Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Other Artistic Calls for Systemic Change

by | Dec 25, 2019 | Formation, Reflections

Artists have always been in the forefront of systemic changes in our vision.

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol?”  Who hasn’t read it, or heard it or seen it on stage or screen?  It has inspired many people to look at their lives through the lens of their past, future, and present. The short story, written in 1843, contained a big message that helped the poor. With a beautifully crafted story, he created an awareness of some of the roots and long-range effects of poverty.

The painter Van Gogh admired the social conscience of Charles Dickens and of British artists who depicted workhouses and the underside of Victorian life. In his book “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), Jacob Riis, American newspaper reporter, social reformer, and photographer shocked the conscience of his readers with graphic records of slum conditions in New York City.

For many, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without witnessing or taking part in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” From the Virginia Symphony in the United States to the heart of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, the show is felt across the globe.

Yet for Handel, “Messiah” would be an evangelistic tool to share the gospel with the masses. One scholar wrote, “The Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan… more than any other single musical production in this or any country.” They even made the controversial decision to perform “Messiah” in theatres instead of churches to reach a wider audience — including the performers themselves.

Fifty years later author John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” raised awareness of the injustice faced by many migrants on the road during the Great Depression. It became the impetus for political movements. Steinbeck had succeeded in changing the perception of poverty.

Artists through the centuries have challenged superficial visions of poverty and inspired dedication to direct services improving the condition of the poor.

Vincent as a Voice of the poor

St. Vincent de Paul was himself shaped by the story of the Good News as told by the inspired authors, especially Luke and Matthew. The story in Luke chapter 4 reveals of Jesus’ mission statement – Bring Good News to the Poor.  It also gave Vincent and his family the formulation of their mission statement. Another inspired writer, Matthew tells the story of the roots of this mission  – God’s identification with the poor. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sister you do for me.” MT 24.

But Vincent in his own way used media to change the perception of those in poverty and inspired many to collaborate with him in serving the least among his generation. Vincent was originally reluctant to use the media of his day, letters, to tell the story of the sufferings of the poor and how his collaborators worked tirelessly to bring spiritual and physical good news. He first thought telling these stories was incompatible with humble service.

Then one day he realized that in telling the story of the poor he gave the voice to their sufferings. Telling the stories of what his collaborators were doing inspired others to join in these efforts. He then began to reproduce and circulate the letters his missioners wrote from the field. This, in turn, led the upper classes to offer much-needed material support. As understanding of the need spread through these letters, it inspired others to join cause with him.

Fast forward from Vincent’s time to the 1949 Academy Award-winning motion picture “Monsieur Vincent” who centuries earlier had been officially declared “Father of the Poor.” The film won universal acclaim for its effective telling of the story of St. Vincent and his beloved poor. Generations since then have been inspired to pick up the mantle of Vincent.

Contemporary artists serving as the Voice of the Poor and Marginalized

Today there are many reinterpretations of the nativity scene. One particular nativity scene among many today is capturing a lot of emotional attention pro and con. See for example this headline from the Christian Broadcasting network… Are nativity Scenes Becoming too Political? For other examples visit the Univerity of Dayton’s collection of modern and not so modern nativity scenes

They seem to stand squarely in a long tradition of artists changing consciousness, giving voice to the voiceless. Artists help us to see dimensions of our faith and the poverty we do not see.

Do you have to be a world-class artist to change the way people think? St. Francis certainly would not count himself among such artists. Yet when he created the first creche he set in motion a movement for other artists to help us see contemporary dimensions of the nativity scene.

Food for thought

  • Have I ever thought of Dickens, Van Gogh, Handel, and Steinbeck as advocating for systemic change?
  • How do I feel about some of the modern, and controversial, interpretations of the nativity scene?
  • Which artists today help you realize the need for a societal change in consciousness/