Yule clas­sics carry mes­sage of love

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Smith is an Austin writer.

Some years ago, I read a Ge­orge WIll col­umn that laid the blame for the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Christ­mas on Charles Dick­ens’ story “A Christ­mas Carol.” That didn’t seem quite right, so I reread the tale. I was struck by the num­ber of bi­b­li­cal ref­er­ences Dick­ens used, from Moses’ staff to the Star of David and Christ heal­ing the blind and lame, ref­er­ences I’m sure his read­ers would have eas­ily rec­og­nized.

Not long af­ter, I hap­pened to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.” I was struck by its sim­i­lar­ity to “Christ­mas Carol.” They are in fact one story told from two dif­fer­ent points of view. Each has a rich miser — Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Pot­ter — and a pen­ni­less clerk: Bob Cratchit and Ge­orge Bai­ley. Scrooge is a shrewd, tight­fisted but ba­si­cally hon­est busi­ness­man. Pot­ter is proven to be a cold­hearted thief. Cratchit is mak­ing the best of it in the face of grind­ing poverty. Bai­ley is stuck run­ning a small­time sav­ings and loan and sees all his grand dreams and big plans slip­ping away.

In “Christ­mas Carol,” we see the tale through the eyes of the miser; in the Capra movie; the story de­vel­ops from the van­tage point of the clerk. The orig­i­nal au­di­ence for each story would have clearly un­der­stood their mes­sage: A tale of sin, a call to re­pen­tance, and a warn­ing of the con­se­quences if you don’t. When “Christ­mas Carol” ap­peared in 1843, the Angli­can Church in Eng­land was in the midst of a pow­er­ful evan­gel­i­cal re­vival. Movie­go­ers in 1946 had spent two decades hear­ing calls for re­pen­tance from ra­dio preach­ers like Amy Sem­ple McPher­son. Many had ex­pe­ri­enced it first­hand at tent meet­ings and al­tar calls.

But just what sin did Ebenezer Scrooge and Ge­orge Bai­ley com­mit? What led them to face such a ter­ri­ble end?

It first seemed to me that Scrooge’s sin is that he can’t see the value of any­thing he can’t put a price to. He hoards money af­ter grow­ing up poor and swear­ing he’d never be that way again (rather like Scar­lett O’Hara dig­ging for turnips with her bare hands and cry­ing out, “I’ll never be hun­gry again!”). In 1843 this fear was en­tirely rea­son­able — with no safety net, no pub­lic health care and no un­em­ploy­ment in­surance, fi­nan­cial ruin of­ten meant slow death by star­va­tion. But by mak­ing this choice, Scrooge drives away his fi­ance, his nephew and his friends. The Christ­mas ghosts call him to task for this short­sight­ed­ness.

Ge­orge Bai­ley’s sin is also short­sight­ed­ness. Bob Cratchit has no money but knows he is wealthy in ev­ery­thing but money. When faced with ruin af­ter Pot­ter steals $8,000 from his sav­ings and loan, Bai­ley loses sight of the in­tan­gi­ble wealth in his life. The only way he can see to fix things is by com­mit­ting sui­cide. When an an­gel of­fers him an alternative to sui­cide, he wishes he’d never been born.

But then I re­al­ized that money is sim­ply the McGuf­fin in each tale. The real sin com­mit­ted by Bai­ley and Scrooge is fail­ing to trust God — the most ba­sic sin of all. Both men be­lieve they are all alone in the world, when in fact they have cho­sen to sep­a­rate them­selves from God and from their loved ones. When faced with fi­nan­cial ruin, in­stead of trust­ing God’s guid­ance, they trust their own wits, with even more dis­as­trous re­sults. Both wind up alone in a grave­yard, con­fronted with the con­se­quences of their choice. It is for this lack of trust that they are called to re­pen­tance.

This does not mean there is any­thing no­ble about poverty, a hard, cruel life that de­stroys body and soul. The no­tion that poverty breeds char­ac­ter is a con­ve­nient fic­tion meant to as­suage our guilt over liv­ing com­fort­ably when con­fronted by those who don’t. It also doesn’t mean trust­ing God will make ev­ery­thing turn out all right, or make the harsh re­al­i­ties of life dis­ap­pear.

Rather, the Christ­mas ghosts and Clarence the an­gel re­mind us that there is some­thing worse than poverty: Be­ing sep­a­rated from the love of God and from those who love us. The spir­its show Ge­orge and Ebenezer that their loved ones never de­serted them, even dur­ing the worst of times. They bring us all a sim­ple mes­sage: Don’t be afraid. Even when we turn away from God, God does not aban­don us.

In this Christ­mas sea­son, we are called to reach out to those who are alone, whether by choice or through the chances of life. We can all be mes­sen­gers of love on God’s be­half.

NBC

In ‘It’s a Won­der­ful Life,’ Ge­orge Bai­ley, played by James Ste­wart (cen­ter), re­dis­cov­ers true wealth in the love of those around him.

Ebenezer Scrooge, voiced by Jim Car­rey, is shown in a scene from ‘A Christ­mas Carol.’ Scrooge’s sin is that he can’t see the value of any­thing he can’t put a price to. AP / DIS­NEY

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