The Almost Gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge
Why life transformation requires more than information
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”
Thus begins Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s difficult to imagine Christmas today without this holiday classic. Ebenezer Scrooge’s last-minute transformation has been portrayed so many times on stage and screen that the story’s scenes, characters and plot have become a cultural meme imprinted on our brains. On mine, anyway, despite the fact that I had never read the story until this month.
So, when I noticed an inexpensive copy for $5 while standing in line a week ago at Barnes & Noble, I snapped it up. A Christmas Carol is a quick, fun read — Dickens at his best. The story’s setting is Victorian London, with Britain in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, but its themes bespeak a timeless, universal longing for well-being within ourselves and among our neighbors.
The particulars of the tale are recognizably Christian. Most obviously, its setting is Christmas. There are biblical allusions scattered throughout, including to Jesus’ birth and ministry. The Cratchit family is churchgoing and devout, even to the point of seeing Tiny Tim’s disability as a spiritual lesson reminding others of Jesus’ healing ministry.
At a broader level, its themes are also Christian. It is a tale of metanoia, the New Testament word for repentance, which entails not just a change of mind but the transformation of an entire way of life.
Scrooge’s transformation begins because of what we might call supernatural revelation, first by Marley’s ghost and then by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. And Dickens’ excoriation of Scrooge’s greed and praise of his later generosity to the poor reminds readers of Jesus’ own teachings on this matter.
As I read A Christmas Carol, I kept thinking of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). Like Scrooge, the rich fool accumulated wealth for himself. (Unlike Scrooge, however, the rich fool encouraged himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”) Like Scrooge, he never thought of the needy. So, like Scrooge, he ended up alone and empty. Jesus provided the moral to the story: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God,” that is, to the poor.
Dickens’ very Christian point is that wealth is either a tool or an idol. We can use it, like the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable, to “gain friends” (Luke 16:1-15), to establish solidarity with others. Or we can worship it as a kind of god, valuing it above others and even God himself.
Knowledge is a necessary component of transformation, but insufficient by itself.
In many ways, A Christmas Carol is a Dickensian riff on Jesus’ dictum: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
Even so, A Christmas Carol is an almost gospel, not the true good news. To see why, consider another parable Jesus told in Luke 16, that of the rich man and Lazarus (verses 19-31). In this parable, a rich man ignores the beggar (Lazarus) at his gate, a beggar who longed “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.”
When both men die, they experience a reversal of fortune: the rich man in torment in “Hades,” Lazarus receiving comfort at “Abraham’s side.” The rich man begs Father Abraham to send him Lazarus “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” Being told that is impossible, he then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his “five brothers,” warning them of the peril of hell.
Abraham’s response? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” But the rich man replies, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” To which Abraham’s final riposte is this: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
A Christmas Carol turns on Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his past, present and future, specifically with regard to his sinful use of wealth and lack of solidarity with others. Dickens is telling us, “If you only knew what wrong turns you made in the past, what opportunities you’ve passed up in the present and what mortal fate awaits you in the future, you would repent.”
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells a different story: You already know. In this life, the rich man could see Lazarus, sore and hungry, at his gate. In this life, his brothers knew what the law of Moses required of the haves with regard to the have-nots. And yet they didn’t change. Knowing these things mattered not a whit to them.
Knowledge is a necessary component of transformation, but insufficient by itself. We don’t need more information. Romans 2:15 demonstrates that even pagans have a sufficient baseline of information to accuse or defend them before God.
What is needed is not information per se — or even more information — but something else. An agent of change outside ourselves. Not an informer but a transformer. The Transformer. As Paul David Tripp explains in his devotional, Come Let Us Adore Him:
God’s response [to our sin] wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t the establishment of an institution. It wasn’t a process of intervention. It wasn’t some new divine program. In his infinite wisdom God knew that the only thing that could rescue us from ourselves and repair the horrendous damage that sin had done to the world was not a thing at all. It was a person, his Son, the Lord Jesus.
Seen this way, the almost gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t even almost good news, insofar as it leaves us in the predicament of knowledgeable sin: We already know, but we still don’t change. Like Marley, we are dead as a doornail and need someone to raise us to life.
Joy to the world, then, that the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King!