For me, there are two classic films that epitomize the Christmas season: It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. You should go out and watch them both. But for the moment, I would like to compare them and suggest that the Christmas Carol is more Christian than Wonderful Life. Neither of course tells the Christmas story directly, but I think the Christmas Carol is the better parable. To be sure, the idea suggested in Wonderful Life, that God puts certain people in certain places to do certain things, is very Christian. What worries me, though, is that we are invited to empathize and implicitly compare ourselves to George Bailey — not a perfect man, but decent overall with his heart in the right place — the quintessential American everyman. The question I would like to pose, though, is, “What about Potter, the film’s tyrant?” Imagine the film turned upside down, with the angel allowing us to imagine a world without Potter. If George Bailey is kept from suicide by the recognition that he has done so many good things, would the converse be true — that Potter would be justified in suicide because the world would be better off without him? It seems that in the world of Wonderful Life, there is no salvation for men like Potter. This is where Dickens offers us answers. Scrooge is like Potter. And in his glimpse into the future, people are quite happy when he dies. Yet the point of the movie is not that the world would be better off without him, but rather that by sheer grace there is hope for a grasping covetous old sinner like Scrooge. He comments at the end of the film that he doesn’t deserve to be so happy, and this is the theological crux of the matter. None of us grasping covetous old Potter-like people deserve to be so happy — but by God’s grace we can be. We are, like Scrooge, given another chance.
For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.
Next in the series: Gaudete, or Throwing Ourselves in the Way of an Oncoming Joy