We recently got the chance to talk with Gary L. Colledge about his new Brazos book God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author.
Gary teaches at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, and is the author of Dickens, Christianity, and “The Life of Our Lord”.
2012 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Why do you think that he has continued to be so widely read after all this time? What does the Christian voice behind his writing have to say to the Church today?
Back in college, years ago, I sat under Dr. Allen McKenzie, an English professor who regularly reminded us that good literature is “eternally contemporary.” I think Dickens’s work is an example of good literature that is eternally contemporary. Dickens had extraordinary powers of observation and understood the frailties and the majesty of the human condition. And he recognized that the problems and solutions, the joys and the sorrows, the hopes and the fears of the nineteenth century were really rooted in our common humanity. Add this discernment and power of observation to his ability to craft a story and wield language, and we can see why Dickens appeals to readers today: his work continues to speak to the human condition with keen insight and wisdom.
It should not surprise us, then, when Dickens brings this same awareness and acuity to his observations concerning the Church. A working subtitle for God and Charles Dickens was “What Dickens Has to Say to the Church,” so in all but two chapters I’ve included sections on what Dickens might have to say to the Church. Nonetheless, I suppose I could sum up Dickens’s word to the Church under three heads:
1. Let the Word of God speak, and stay out of its way.
Dickens wrote an essay called “Two Views of a Cheap Theatre” in which he offers some advice to preachers. And he basically tells them to quit telling their own stories and giving their own opinions. Just read God’s words and let those words speak. And in almost everything else that Dickens writes about the clergy and the professional ministers of the Church, he says much the same thing.
2. Think carefully about what the Church is to be and do.
Dickens felt the Church in his day had gotten caught up its own ecclesial concerns and its doctrinal minutiae. And in doing so it lost sight of its mission: to be a community of disciples who recognize the needs of the broken and hurting world around them and seek to meet those needs. These disciples were men and women who took Jesus and his teaching seriously, who gave themselves away in service and spent their lives on others.
3. Let Jesus be Jesus on his terms, not yours.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I think Dickens’s most penetrating observation in this regard is his word to Cerjat that I quoted above: “The Church that is to have its part in the coming time must be a more Christian one, with less arbitrary pretensions and a stronger hold upon the mantle of our Saviour, as He walked and talked upon this earth.”
Dickens would tell us that we’ve created Jesus in our own image and that until we make that right, the Church will be headed in the wrong direction.