The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Moral Imagination

By Timothy King 12-24-2011
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

The Ghost of Christmas Past showed Scrooge a total of five visions. It is only the last two which are dark. The first three show the seeds of Scrooges own repentance.

The first vision shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas past is that of a young Scrooge reading alone, neglected by his peers, just before Christmas. Scrooge, watching his old self, begins to cry.

“What’s the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should have given him something: that’s all.”

The next scene Scrooge is shown a tender moment with his sister. We learn that not only was Scrooge a solitary child but his father was abusive and had banished him from the house. It is his sister who finally convinces their father that Scrooge should come home for Christmas.

It is then Scrooge is reminded of his harsh treatment of his sister’s son, Scrooge’s nephew.

After that, is a Christmas party where Scrooge is a young clerk and enjoying himself at the expense of his boss, Mr. Fezziwig. It is Fezziwig who demands that Scrooge stop working and begin to celebrate. Scrooge and the other clerks he worked with extol the virtues of their boss for bringing such joy to the season.

It is then Scrooge is reminded of his cruelty to his own clerk, Bob Cratchit.

At the same time that Dickens is showing the development of the chains that would eventually bind Scrooge he is also showing that those fetters are not inevitable. Every time we see Scrooge making the connection between his own life and the life of another person we see the antidote to the poison that has been destroying his soul.

Scrooge had not yet lost all his empathy. It took the visions of Christmas past in order to spark it in him but it was still there.

At the heart of Christian morality is the Greatest Commandment. To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This means that essential to the Christian life is moral imagination. We need to have the ability to see through the eyes of another in order to know how we should live and act in the world around us.

It was when Scrooge saw himself as a young boy, alone except for his books, that he was able to imagine the world through the eyes of the lone boy who came caroling. When he saw his sister he was able to imagine the mistake he had made by turning away his nephew and his invitation to Christmas dinner. And finally, when he remembered the joy brought to his life by the simple actions of his boss, he realized what a miserly boss he had been.

Those visions were what rekindled his moral imagination, his ability to see the world from another’s perspective.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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