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Dickens’ Disappointing Book on Jesus

This is a recent post from the Children’s Hour:

The Life of Our Lord, Written for His Children, Charles Dickens
(Simon and Schuster, 1934), hb., 128 pp.

A few years ago I stumbled across a first edition copy of this book which Dickens wrote from 1846 to 1849 for his own children and was only allowed to be published after his last child died. I respect Dickens’ writings and had often heard of his faith in Christ and this book so I was interested to read it.  Finally this year I decided to read at least the first part (the birth of Christ) to my boys as we approached Christmas.  However, it was really a disappointment.

In fairness Dickens never intended this for public consumption. He is writing for children in another setting, so we might look for different emphases or clarifications.  It would be easy to nit pick.  However, my concern is deeper.  The gospel is conspicuously missing and the portrait of Christ is too small.

In the announcement of the angel to the shepherds, Luke records the angel as saying:

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 1:11)

Dickens paraphrases it this way:

“There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up so good that God will love Him as His own Son; and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another”

The wise men show up and tell Herod they are searching for a child who “will live to be a man whom all people will love.”  Why Herod would want to kill such a child, makes little sense since any reference to Jesus as a King is missing.  The skipping of references to Jesus as God and Savior were clear enough that my older boys began to ask if the author believed in the biblical Jesus.  In the rest of the book Dickens affirmed Christ’s deity, but I don’t know why this section was written so poorly.

In the rest of the book, the gospel seems to be reduced to being nice and earning God’s favor.  In the summarizing the Christian hope, Dickens says early Christians endured much “for they knew that if they did their duty, they would go to heaven” (123-24). He summarizes Christianity as “TO GOOD, always”, to love our neighbors, to be merciful, gentle, etc. Then, if we remember the life and lessons of Jesus and “try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes” (124).  Faith is not mentioned and grace is hard to find here.

The book closes with two prayers for his children.  One excerpt from the evening prayer is particularly alarming.

“Make me kind to my nurses … and never let me be cruel to any dumb creatures, for if I am cruel to anything, even to a poor little fly, God who is so good, will never love me” (128).

I am all for being clear on our inability to live up to God’s standard, but that must be followed by the “good news” that God has made a way for our sins to be forgiven or there is no gospel.

In the end, I sincerely hope Dickens believed better than he wrote here.  But, you can safely skip this book. It will not be any help in explaining the Scriptures to your children.

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