BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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DAILY PHOTO: Churches of Diu

Taken in November of 2019 in Diu; This church was converted to the Diu Museum, featuring Christian artifacts.

This church was owned by a hospital, but appears to be vacant / unused.

This church, St. Paul’s, is the only active church in Diu

DAILY PHOTO: Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral

Full Name: “Metropolitan Cathedral and Parish of Saint Vitalis and of the Guardian Angels”; Taken in December of 2017 in Cebu City

DAILY PHOTO: Manila Cathedral

Taken in December of 2017 in Manila

Also known as “The Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.”
 

DAILY PHOTO: Village Churches of Nagaland

Taken in April of 2017 in Nagaland

 

Nagaland feels like a country unto itself. Not like Myanmar (which it’s not.)  But, also not like India (which it is, technically and legally.)  Neighboring  Assam and Manipur feel like India with a Tribal twist, but not Nagaland. It feels Tribal to its core.

 

Among the factors that contributes to this is that almost 90 % (88.1%) of it’s population is Christian. For some reason, the missionaries found this piece of the planet fertile ground. Buddhism has no presence in Nagaland at all, which is one of the things that makes it seem quite different from the SE Asian countries, which it bears a resemblance to in a number of ways (e.g. racially, architecturally, etc.)

 

But religion is just part of it. If you were to go by attire or what music is playing in the cafe (K-pop, US pop, and local music inspired by the aforementioned) one would be more likely to guess one was in Southeast Asia. And if you were to go by cuisine, you’d have no idea where you were. It’s not remotely like Indian cuisine except that the favored snacks are those of Ladakh and Sikkim [i.e. Tibet-esque; momos and noodle soup.] Still, it’s not like SE Asian cuisine excepting that steamed rice is a part of every meal and the pungent smell of fermented yam leaves (anishi) is a smell similar an odor I’ve encountered in Thailand. (But I see no reference yam leaves in Thai cuisine, so I suspect in Thailand its something else that’s fermented to create said smell.)

 

Baptist church of Khonoma

 

Catholic church of Khonoma

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

The Devils of LoudunThe Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In 1634, a parish priest named Urbain Grandier was tortured to exact a confession that he’d engaged in sorcery and made a pact with the devil. There was plenty of reason to believe that Grandier was a less than virtuous fellow (e.g. that he knocked up the teenage daughter of his best friend in Loudun), but no evidence of the crimes that he was actually accused of–and that the Church insisted he cop to despite his steadfast denials. However, there was some potent circumstantial evidence in the form of a case of mass hysteria by members of a convent of Ursuline nuns that was attributed to demonic possession at the time.

Huxley tells this fascinating story in great detail. At some points, perhaps too much detail. The writing style can come across as pretentious, needlessly complicated, and slow-moving at times. (For example, there are frequent quotes and snippets of poetry in French–and a few in Latin—and many of these were not translated to English in the edition that I read. Apparently, the assumption was that the reader would have a basic competency in these languages.) However, when it comes to the climax of the story, the book is as gripping as they come. Having been presented with great insight into Father Grandier, we know him to be a deeply flawed man. He’s like the priests and bishops of a Marquis de Sade novel, lecherous and libertine. Yet, he manages to become a sympathetic character as he shows virtue of sticking to his guns in denial of being in league with Satan long after the truth of his vices has been admitted. In essence, when juxtaposed to his inquisitors, he becomes the lesser of two evils.

I also don’t fault that Huxley delves into analysis, because there is a fascinating question at the heart of the event—one that deserves to be batted around. What made this group of nuns behave in such an un-nun-like fashion? There was writhing, foul language, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. Today, it’s impossible for a rational skeptic to write these events off as demonic possession. However, while the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, clearly had an axe to grind against Grandier (for issues regarding organizational leadership and not so much for womanizing the townies), that also seems unsatisfactory as a cause for these sisters to behave as they did. There have been a number of cases of pretended possession, but generally these were individuals—e.g. Martha Broissier. There seems to be some fascinating psychology at work in this case.

The book is arranged in 11 longish chapters, largely following a chronological progression of events. The edition that I have has some interesting appendices as well as a bibliography. There isn’t much in the way of graphics, but as the book reads like a novel one doesn’t expect there to be.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in history or psychology. It’s fascinating in both domains. While I thought the book could have been a little clearer and more concise, it’s still quite readable and the heart of the story is highly engaging. I was also reading the book as a general interest reader. A scholarly reader might appreciate Huxley’s thoroughness more.

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