God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author
Reviewed by Charles Andrews, English, Whitworth University
The hoopla in the Charles Dickens bicentenary has sustained a wealth of publications popular and scholarly on this most distinctly English of the great English writers. Gary L. Colledge contributes to this celebration a book that is a curious blending of scholarly intervention and popular plea to Christians unacquainted with Dickens’s writings. Colledge’s attempt to reach a largely non-academic readership is ambitious and admirable, but his book really shines when it focuses on revealing and contextualizing Dickens’s Christianity rather than when it serves up Dickensian lessons for pastors and parishioners.
Between the years 1846 and 1849, Charles Dickens composed a “harmony” of the four canonical Gospels intended for reading aloud to his young children. This text, called The Life of Our Lord, remained within the Dickens family until finally being published in 1934. Colledge’s previous book was a scholarly approach to Dickens’s theology that focused primarily on The Life of Our Lord, and God and Charles Dickens is to some extent a popularizing of this research. Colledge’s work, as his subtitle suggests, is an act of recovery, an intervention designed to refocus readers’ attention upon the distinctly Christian and even homiletic nature of Dickens’s fiction. Whether this recovery will indeed shift the field of Dickens studies may depend on how convincing one finds Colledge’s assertion that The Life of Our Lord is a defining text in Dickens’s oeuvre.
The introduction to God and Charles Dickens makes the unusual claim that “this is a book not so much about Charles Dickens as it is a book of him. At least it tries to be” (xi). The tentativeness expressed in the second sentence is characteristic of Colledge’s writing in this book, lending his prose a friendly humility that presumably reaches the popular Christian audience he is addressing. The difference between “about” and “of” seems to be in Colledge’s hope that Dickens’s words and ideas take priority over any critical insights about them. To that end, the final chapter of the book strings together many cherished Dickens quotes in what Colledge calls a “shameless indulgence in some of Dickens’s classic expression” (166). God and Charles Dickens thus functions as a primer for committed Christians vaguely aware of Dickens and hoping for guidance. Throughout the book Colledge urges his readers to give Dickens’s voice a “hearing,” and to treat the fiction as a kind of wisdom literature edifying for faithful believers.
In order really to “hear” Dickens, however, Colledge shows that misconceptions must be cleared up and omissions remedied. The first two chapters repeatedly tell us that “so often, when Dickens’s life is discussed, his Christian convictions are virtually ignored” (15). To redress this omission, Colledge examines The Life of Our Lord and describes the nature of the Jesus Dickens professed—a “Savior, Son of God, and Exemplar” (33). Of these aspects of Dickens’s Jesus, the third is especially convincing. A Jesus who was a great teacher and moral example of a righteous life fits best with Dickens’s personal aspirations to virtue and particularly with the kind of social vision he portrays in his novels. If we accept that Christianity animated Dickens’s imagination, it is not hard to see Christ-like virtue in many characters, such as Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop or Mr. Wemmick in Great Expectations. But it is difficult to find much that is explicitly Christian in Dickens’s novels except when he is criticizing religion gone awry. Colledge frequently asserts that Dickens is a Christian who has things to say that are particularly relevant for Christians—but he is not simply a “Christian novelist.” The distinction between the Christian who writes novels and the Christian novelist provides the lens through which Colledge assesses Dickens’s creative output, and it runs the risk of seeing everything Dickens wrote and did as having some Christian significance.
Chapters three, four, and six are perhaps the strongest in the book, demonstrating Colledge’s knowledge about mid-Victorian religious culture and theological debates and situating Dickens’s views within that context. Early on, Colledge cites Frances Knight’s definition of “popular lay Anglicanism” as a guide to Dickens’s faith, but in much of the first two chapters he works to assert Dickens’s theological orthodoxy rather than attending to his idiosyncratic particularities. The later chapters on “Charles Dickens: Theologian?”, “Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist,” and “Dickens and the Church” pay much closer attention to the context in which Dickens lived and more carefully explain his particular version of popular lay Anglicanism. Colledge shows that Dickens, although he lacked formal theological training, had more than a passing awareness of contemporary debates about biblical higher criticism and was engaged with Victorian concerns about the interaction between science and faith. Colledge clearly and succinctly explains the various divisions in Victorian English Christianity and even within Anglicanism, and he demonstrates how Dickens fits into this landscape as a critical friend who “sounded like the voice of reform from within the church rather than dissent from without” (139). These elements of Colledge’s book are especially revealing and give a picture of Dickens’s particular faith rather than some generalized notion of being Christian.
In chapter five Colledge states most forcefully the objection that many readers might have to his assertion that Dickens was a “real Christian,” the widespread scholarly view “that Dickens’s Christianity was anemic and less than substantive; that it was little more than general moralism wrapped up in social action; that there was in actuality nothing very Christian about it” (112). Colledge admits that much evidence can be found for Dickens’s seeming irreligiousness when nearly all of his overtly Christian characters—especially professional church people—are satirized or rendered villainous. Colledge argues that what appears to be an assault on the Church in Dickens’s work is really a critical corrective delivered from a faithful perspective and implying through negative examples what “real Christianity” might be. Virtuous characters emerge as examples of real Christian life, and the character of Amy Dorrit is the prime example in all of Dickens’s novels of a person following Christ’s selflessness and charity. Colledge also observes that Dickens’s personal life included charity work through social missions like the Ragged School Movement. Overall, Colledge does a decent job of showing that the social commentary of Dickens’s novels and the social activism of his life were inspired to some degree by Christian principles and values. The delicate balance required by bringing scholarly research to a popular audience leads to some of the weak spots in the book’s argument. At times Colledge tells us about Dickens’s intentions (he’s “clear and straightforward in his Christian themes and characters, and intentionally so” ) and he frequently tells us what was going on in Dickens’s “mind,” sometimes with evidence from his letters. Certainly no belabored rehearsal of academic debates about authorship and intentionality are needed here, but a nod to the complex relationship between Dickens’s various modes of writing could greatly improve Colledge’s argument. With an author like Dickens for whom performance was central to his art, it would be helpful to see how letters—especially those that address challenges to his faith by Dickens’s contemporaries—are part of Dickens’s performing as well as his
marketing and not merely direct access to his mind.
Another argument that would be desirable for convincing a specialist audience is
some analysis of other prominent Victorian writers whose social missions sound similar to Dickens’s but who lack his basis in Christianity. George Eliot seems the prime example here given that she translated into English David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, a work in the same genre as Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord. Eliot’s critique of the Church’s errors and attempts to proselytize for social justice through literature sound much like Dickens’s, and it could be helpful to clarify how Dickens demonstrated his Christian inspiration through some contrast with his like-minded but religiously unaffiliated peers.
All in all, God and Charles Dickens may be counted a success if it does indeed cause more Christians to discover what Joyce Carol Oates described as “works of surpassing genius, thrumming with energy, imagination, and something resembling white-hot inspiration.”1 Whether one believes that this white-hot inspiration is divine in origin and whether one finds in Dickens a wisdom literature uniquely valuable to faithful Christian life may be of lesser consequence than reading him at all. As Colledge notes, “one of my hopes in writing this book has been that it will inspire some readers to pick up Dickens for the first time and draw others back to Dickens to read him with a fresh vision and new orientation” (166). One hopes that readers who prefer “Christian novels” will find Colledge’s book to be a gateway for an expanded literary life.