than an illustration of the condition of man and exactly what must be done in order for him to be saved. As the above clip shows, the protagonist comes to salvation by way of improving himself, not through a regenerating transformation wrought by the Son of God. A Christmas Carol, regardless of its name, is a Christmas impersonator.
There is debate whether this is reflective of Charles Dickens' own Christian worldview or just a fluke with this story. Steven Rost writes in Christian History, "Dickens despised, and in his books eloquently portrayed, the gross injustices and shoddy lifestyle of many who laid claim to the teachings of Christianity. Yet a fair examination of his life and work shows that he was not a hater of Christ or of Christianity. His friend John Forster concluded that Dickens’s will demonstrates his 'unswerving faith in Christianity itself, apart from sects and schisms,'" wherein he states:
“I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here or there.”
However, Richard Gunther, Christian essayist and cartoonist, delved into Dickens' writings and biographical notes and comes to the conclusion that "he did not draw on the Bible for his authority, but rather looked within himself and found all the ethics he needed inside himself – his natural sense of justice and goodness as guided by his conscience."
The evidence is not compelling enough for me to feel as confident as Rost about Dickens' Christian cred, nor as willing as Gunther to dismiss the claims as laced with cultural trappings, primarily because I believe there was a tendency of the generation that bore Dickens to embrace a neostoic approach to personal faith. The lack of an overt confession that man is doomed may be easily attributed to a mixture of his personal reticence toward religiosity with the market's inability to bear a more impassioned, evangelical voice. Now, this is in itself an indictment of the times, and one which ours should heed -- "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:4) -- yet it may still provide an explanation for the lack of Bible-speak in the story.
My recommendation, therefore, comes with an exhortation to guard against feeling too comfortable with an appealing Jesus wrapped up in the message of self-actualized salvation. Where are we more likely to find a false Jesus than among seekers who display no discernment? The imposter is going to be found not among those who have no interest in him, but where he will be welcomed, as Mark 13:6 says, "Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray." And lest our confidence is misplaced and we think we can discern the goodness of our own moral intentions, that now that we are believers we can stand on our own merits, Christ warns, "False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect." (Matthew 24:24) So, take heed and guard your hearts, even now, in the midst of Christmastime.
Watch or read any version of A Christmas Carol with gusto and enjoyment, with regard for the social commentary, with an appreciation for the themes of thankfulness and charity -- in fact, do the same with all of the agelessly popular Christmas programs or stories, especially the old favorites -- but do so also with eyes open. Look for opportunities to discuss the biblical distinctiveness of a Sovereign-directed rescue of a soul bound in inability, despair and hopelessness. Know what the Bible says about the Lord, his character, his salvation, his redemptive work in history, and you will less easily be led toward a christianly charming and yet foundationally humanistic worldview. Jesus said to his critics, "Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24)
In all things, including in all things Christmas, we must guard against letting any habit, desire or philosophy supersede our devotion to the unadulterated truths of Scripture. No matter how much it looks like Christmas or smells like Christmas, sounds like Christmas or walks like Christmas, we must examine it further and deeper. If it doesn't reflect the Christ of the Bible, refrain from designating it as a more worthy or holy activity than any other. More importantly, if it's another gospel, it is not the glad tidings the angels heralded.
From Thanks2Giving '15
Return to Thinking again
From Thanks2Giving '16
December 1: Being a Pilgrim for Christmas
December 2: Craving Christmas, Desiring Christ
December 3: Strangers on Christmas Day
December 4: Hail Redemption's Happy Dawn!
December 5: Eureka!
December 6: O Henry, the Magi, and the Gift
December 7: Christmas Impersonators
December 8: This Year's Best Christmas Ad?
December 9: Why So Much Joy?
December 10: Where is the Method in the Madness?
December 11: Waiting for Redemption
December 12: Winter for a Reason
December 13: A Special Little Christmas
December 14: Mary and Holy Merriment
December 15: The Christmas Eve Truce
December 16: His Name Shall Be Jesus
December 17: C.B. and the Meaning of Christmas
December 18: Peace, Not Peace
December 19: Moonless Darkness Stands Between
December 20: He Makes Room for Us
December 21: Speaking of Glory . . .
December 22: A Christmas Carol That's Not About Christmas
December 23: Lessons Learned from Lean Christmases
December 24: All My Heart This Night Rejoices
December 25: The Neverending Gift Exchange
A Concluding Note: Do Not Open Until Christmas 2016
Laura Miller, home for the holidays