Charles Dickens, the iconic 19th-century English author who penned such classics as A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, filled his works with Christian references in a bid to encourage authentic devotion to Jesus Christ. But scholars and critics have ignored or downplayed this aspect of Dickens to such a degree that readers now commonly miss it.
That interpretation of Dickens’ legacy has driven Gary L. Colledge, an Ohio pastor and Moody Bible Institute instructor, to write God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author (Brazos Press, June).
The book popularizes insights gleaned from Colledge’s graduate work on Dickens at St. Andrew’s University. Writing in accessible prose, Colledge quotes extensively from Dickens’ fiction and a bit from his journalism in order “to let him speak so that we might hear Dickens the Christian,”
Colledge teaches biblical studies at Walsh University, a Catholic school in North Canton, Ohio; he describes himself as an evangelical. RBL reached him at his home in Akron.
What was the essence of Christianity for Charles Dickens?
The imitation of Jesus. How would Jesus respond to people? How would he treat people or respond to these circumstances? That was Christianity for Dickens.
A lot of people talk about the imitation of Christ, but they mean different things by it. What did he mean?
For Dickens, it was how you treat people, how you serve others, how you give yourself away in service to people and meet the needs that are glaring all around you. You don’t have to get into all this Christian-speak. Dickens would say, ‘Look around you. You have ministry opportunities as soon as you walk out of your house.’
Has the church today lost touch with Dickens’ sense of what Christianity is all about?
Yeah, I think so. The church in our day is similar to the church in his day. It was ingrown, inward focused, preoccupied with itself. To some degree, the church today is like that. Dickens just wanted it to be what it was supposed to be: [composed of] disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus.
How did you choose which segments of Dickens’ work to showcase as examples of his Christianity?
He wrote in a letter that all of his great characters are disciples of the founder of our religion. When you know that and then you look, say, at Esther Somersen in Bleak House, you start understanding that Dickens is writing her as a disciple of Jesus. So what does that look like? Well, it looks like Esther Summerson, or Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit, or Joe Gargery in Great Expectations.
What do you hope readers would learn or do differently after considering Dickens’ take on what it means to be a Christian?
I hope people might pick up Dickens and read him again. What I’d want them to get is: this is what Christianity is about. I’d want people to see that at the center of this thing is serving other people. If you’re a Christian, why aren’t you just doing what the founder of your religion said to do?
Do you see this book as a force for renewal in the church? Or as an evangelistic tool?
I would hope that any Dickens fan could pick it up and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ If people hear his Christian voice, they might say, ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of Christianity I believe in. I agree with Dickens.’ And if they agree with Dickens, then they agree with what Christianity is supposed to be. I think he had it. Dickens wanted to awaken the Christian conscience, and I hope that would happen.