Book Review: A Christmas Carol

Rating: ★★★★★

In Charles Dickens’ classic masterpiece, the miserable Scrooge is given a chance to repent of his selfish lifestyle when he is visited by four spirits — first, his tormented former business partner, sentenced to wander the netherworld until he has atoned for his sins — and then three “Spirits of Christmas,” who show him the past origins of his lifestyle, the present effects of his selfishness on people in his life, and the future toward which his life is tending.  He wakes from the final vision a changed man, renounces his selfish ways, and lives a generous, loving life from that time forward.

This hope-filled moral tale contains themes of redemption, hope, and generosity that resonate with Christianity, but it isn’t really a Christian story.  In fact, it is a good example of how a Christian holiday has come to be observed in a way that diffuses its religious meaning.

For Christians, Christmas is a day to celebrate God’s gift of his Son to humanity.  The familiar phrase “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” was first spoken by angels announcing Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:13-14).  This peace primarily refers to the relationship between God and humanity (Romans 5:1-2).  God miraculously extended Himself to us in the body of Jesus, ending the hostility that had separated us from Him since Adam’s rebellion (Romans 5:15-17).  As Christians rejoice in the miracle of Christ’s reconciliation, God’s love naturally pours out into joyful generosity toward other people.

This significance of the holiday has been largely forgotten in our post-Christian society, but you can still feel the shadow of that joy in a general sentiment of humanitarian goodwill recognized as “Christmas spirit.”  In Dickens’ story, the Spirit of Christmas is personified in the three figures of past, present and future Christmases, and it is to Christmas Spirit, not to God, that Scrooge turns in his repentance.  In his own words:

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe.  “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse….. I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.  The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.  I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

For Christians, who believe the only way to change your life is to trust in Jesus, Scrooge’s repentance will be somewhat unconvincing — but that doesn’t mean thoughtful Christians can’t appreciate the author’s brilliant portrayal of human sin, selfishness, and suffering.  This is a moral tale, excellent for demonstrating the consequences of sin and the benefits of goodness.  Unlike many moral tales, this one is infused with joyful hope, executed with a literary excellence that has endeared it to readers for over 150 years.

Dickensian language can be difficult for children to follow, and the content of this story may be troubling to an elementary audience, but for parents who think their kids will enjoy this story, an illustrated version can go a long way toward bridging the language gap.  My favorite edition is illustrated by P.J. Lynch, whose exemplary gift for depicting human emotion makes his characters very real.  They almost seem to breathe on the page, and the reader is effortlessly drawn into their thoughts and interests.

If you’re interested in further discussion, Tony Reinke at Miscellanies has posted a thoughtful essay contrasting A Christmas Carol with Handel’s Messiah.  Redeemed Reader has reviewed a Messiah-themed Advent reader, as well as a read-along guide to A Christmas Carol.  And finally, Christianaudio.com is offering a free mp3 recording of A Christmas Carol through the end of December.

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Publication Information: Dickens, Charles. Christmas Carol, A. Lynch, P.J. (Illustrator). Candlewick. 2006. ISBN: 0763631205.
Categories: 5 Stars, Age 04-08
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Posted on December 22, 2011


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