John Mark Reynolds on Dickens and “A Christmas Carol”
Date: December 21st, 2014

A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens, is probably one of best known stories of modern times.  With over 100 different cinematic and television versions, not to mention the countless references in sitcoms and other shows, it is hard to not encounter this story in one form or another every year around this time.  But how much do you really know about the author of this novel and the nuanced details of its content?  Prof. John Mark Reynolds, provost at Houston Baptist University, talks about his year-long immersion in Dickens, what he learned about this prodigious author, and provides a few interesting tidbits about this timeless story.

Following a short discussion of how Prof. Reynolds became interested in studying Dickens, we dive right into the life and times of this author who John calls “a maker of the modern mind.”  He notes that the 19th century was a pivotal moment in human history and argues that a person who lived in 1800 would be much more comfortable living in the Roman Empire than someone in 1900, who would be more at ease in our contemporary world.  The hundred years between 1800 and 1900 witnesses a dramatic shift in human culture and helps us understand the thought process and mindset that Charles Dickens brought to his work.  John makes the claim that Dickens’ work gave England a “way out” of this cultural turmoil that prevented revolution and social upheaval.

We spend some time examining Dickens’ life, noting that he experienced a “genteel harsh poverty” early in his youth that left an indelible mark on him.  John points out the fascination with money, fear of poverty, and importance of social status that runs through Dickens’ corpus of work.  Several characters in A Christmas Carol reflect this mindset, most notably Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mr. Fezziwig.  As for religious background, John notes that even though Dickens had a distrust of organized religion and showy piety, and led a troubled married life, he wrote a story about the life of Jesus for his children.  John cautions us about accepting the notion that Dickens “secularized Christmas” and understand that religious faith was woven throughout his work.  Moreover, John explains that given that religion was part of the general atmosphere of the Victorian era, Dickens expected his readers to be familiar with religious themes and thus it doesn’t come out as overt preaching.

Our conversation covers Dickens’ influence on the literary and publishing industry.  In many ways, Dickens created a new genre of writing by writing serial novels in magazines and newspapers, and ended up creating the modern novel.  John notes that in addition to creating serial plots, one of Dickens’ greatest attributes was vivid characterization.  We also talk about some of the dominant themes that stretch throughout his works, from The Pickwick Papers to A Christmas Carol to Hard Times.  John lists four important common themes including: 1) the fragility of life; 2) jolliness (one that is important in A Christmas Carol); 3) the notion that Christians can always improve themselves; and 4) the importance of money, wealth, and power.  We also discuss a number of Dickens’ lesser known Christmas tales, such as A Cricket on the Hearth, that was highly regarded by readers in the Victorian period but are almost forgotten today.  The vision of a happy family ruled by a benevolent paternalist father was ever-present in his Christmas stories as well, something that Dickens seemed to cherish.  John also indicates that joyful parties also popped up in Dickens’ writings, particularly his Christmas stories indicating his jovial and optimistic nature.

We then turn to A Christmas Carol, the story that helped cement him as the “Christmas writer.”  John explains that while Victorians did not consider this particular work to be among their favorites, its ability to translate well into theater and film — with a classic tripartite division of scenes — made it very enduring for our modern times.  It is at this point that Tony asks John if he has a favorite cinematic version and, much to Tony’s surprise, John notes that it is A Muppet Christmas Carol, starring a stuffed frog.  John supports his choice by noting that this version is entertaining, yet not ponderous, but still covers all the major themes of the story.  Again, this bolsters John’s claim that Dickens’ wrote during a period of immense change and hardship but retained an optimistic and joyous view of the future.

We spend the last half of the interview discussing the themes and characters of A Christmas Carol.  While the story is well-known to everyone, we do not survey the plot but instead start with examining any of the religious themes that are in the tale.  John discusses that the religious themes are not overt since Dickens was assuming that all his readers were steeped in Christianity, something that may be lost on more contemporary readers.   He then discusses a number of other themes including the love of money is the root of all evil and that it is never to late to repent.  Interestingly, this was not just individual repentance, but one for society as well, something that John sees most clearly in the Ghost of Christmas Present when he opens his robe.  We also review several of the characters of the story, including the lesser known characters of Joe, Mrs. Fezziwig, and Mrs. Cratchit.  The significance of the ghosts are discussed, including some of them that people might have forgotten. Prof. Reynolds concludes with some of his thoughts on what he has learned from the story and what things we contemporary folks should take away from it.  Recorded: December 5, 2014.


John Mark Reynold’s bio at Houston Baptist University.

Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong about the New Atheism, by Philip E. Johnson & John Mark Reynolds.

Three Views on the Creation and Evolution Debate, by John Mark Reynolds, et al..

When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought, by John Mark Reynolds.

Towards a Unified Platonic Human Psychology, by John Mark Reynolds.

The City Online, a podcast from HBU.


John Sweeney on “Its a Wonderful Life.”

Adam English on the Real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra.

Art Carden on Christian Ethics, Charity, and Economics.

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