Certainly one of the less incendiary items I’ve seen posted by our neighbors, I took special note because of the purported literary source of this quote. I like Dickens. Even though it was created to lampoon a particular brand of English bureaucracy, surely anyone who has worked in corporate American business can appreciate something called the ‘Circumlocution Office.’ Still, I haven’t read near as much of his work as I wish, even though it’s on my Kindle. Of course, as a high school student, I read A Tale of Two Cities. Significant for this season, I have also not only read A Christmas Carol, but have probably seen all of Hollywood’s interpretations (I am especially fond of Billy Murray’s take). Certainly, it is filled with “Christian” themes, including charity, kindness to those less privileged, and seeking forgiveness from those you have wronged, including from yourself, but I don’t recall Dickens writing too much about Mary and the birth of the Christ child.
The billboard cites the following passage, Romans 3:4:
God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged. 1
As a layman (I have yet to receive my proper certification from the Universal Life Church), my understanding of this passage may be incomplete. If I were to read this alone, especially with the Dickens quote as a preface, the gist is that people who do not follow the letter of the Bible are liars and will be judged harshly by God when their time comes.
The whole passage adds context, however. As I see it, what Romans 3 is actually saying is that we’re not so different and that variations in ritual don’t amount to much when Judgement comes, if the core values remain.
1What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? 2Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. 3For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
4God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
5But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) 6God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? 7For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? 8And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just. 9What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;2
What’s more, even if you “lie unto his glory” you’re still going to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks because we’re all dirty rotten sinners. This is central to my problem with this week’s roadside sermon.
I searched far and wide for this Dickens quote. An exact google search of the words got some hits, but nothing exact, and nothing directly attributable to Dickens. Generally, I found this, attributed to ‘Unknown’:
Men do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them. – Author unknown 3
The closest I could find linking Dickens was this:
Other books were given for our information. The Bible was given for our transformation. Men do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them. The New Testament is the greatest Book the world has ever known or ever will know. Charles Dickens 4
Of course, there’s no attribution; a reader cannot independently verify the authenticity of the statement; I am to take it on faith that this site got it right. Google returned no document writings by Dickens where he made such a statement. As his works are in the public domain and plain text, and his letters generally public, a search should return something, especially something so specific.
Undoubtedly a church secretary mimeographs a single sheet with quotes like this and distributes to parishioners yearly as part of her commitment to “Good Works.”
So I changed course and searched for documentation on the man’s religious beliefs. There’s quite a bit, actually, but The Dickens Project at U.C. Santa Cruz was very interesting reading. There’s a page that discusses specifically that Dickens views on religion, namely that he was generally “Christian,” antisemitic (the style of the time), and distrustful of Catholics and Evangelicals (which I’m sure would be a surprise to the folks at Sligo Creek Baptist:
In all his writings, Charles Dickens—a Christian of the broadest kind—is outspoken in his dislike of evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, but, especially in his fiction, he is very reluctant to make professions of a specific faith beyond the most general sort of Christianity. Nothing more surely aroused his suspicions about a person’s religious faith than a public profession of it, and this aversion formed a fundamental feature of his dislike of evangelicals and dissenters. 5
Not to say that he didn’t believe in God. Dickens wrote a small book, The Life of our Lord, with the aim of providing his children some religious instruction. It is a “simplification” of the New Testament, a retelling of the birth of Christ and his trials through to the Crucifixion. I’ve bolded some sections that I think are particularly relevant.
Given the intended audience, it is hardly fair to infer the specifics of Dickens’s faith from this slight work, which is in any case theologically rather inconsistent. But it is often taken as expressing a Unitarian outlook, and certainly what Dickens stresses is Christ as model, teacher, and healer—the comforter of the distressed rather than the saviour of mankind through the crucifixion and atonement.
Immortality of the soul, a favourite rock upon which a Victorian’s faith might founder, seems in fact to have constituted the one article of faith about which Dickens was troubled by no doubts. His notion of heaven, however, is notably worldly. It is “where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together” (LOL 1). Heaven is where the good go to be reunited with their friends, and heavenly bliss is thus rather like a permanent stay at the ideal Pickwickian inn. Although Dickens mentions Christ’s coming again “to judge the world” (LOL 11), he seems never to have taken seriously the possibility of eternal damnation and is always bitterly critical of the harm done by those who hold out the threat of hellfire, especially over the young. 6
Additionally, this page directed me to the the Victorian Web, a site devoted to all things Victorian, and a bit of a letter to a Reverend from Dickens himself (although with no link to where I might read the original). Again, emphasis mine:
With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion; but I must admit that to a man (or a woman) they all arise and wash their faces, and do not appear unto men to fast.7
I think that it’s safe to say, with some certainty that Charles Dickens never said what was posted on this billboard. It is, at best, an unverifiable paraphrase of something someone else attributed to him. And I am no Dickens scholar, but what I have read would lead me to suspect that the man would not have agreed with the sentiment, which, as presented, is distinctly uncharitable and unforgiving of our fellow man. Charles Dickens did not entertain a fanatical devotion to the “Word of God,” even going so far as to rewrite that which is said to have come from the creator himself. That alone should give anyone who reads this sign, or attended services at this church, pause to consider the counsel they are receiving. Or, perhaps they should read more than one book. As I said, Dickens is in the public domain and available freely through the kindness and generosity of other women and men.
For what it’s worth, the Bible is full of contradictions. But so are we all.
- http://biblehub.com/romans/3-4.htm ↩
- http://biblehub.com/kjv/romans/3.htm ↩
- https://bible.org/illustration/famous-quotes ↩
- http://www.growthguided.com/here-are-some-really-unsuccessful-men-and-their-views-of-the-bible/ ↩
- http://dickens.ucsc.edu/resources/faq/religion.html ↩
- ibid. ↩
- http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dickens4.html ↩