By the early 1840s, Charles Dickens was hopping mad about the way that the poor, especially children, were treated—working long hours in factories in England’s industrial north, or left asking, with Oliver Twist, for more to fill their bellies. In protest, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Dickens knew that his novella would achieve its purpose; to one of the commissioners of a parliamentary report on child poverty, he called it “a sledge hammer” able to exert “twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force” of a more mundane pamphlet or newspaper column.
The power of story to effect real change is not an idea that arose with Dickens; it seems, in fact, to be a fully developed strategy by the time the prophet Nathan humbled King David by telling a pointed tale about a poor man who was taken advantage of by his social betters. And of course, Jesus used similar tactics, telling stories to make a point, and to reshape the way we engage with the world.
I care about the way stories engage people because I want to understand how the Gospel works. I teach in an English department, and when I recognize that the Gospel is literature, I appreciate its graciousness and its generosity all the more. It has round and flat characters, real and implied readers, an author and a lot of narrators, metaphors and symbols and reversals and doppelgangers and heroes and foils, irony and sarcasm, history and allegory, “thou shalt nots” and poetry, a central conflict and rising action. And it has a final chapter to which we look forward.
If we ignore the story-like elements of the biblical narrative, we miss the fullest potential of its work in our lives. The Gospel is not a factory, making useful and uniform disciples from a supply of raw souls. It works on us as a plot works on its characters, inviting us to come and help shape the story.
To show the contrast between a factory and a story, let me take as an example another of Dickens’ novels, Hard Times. Hard Times is about a factory town in nineteenth-century England. The workers in the book make textiles, but the setting—Coketown—is important. Coke is what results when coal is superheated, separated into its useful components (coke) and waste products (carbon monoxide and slag). Beehive coke ovens, which dotted the landscape in northern England in Dickens’ time, housed a disruptive process, one that produces something good only by displacing what is bad into the environment, where it likely does further harm, souring the water supply and ravaging people’s lungs. In a factory, excess is pollution, and it should be minimized in the name of efficiency.
In a story, by contrast, excess is necessary. One of the book’s protagonists, Louisa Gradgrind, looks over the chimneys of the factories in one scene and says, “There seems to be nothing there, but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, fire bursts out..!” Louisa’s father cannot interpret her remark, but we can. Louisa is like that chimney: she seems inconsequential, boring even, but there is a fire inside, and that is precisely what makes her so compelling. It is what she is not—or what she is not yet—that makes her worth our time.
Dickens’ point is this: if we are just raw materials for a factory, the extra stuff we have inside of us that makes us ourselves—the fire that bursts out—is bad, and it needs to be eliminated. But if we’re in a story, the extras, however impure they are, matter. Thus, when I say that we must understand that the Gospel is a story, I mean that we must not present it as something that uses us only to spit us out, like so much slag. When we lose ourselves, we find ourselves; when we take up our crosses, we gain the world. The Gospel says to us, as Nathan said to King David, “You are the man,” and our guilt, our dirty excesses, become not a reason for our rejection, but an invitation into grace; meanwhile, the parts of us that have no obvious function, like our quirks and our oddities, round us out, make us worth knowing. For grace—like a good character—is itself excessive, not efficient; it is generous, not judgmental. Our story, like our cups of blessings, runs over.
Dr. Emily Walker Heady is Dean of the College of General Studies, Professor of English at Liberty University, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Liberty University Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. She is the author of numerous articles dealing with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature. Her book Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities (Ashgate) was released in 2013.
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