Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Concise Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a tale our culture celebrates as a—perhaps the–Christmas story. In dramatizing Scrooge’s discovery of “Christian” behavior (humane, proactively generous, democratic) the author implicitly proposes this behavior as a model his (and our) community should emulate.  But, much as we hug the story to our breasts every Christmas season, it’s important to notice that Dickens voices this message without employing any doctrinally Christian terms. It’s an omission that progressive Christians should respect. We can safely put the story’s Christian provenance to one side and admire its central, its deeply humane affirmation.

Sharp ears can pick up the story’s continuing resonance whenever the famous dismissive phrases like “bah humbug” or “Scrooge” echo around us. That frequency confirms the carol’s popularity, but, alas, such popularity can also stultify. It can inhibit close analysis and lure us to bask uncritically in the tale’s warm sentimental glow. This past Christmas season, appropriately enough, I got lured back to the tale, but this time I came at it critically. I came away with an entirely new appreciation for some apparently simple but actually quite poignant moments—moments I’d missed in previous encounters.

Progressive Christians bring a more critical and analytical eye to doctrines Paul’s “body of Christ” has repeated forever. We no longer capitalize them: immaculate conception, virgin birth, savior, resurrection. Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his valedictory volume, Unbelievable, admits that such terms were once meaningful; they connected with “the thought forms of their day,” that they no longer “resonate with this generation.”  (Don McLean’s “American Pie” makes the parallel “popular art” observation: “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost / [ have] caught the last train for the coast.”) The “death of God” has been widely reported.

Progressive thinkers cannot avail ourselves of the false security fundamentalist believers bring to church Sundays and to the Bible daily. We can, however, compensate for our dismissal of literalism with an answerably intense commitment to metaphor. And metaphor proves especially powerful in narratives. Narrative masters like Dickens can move our hearts as they bring our fellow creatures vividly and credibly alive. But they can do more: they can provoke our intellects and excite our imaginations. We love a story, instinctively, but we go a step farther and subject the tale to closer scrutiny and more probing critical analysis. (That, incidentally, is why I find Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus one of the most affecting New Testament narratives. It’s an account of a real-life journey, peopled with thoughtful and feeling human beings, who move from grief to joyful insight.)

In my re-read I found this more imaginative approach to the Carol deeply rewarding, and particularly so in that Christmas morning’s first few minutes after Scrooge unclasps his hands from his bedpost. What I observed there was what I’d call a set of miniature “resurrections.” These occur in sequence as the newly-arisen Scrooge initiates a joyous approach to life, and better yet, a deeply loving approach to all his fellow creatures. He dramatizes the fresh, “modern,” even iconoclastic sort of resurrection proposed by Rev. John Shelby Spong. He defines it as “an on-going and life-reordering process, not an event that happened once in history a long time ago.”

With his usual vivid and delightful particularity, Dickens captures Scrooge’s “reordering” in its quotidian, its “lowly” quality, and in so doing makes those pedestrian features truly revelatory. Readers of all sorts and conditions, from fundamentalist to progressive, (though with, yes, varying levels of fervor) would agree that we can sense God at work in our daily life. We detect “Him” even in our lives’ tiniest corners and most unremarkable encounters. No place or object is too modest to resist an incarnational visit.
However brilliant he was (“The Inimitable” was his immodest but spot-on self-appraisal), Dickens was above all a professional writer, which means he was also (shades of Scrooge) a shrewd business man. He prized his popularity, and so, naturally, took pains not to offend his extensive readership. No surprise, therefore, that we find him early in the tale, using nephew Fred to genuflect to the holiday. He speaks of “the veneration due to its sacred name and origin.” But it is the lively and richly-peopled tale Dickens fashions, free of any doctrinal meditations, that captures and demonstrates the true Christmas spirit in real time and through live action.
Scholars agree that not one of the various gospel accounts of the resurrection say anything about the actual moment of resuscitation. But, if you’ll extend me some Christian charity, I’d argue that Dickens does. The first outward and visible demonstration of that just-arisen man’s rebirth is Scrooge’s efforts, comically enough, just to get his clothes on: “His hands were busy with his garments … turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making them parties to every kind of extravagance.” It’s a beautifully farcical first moment as he struggles through several attempts at re-formation.
In Mark’s gospel, the women flee the empty tomb and are so fearful that they tell no-one, though directed to do so by the man robed in white. Dickens, however, is not so circumspect. Nor fearful. He proceeds quite splendidly to tell all of us everything. The series of conversational exchanges that follow Scrooge’s sartorial maneuverings are especially crucial, for they constitute his first interactions with the human community. And it is to them that he now commits his being.  His behavior and talk display his renewal. Dickens has him reveal it through his behavior and conversation. We see in Scrooge as a real-world incarnation (small “i”) of the spirit of Christ at work.
First comes the random anonymous kid’s unsurprising familiarity with the neighborhood (he “should hope” he knows the poulterer). But his unremarkable acquaintance delights the new old man, charms him so deeply that he does something wholly unusual for him. He pays a compliment. He appraises the lad as both “intelligent” and “remarkable.” And when, two seconds later, he finds that the boy not only knows of but can describe that meat-merchant’s “big prize” turkey, he declares that “it’s a pleasure to talk to him”. The chat seems to us merely informational, but to Scrooge? It’s miraculously restorative.
Even the lad’s initial skepticism doesn’t discourage Scrooge, who remains determinedly kindly. But, in a shrewd touch by the author, the new Ebenezer has not had his old self totally expunged. The next two “deals” he offers make that clear: “Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling.  Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown.” The businessman who used to consider his “pocket [picked] every 25th of December” still retains his economic acumen. He knows that time is money, but he puts that economic truth to work.  His old acquisitive impulses now promote his wholly new generosity.
This very brief scene (half a page in a 100 page tale) demonstrates, simply but powerfully, how miraculous the world appears to a man who has at long last discovered (well, one ghost and three spirits have educated him sternly) that he can and should be an active participant in a community. The kid gets half a crown, but the former miser’s abject (and usually chilled) scrivener (and his family) offers a far richer opportunity to do good in the world.
Scrooge articulates his new attitude in his twice-stated affectionate epithet for the kid: “fine fellow.” With no explicit reference to the Prayer which the church teaches that the Lord taught us, Dickens shows God’s kingdom taking shape here “on earth.” The perpetually tight-fisted man of business will now “keep Christmas” perpetually; he’ll seek for his remaining days to promote “fine fellowship”—not just with the street kid, nor with just the Cratchits, but with (in the young Timothy’s words) “Everyone.”

Review & Commentary