by Jason Oakes
The story is set in an under-world of organized crime in a major European city. The characters are wanted criminals, petty thieves and cheap prostitutes living in squalor. The story is dark and often violent; it includes miserable working conditions, instances of child abuse, vulgar language and a graphic scene depicting domestic violence where a man bludgeons his girlfriend to death with his gun.
What does this sound like to you? The latest film to hit the big screen? Perhaps a gritty new HBO series? Actually, the story is Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens over 150 years ago.
After the story was first published in 1838, people objected to its apparent gratuitous violence and evil. The objections were so numerous that Dickens decided to address them in the Author’s Preface to the Third Edition of the book, printed in 1841.
When I completed it, and put it forth in its present form three years ago, I fully expected it would be objected to on some very high moral grounds in some very high moral quarters. The result did not fail to prove the justice of my anticipations.
Dickens then gives an explanation for his storytelling. He says that it is easy to present thieves in fiction as “seductive fellows, (amiable for the most part)”, “fortunate in gallantry”, and “fit companions for the bravest.” But Dickens felt like it was dishonest to glamorize criminals. Instead, he desired to present “the miserable reality.”
It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society. And therefore I did it as I best could.
Did you catch that last part? Dickens does not only want to tell the truth about such wicked people; he desires to do “a service to society” by creating these characters. He wrote about crime, filth and wickedness because it was “greatly needed.” In other words, he was writing this story, with its spotlight on sin and evil, for the common good. Sin and crime need to be conveyed truthfully — as deformed, wretched and ghastly.
Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical leader during the 70s and 80s, said something similar in his little book, Art and the Bible. He says that the Christian worldview as it is displayed through art can be divided into two themes. The minor theme is the “lostness of man and the abnormality of the universe.” The major theme is the “meaningfulness and purposefulness of life” as found through the gospel. Schaeffer goes on to say that Christian art, storytelling in this case, must emphasize both. If we only tell stories of victory and happiness, we are not telling stories that match up with the Christian worldview… we are merely telling romantic stories. A true Christian story will emphasize both the minor theme of depravity and the major theme of victory. Schaeffer even states that a Christian may at times choose to tell only the minor theme.
While Dickens’ view of Christianity is difficult to grasp, he is saying something in his explanation of Oliver Twist that Christians in the arts need to take seriously. You are more than an entertainer. You are contributing to our society as a whole and you should be following Dickens as you think about this serious task. Are you highlighting the goodness of grace and beauty? I hope so. But are you also emphasizing the wretchedness of sin and folly? The good news is exactly that — we have the gospel so we can look depravity in the eye, knowing that it is not the ultimate end of the story.
Jason Oakes is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University. He came to Biola from the University of Oklahoma, where he taught philosophy while finishing his doctorate. Jason's research interests include philosophical theology, epistemology, and divine revelation