This year marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’s “ghostly little book,” A Christmas Carol. Over the years, it has become so pervasive that even those who haven’t read this story of a miser’s redemption or caught one of the many film, stage, or television adaptations know what a “Scrooge” is, what Tiny Tim represents, and what’s so terrifying about the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Aside from being a groundbreaking and classic story in its own right, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol helped to create an entire genre: the secular Christmas story. (By “secular” I don’t mean “anti-religious” or even “non-religious” but simply a Christmas story where the focus is not directly on the birth of Christ.) Without the influence of Dickens’s powerful little tale, we might never have had Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
But there’s more than a genre linking the two stories together. In fact, as the National Post puts it, “one story is the inverse of the other.” Ebenezer Scrooge must journey through time and space to understand the impact of his bad deeds, George Bailey to understand the impact of his good ones. Each story ends in the saving of its protagonist—one from selfishness and greed, the other from suicidal despair—and his return to life with a transformed outlook.
But that raises a question: Why would it be equally helpful for a person to look back on bad deeds and on good ones? Why are both Ebenezer and George so changed when the experiences they go through are practically the opposite of each other?
A Christian, in particular, might question the theology involved. A Christmas Carol has caught some flak over the years for apparently offering a vision of repentance without God. (It does pay tribute to Christ’s birth at various moments but not at the crucial moment of Scrooge’s vow to change.) And yet it still is a story of repentance, so on the most basic level, it works for us. Because we’re used to the idea of repentance leading to salvation and restoration, we can approve of a story that hits those familiar beats. But It’s a Wonderful Life hits some pretty different beats. Does it make sense for us to resonate with a story that makes the protagonist aware of his virtues rather than his flaws? In other words, doesn’t Ebenezer ultimately take the better, godlier path than George?
Even some of It’s a Wonderful Life’s fans have trouble with this aspect of it. As one such fan, Drew Dixon, points out, “George’s coming of age is a realization of his own self worth. ... [But] the gospel is not a celebration of our self-worth but rather a celebration [of] God’s grace to those who rejected His infinite worth and the message about how our worth can be restored by Almighty God who reconciles all things to Himself.”
These are valid observations, but they’re missing something. If we look at these two characters solely in terms of individual existences and experiences, of course they’re on opposing trajectories. But there is another way to look at them.
An Awful Hole
Near the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, hints at what this other way entails. Christmas, he tells his grumpy uncle, is “the only time I know of ... when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Scrooge, of course, pooh-poohs (or perhaps I should say bah-humbugs) the idea. But that serves to show us exactly who and where he is: an individual isolated from his community. And the exact same thing is true of George Bailey at the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life. He has come by a very different route but landed in the same place: After a lifetime of quietly faithful service to his community, a grave financial loss drives him to lash out and then run away. The resentment and bitterness he had carefully hidden away at having to give up his own ambitions for his community’s sake erupt to the surface all at once, and he turns against the people he has spent so long caring for. Whether gradually or abruptly, our worst impulses tend to lead us to this place, where we cut ourselves off from all connections.
If we look at them this way, then we see that Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey are actually moving in the same direction over the course of their stories, from isolation back to community. What they come to have in common is an understanding of the impact of their lives on those around them and how very important their presence is. The images of people suffering without their help are enough to drive both of them back to the communities they tried to escape. Even hard-hearted Scrooge falls apart at the vision of a child’s death that he could have prevented.
Part of the genius of Capra’s movie, incidentally, is that it places George in an alternate timeline, rather than his real past and present, so that his reaction to his good deeds is similar to Scrooge’s reaction to his bad ones: horror and remorse. He is led to feel not complacency, but rather, a desperate longing to take back the responsibilities that once irked him. Both protagonists get a chance to see what their absence has done or could do, and the lesson is driven home: In the words of Clarence, George’s guardian angel, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
For the Sake of Others
In fact, to take A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life solely as stories of individual salvation is to see only a tiny part of the big picture. Both of them reflect the biblical truth that salvation doesn’t happen in isolation but within the context of community. Think of how often Jesus emphasized that human relationships are closely tied to our relationship with God: declaring that we must forgive others to be forgiven by the Father, for example, or stating that our salvation is contingent on how we treat “the least of these.”
Whether intentionally or not, both of these Christmas stories beautifully illustrate these difficult truths. The remorseful ghost of Jacob Marley makes the point very clear; when Scrooge protests that Marley was always “a good man of business,” the ghost retorts, “Business! ... Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.” B. D. McClay goes so far as to argue that Scrooge’s besetting sin is not greed or cruelty but indifference to others: “On his own balance sheet, Scrooge comes out at zero: nothing owing, nothing owed. The point Scrooge resists is that his not-knowing, his indifference, can be morally questionable.” George Bailey, for his part, must learn to accept, finally and fully, that the health of his family and community were worth the sacrifice of his individual dreams.
Both men have sinned, albeit in very different ways, against the community; it is to the community that they must be restored. As Clarence reminds George, “No man is a failure who has friends.” And no story of redemption can be truly complete without them.