From The Christmas Carol to The Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, the Anglo-American social conscience has been challenged by the prolific 19th century journalist Charles Dickens. While Dickens’ social morality is immediately evidence, Gary Colledge also argues that Dickens wrote out of the centre of a deeply Christian worldview. Often missed in scholarship and overlooked in Dickens’ own anti-ecclesiastical writings, Colledge aims to restore the Christian voice of Dickens for both appreciative readers and critical scholars in this reworking of his PhD dissertation.
After a helpful introduction and first chapter laying out the project and Dickens’ Christian perspective, God and Charles Dickens falls into five topical chapters. Each of these treatments covers an aspect of Dickens’ Christian belief and peculiar social critique. In Colledge’s presentation, we see a Dickens that is essentially Jesus-centred, relying upon the New Testament, and working his faith out in love and tangible “goodness” in the world.
While Dickens may look like he has some unorthodox critiques of theology and church, Colledge argues that they largely fall in line with nineteenth century popular lay Anglicanism. Dickens certainly understood the depravity of humanity—his tales tell that dark story most evidently—and he had hope for humanity when he was at his most optimistic. Weaving together Dickens’ letters, essays, sermons, and novels, we see that Dickens’ God is providential creator and Jesus is the deliverer of humanity. Dickens launches satirical and open challenges to many aspects of his religious world not because he rejected faith but because he desperately wanted what he called “real Christianity.” His critique of dissenters and Evangelicals comes out of a cultural dislike of the problematic Christianity he saw played out in the pulpits and streets of England, rather than a sophisticated theological critique.
Intentionally, this book is a restrained guide where Colledge chooses to get out of the way and allow Dickens to speak. In this project, he is following Dickens’ own advice to Christian preachers who so often draw people to themselves instead of Christ. It is probably a relevant critique for today—a relevance the author capitalizes upon as each chapter ends with a note to the church.
While this is Colledge’s goal, we must remember that he is still shaping the reader’s perspective. In the project of recovering Dickens’ Christian voice, we see a Dickens emerge that sits not uncomfortably with contemporary evangelicalism. One might be concerned that Colledge is in danger of washing Dickens as some have done with C.S. Lewis, lover of ale and tobacco, or as may be the case in Eric Mataxas’ recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who now reads like an American evangelical. We are in nearest danger of this kind of treatment as Colledge shares Dickens’ faith commitments to charity and social reform in his chapter on “Real Christianity.”
I do not think that Colledge falls into this trap, however. He allows the ambiguity of Dickens’ beliefs to hang in the air, and occasionally critiques them. While I think a fuller treatment of Dickens’ marriage breakup and his early flirtation with Unitarianism are warranted, Colledge doesn’t run from other difficult moments. For example, due to his disgust with a popular rigid Calvinism, Dickens seemingly rejects substitutionary atonement through the vicarious suffering of Christ. Colledge sets this particular departure from Anglicanism in context, but allows it to sit in all its complexity.
In his reading, I’m not sure that Colledge saw the lack of the cross in Dickens’ thought—a lack of a Cruci-centric vision that stands in strange contrast to his Christo-centric spirituality. However, I think Colledge drew out Dickens’ genuine faith and demonstrates superbly the Christian influence throughout all of Dickens work. In short, Charles Dickens’ novels are soaked through with the Christian worldview, and work to call people back to a heartfelt, Jesus-centred, New Testament-based faith. The result is a helpful, accessible book that comes out of Dr. Colledge’s larger academic project to challenge mainstream thinking in Dickens study, and at the same time augments our resources on Christianity and literature.
This review appeared in Haddington House Journal in 2013.
God and Charles Dickens: Rediscovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. Gary Colledge. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2012. ISBN 978-1-58743-320-7.