I love 19th century British literature: Austen, Brontë, Dickens, Elliot, Hardy, …. But I often wonder what all I miss because of the distance in miles and time between me and the author. If you are like me, sometimes you are a bit baffled by some of the things that Dickens writes. “What exactly does that mean?” I find myself asking.
Or, “What does that refer to?”
Sometimes I wonder if an author is speaking to an issue of his or her day that I’m just not aware of, and, therefore, I just don’t get the reference. Toward the beginning of Stave 3, Dickens does venture into the political realm with a conversation between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present.
As Scrooge is watching the people come and go on Christmas day and noting the closing of the shops as people make their way to church, Scrooge questions the Spirit as to why he would “desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.” That question seems a little out of the blue in my mind.
But the Spirit’s denial allows Scrooge to rephrase the question to help us get to the heart of Dickens’s problem. “You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day … .” What is going on here is that Scrooge is blaming the Spirit for London’s blue laws. Blue laws, for those who may not be familiar with the phrase, are laws that limit what businesses (or people) may do on a Sunday. In hopes of encouraging people to engage in worship, blue laws have ranged from the extreme— Jewish-law-like statutes—to the mild, only certain types of business have to close on Sunday.
Dickens was not a fan of blue laws. In fact, he used his pen to argue against them, not only in his fiction here, but more fully here. His argument was that laws that limited travel, entertainment, and any kind of work on Sundays only hurt the poor. Since the wealthy could find relaxation and entertainment and “dining” on any day of the week, it was only the poor, who worked six days a week, who were hurt by limiting their enjoyment of life on Sunday, the only day they could possibly enjoy a stroll through town or bringing their food to a baker’s shop for a warm meal.
He claimed that the wealthy men who proposed greater Sunday restrictions had no comprehension of how the poor lived. He thought that to harm their well-being in the guise of religion was evil. That argument has been going on for a long time, and I don’t mean to answer the question here, I just want us to be aware that this little conversation between Scrooge and the Spirit is not just an innocent one. It was a rather big deal in Dickens’s day.
And that leads me back to the story: The Spirit—here standing for religion in Dickens’s mind—denies responsibility for this. Basically Dickens is telling us through the Ghost that just because someone does something in the name of religion, that doesn’t give us the right to blame God. And that leads to the application for today. Do we know God well enough that we recognize when someone’s actions or words are from the heart of God? That requires spending time with Him through his Word and in prayer and with the local gathering of the body of Christ.