It is not Ebenezer Scrooge who fascinated me most, though. It is Sydney Carton, the debauched, drunken, and brilliant lawyer from A Tale of Two Cities who finds that his sacrifice will redeem him and save his dear friends. It is Carton who, though morose and depressed, drunk and slovenly, gives his life in the uncanny twist of events that lead him to the guillotine in revolutionary Paris.
"I am the resurrection and the life," Sydney keeps hearing over and over again. As his captors prepare to execute him, in the midst of his own sacrifice, he comforts another, a young lady, accused by the "Citizens" of France of treason. Sydney tells her to keep her eyes on him. He remains a constant and steady source of hope and inspiration for her. Yet the ridiculous events that lead these two innocents to be executed are not the focus of Dickens's attention. He does not write, in his extraordinary verbosity, about the injustice of the system. Rather, he writes about compassion, healing, understanding, justice, and ultimately faith.
An aside: in the high school where I teach, A Tale of Two Cities is core literature for the ninth grade. I am always puzzled when I hear cries about how God has been kicked out of our classrooms. Have those leveling this charge looked at the reading list of their local high schools recently?
In any event, Dickens, more than most classic authors, brought me to Christ. Though not my favorite writer, Dickens unabashedly writes about humanity in a way that would embarrass a 21st-century psychologist. As Harvard professor Robert Coles has said, "And Dickens, oh my, what Dickens knew about human nature!"
I am inclined to agree. In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey writes of Coles being drawn to great authors—including Dickens, Flannery O'Connor, Leo Tolstoy, Simone Weil, and William Carlos Williams—while he was a student at Harvard. Like Coles, I have found that these authors are simply retelling the Bible, albeit sometimes in a way that makes some Christians angry. But Coles never blinks. He explains to Yancey that the Bible has all along steadfastly preached that we have both sides in us. We have the ability to be evil and ignorant, and we have the ability to behave with grace and compassion. All of us have those tendencies, and the authors that moved Coles merely repeat that refrain and seek ways for the most despicable of people to be redeemed.
Beauty, Grace, Power
In the dying days of winter, I teach a book by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God. The main character, Janie, is constantly in the spring of her life. Through a series of failed marriages and abusive situations, Janie does not shrink from her circumstances. Rather, she embraces them and lives joyously in God's shadow. "Ev'rybody got to go to God for theyselves," says Janie, speaking from experience. Never cowed or demeaned by her situation, she is an indomitable woman and ultimately finds her own soul. As one of my students wrote in a paper about the book, "Spring is the soul-chasing season." What a tribute to Hurston: She reaches into the black experience in America, and rather than coming out discouraged, as she has every right to do, she finds reason for joy and love.
One line reads, "Dawn and doom were in the branches." Hurston also knew that human beings have the potential for both. Dawn and doom exist in each one of us, and it is up to us to choose which one will succeed. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of free will that we are given. This is the free will that allows human beings to suffer or alleviate suffering, to love or to hate, to choose spirit over ignorance, compassion over mistrust, and finally to accept and share what there is of living.