“God and Charles Dickens” by Gary L. Colledge: A Review

God and charles dickens colledgeFrom 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.

charles-dickensIntentionally, 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.

gary colledgeIn 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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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17 Responses to “God and Charles Dickens” by Gary L. Colledge: A Review

  1. Pingback: “God and Charles Dickens” by Gary L. Colledge: A Review | iwonderings

  2. Given my current foray into all things MacDonald, I’m especially intrigued with these statements- ‘While I think a fuller treatment … and his early flirtation with Unitarianism are warranted, Colledge doesn’t run from other difficult moments.’, and ‘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.’ I’ll have to put this on my wish list Brenton. Have you read G K Chesterton’s, ‘Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men’?

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    • I have not read that, though I read something… was it a chapter in Heretics? No, I’m not sure. Anyway, I love Chesterton, even when I’m not sure I understand him.
      This review was for a Reformed journal, so I noted the Reformed-type issues. It was a pretty good read, speaking as someone who is not a Dickens scholar.

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      • No, it was a 1942 edition of a fairly lengthy piece by the old chap. Ahh ha yes, I love him too though barely fathom him at times. I can same the same Brenton, so I feel in good company ; ) . Ever read The Flying Inn or The Man Who Was Thursday ? Oye . His bio of St Francis however was delightfully heady, wonderful, and digestible.

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  3. I read “Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin” last year which I found very readable and informative and I have just finished Little Dorritt which has many examples of his perspective on God. Truly he had a very canny insight into human nature and his stories are amazing. I recently read that next to the Bible and Shakespeare, Dickens had the biggest influence on the English language, I don’t know how true that is.

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  4. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! I’m not sure I would entirely agree with your statement about Metaxas’ book, but I do get what you are saying there. But back to Dickens, I guess I never really thought that he was anything but Christian, so it kind of surprised me that this book would even be necessary. Shows how much I didn’t know about Dickens, I suppose!

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    • I sort of hedged my bets on Mataxas, simply because I don’t know enough of about Bonhoeffer to be super critical. It is an American reading of Bonhoeffer, which I don’t think should be considered a bad thing in and of itself. As a non-American, I get uncomfortable with some of the American portraits of C.S. Lewis, so I was using that analogy. Someone more researched in Dickens could pipe in here and say whether Colledge is truly in danger here. I learned knew things, for sure (as I do with Mataxas and American treatments of Lewis).

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      • L.A. Smith says:

        Yes, I see your point. It is true that we all see things from our own cultural perspectives, which shouldn’t necessarily be considered the way things “really” are. All these different perspectives are valuable, though, in building a picture of the whole thing. Like the blind men and the elephant, I suppose.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for making me aware of this focused study, which I had not heard of before! (My predecessor as President of the Oxford Lewis Soc and as Warden/Curator of The Kilns, the current Dean of Divinity of Magdalen College, Oxford, the Rev. Dr. Michael Piret, edited Dickens’s Life of Christ back in his student days – I’ll send him a link of this!)

    I can’t recall what (if anything) I’ve read about MacDonald and Dickens. I was amused by Trollope’s satirical presentation of a Dickensian response to the action in The Warden, but don’t know more about their relations. I’ve dipped into my copy of Dickens’ Child’s History of England and was rather shocked and disappointed (in a sort of amused way) by some of his treatment of the Christian past, but need to follow that up…

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    • I’ve read Chesterton’s History of England, but not Dickens’ version–or the Life of Christ passages, though both are discussed in this book. Is the History anti-Christian or colonial or royal…?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Certainly not anti-royal: briskly moving through history from William and Mary to Victoria in its last three pages (the preceding 501 of which, in my ed., brought it to 13 Jan. 1689), it ends, “like the crier, with God save the Queen!” I’m not sure how pro- or anti-colonial: the antepenultimate paragraph begins, “It was in the reign of George the Third that England lost North America, by persisting in taxing her without her own consent. That immense country, made independent under Washington and left to itself, became the United States, one of the greatest nations of the earth.” And not anti-Christian, or (in my impression) rigorously pro- or anti- one or another in disputes between self-described Christians – for example, the penultimate clause of the last sentence in the first part of chapter 32, “England under James the First”, saying, with reference to the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, “the Catholics, in general, who had recoiled with horror from the idea of the infernal contrivance, were unjustly put under more severe laws than before”. And yet…

        Skimming from the start, the first real example of the sort of thing I remember having taken me aback is the account of St. Dunstan (in ch. 4) – “the real king, who had the real power, […] a clever priest, a little mad, and not a little proud and cruel”, apparently not untypical of the “priests of those days”, who, “whenever they wanted the aid of any little piece of machinery […] to impose a trick upon the poor peasants, […] knew very well how to make it”. Dunstan “used to tell the most extraordinary lies about demons and spirits, who, he said, came there to persecute him. […] Some people are inclined to think this nonsense a part of Dunstan’s madness […], but I think not. I observe that it induced the ignorant people to consider him a holy man, and that it made him very powerful; which was exactly what he always wanted.”

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