Scrooge and Lazarus

One of the great modern parables of money is “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Everyone knows Scrooge, a man so miserly that his name has become synonymous with greed and small-minded parsimony. The story of Scrooge’s conversion – and it is a conversion – has been told and retold since Dickens first penned it in the fall and winter of 1843. Scrooge is a wonderful character, so richly-painted and fascinating that he has been copied and echoed in stories ever since, such as The Grinch (Dr Seuss), or the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But, if characters have origins, what – or whom – was Dickens thinking about when he penned Scrooge? There are many guesses. We know of Dickens’ earlier life in a work where he was profoundly humiliated, as we know of his life-long concern for the poor-houses of industrializing England. Scrooge is read into these circumstances by critics, and seen as representing everything from Dickens’ own father to the season of winter itself, which eventually gives way (is converted) to the joyous celebration which is spring.
Although the book was not initially the commercial success for which Dickens hoped, it is a tale that, according to many, almost single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas and at the same time secularized and modernized it. We owe much of our modern notion of Christmas to Dickens and his attempts to raise money with his book. Those trained in the philosophy of Gadamer and Ricoeur should take note. Here is a real, living example of the kind of myth-making power of the word that these men describe: Dickens made us nostalgic for a snowy, jolly, Victorian celebration which never was, but which ironically, his story helped create.
The prevailing wisdom is that, while A Christmas Carol is a great story, it isn’t particularly religious. There is almost no explicit reference here to the nativity of Christ (as C.S Lewis points out in “The Decline of Religion”), and the proper celebration of the season which Scrooge discovers has to do with generosity, family gatherings, and good cheer, rather more than prayer, worship, and theology.
But while there may be few explicit references to Christian themes in Dicken’s story (there are one or two), perhaps the critics, as with the New Testament narratives, are missing the point. Perhaps the religious influence on A Christmas Carol doesn’t lie in specific references so much it is exercised in a fashion more subtle and interesting to an author. Perhaps it is rather on the level of Biblical themes, or – and here we perhaps see one master storyteller borrowing from another – in narratives that Dickens’ Carol shows the effects of the Bible.
Jesus, by all accounts another master story-teller, tells a parable that, stripped of the latter’s English waistcoats, stools, fog and shutters, could almost be the mirror image of Dickens’ Carol. “There once was a rich man. A poor man named Lazarus lived at his gate, with nothing to eat. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died (it’s hard not to think of Tiny Tim).
Then follows, in Jesus’ parable, a series of exchanges back and forth between the rich man, who is in torment, and Abraham, who acts as the guardian of paradise. First the rich man asks for his own relief, and then, when that is denied, he says: “I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.” Abraham replied “They have Moses and the prophets. They must listen to them.” The rich man said, “No Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.” One can almost hear the chains of Morley’s ghost in the rich man’s pleas.
What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of The Christmas Carol. Was Dickens perhaps dozing off some Sunday in church while the rector droned on, until he wakened with a start dreaming of Scrooge? One can perhaps never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.

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