The Man Who Invented Christmas is the charmingly told backstory of Charles Dickens and how he came to write A Christmas Carol. Thematically, as you would expect, it overlaps greatly with A Christmas Carol—forgiveness, caring for the poor/generosity, forgiveness, love, redemption, family, change, etc.—except you understand where those themes come from in Dickens’ life at a greater level. (For instance, he was forced into child labor himself because of his father’s poor financial decisions—so you can understand his deep hatred of the work houses and great compassion for the poor.) The story was captivating, fun, wholesome, inspiring…perfect for the family and perfect for the holidays—everything you might hope and expect about the making of the quintessential, classic Christmas story.
Since so many of the themes overlap with A Christmas Carol, (and therefore you likely don’t need help thinking of how to have faith driven discussions with those themes), I’m going to focus on something different for discussion—the difference between faith and insanity.
We have all heard (ad nauseum) the quote that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Agreed. Except, the stubborn, strong-minded questioner (maybe rebel??) in me kept thinking of times in my life where I felt compelled by God to keep going on some path that wasn’t producing results…and trust that they would someday. So I secretly chaffed a bit at that phrase. I kept that mostly secret though, because, I mean, everyone knows that it’s crazy do keep doing the same thing and expect different results—right? Which is why my soul rejoiced when I heard Kris Vallotton point out that “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity…and it’s also the definition of faith.” YES!!! This is why the Israelites could march around Jericho day after day with nothing happening, and yet expect the walls to come down. It’s why the disciples could cast their nets all night long, catch nothing, and throw them out one last time, hoping for a harvest.
As I watched this movie, this fine line between faith and insanity is what I couldn’t stop thinking about. Charles’ father spent money when he didn’t have it. He spent to create an image, impress investors, create more wealth. He spent to delight others, as well as himself. He spent it as if he had it, and in the end, his family suffered dearly for it—Charles as much as anyone, as he ended up ripped from his family and forced to work in the poor house as a young boy. Charles was bitter and angry at his father for his selfishness and irresponsibility. Yet, we also see Charles spending money he doesn’t have to create an image and garner more investors and create more wealth, as well as to help and delight others. (The one area where Charles and his father are vastly different in this is Charles was frugal towards himself, but generous towards others. His father was far more generous towards himself.) It was literally painful for me to watch Charles spending money his family didn’t have, knowing he was putting them all at risk. In many respects, Charles’ spending habits were like his father’s, and yet, he was expecting different results.
Add to that, after Charles’ great success with Oliver Twist, he wrote three flops. He’d written three complete failures, and yet was convinced he should write again and this time it would be a success. So much so, he was risking all his money, his financial stability, his family’s future, everything on it. Faith or insanity, I ask you??? It looked like insanity as I watched, as much as it looked like bold, crazy faith. In some ways, the answer we have to that question as we watch is largely based on the results. If it had flopped and his children had ended up in the poor house, we would probably say he was insane. As it was, Dickens pretty much changed the world with that book. In six days all his copies sold out and overnight, charitable giving soared as a result of it. His book changed catapulted Christmas from a relatively minor holiday into holiday stardom. He changed the culture with his book—the book he was willing to risk everything for.
I would love to say I have some formula, some sure-fire way to distinguish faith and insanity. Or to ensure that faith will equal success. I think of Daniel’s three friends who were thrown into the fiery furnace. Their faith looked like insanity, too. And they, too, risked everything for their faith. I love their response, “Our God will rescue us, but even if He doesn’t…” (Daniel 3:17, paraphrase and emphasis mine). That is faith—it’s obedience no matter the result. And that is the key thing—obedience. I suspect that is the major difference between Dickens and his father. One spent money for image and personal gain (primarily) and the other was far more motivated by generosity and kindness. Charles Dickens’ greatest desire was to do good in the world. The movie doesn’t focus on faith in God at all, but in as much as the Bible teaches that whatever we do to the least of these, we do as unto the Lord, we see a great deal of obedience to the heart of Jesus in Dickens. He wasn’t writing the book to increase his family’s fortune, he was writing it to help people change, to teach them to lighten the load of their fellow man, to inspire them to open their hearts towards one another—and he was compelled to do it. He was compelled to risk everything for it. That feels a lot like obedience and faith. And I suspect that even if this book had flopped, too, he would not regret having told the story he had to tell—because faith is about obedience more than results.
One final point of interest—Dickens couldn’t get the story to come out right, couldn’t figure out the ending…until he forgave his father. I find this intriguing. He was completely blocked with the character of Scrooge, seeing no hope for change in him (and therefore greatly disappointing his proof readers with a tragedy wherein Scrooged never changed and Tiny Tim died instead of the Christmas comedy that it became)—until he was able to see that there was good in his father. Yes, his father made huge mistakes, but for all those, as his sister pointed out, “You won’t find a kinder man.” When he was able to give grace to his father, he was able to give grace to Scrooge.
Concurrent with that, forgiving his father allowed him to confront his own, deeply embedded fears and find grace for himself. His time in the workhouse had scarred him. He was haunted by the voices of people telling him he was useless. His inability to forgive his father was keeping him from forgiving himself. Thinking his father could never change, or that the harm he had done negated the good he had done—those things were judgements he held over himself (and therefore over Scrooge) as well. Forgiving his father was a lynchpin to setting himself free…and to the ending of his story. What a great reminder to us all.
Questions for Discussion:
- How are faith and insanity similar? What do you think makes them different?
- What are the similarities and differences in Charles and his father’s attitudes/behaviors towards money?
- Why do you think Dickens couldn’t finish his story at first? What do you think changed things for him?
- How did forgiving his father set Charles free?
- Do you think people change?