I am very fond of the story of A Christmas Carol.
I’ve never actually read the book, but the story has been adapted for the screen so many times that it’s easily recognizable. Ebenezer Scrooge is a horrible, usurious miser who pinches every penny he can get his hands on and despises the festivities surrounding Christmas because he sees it all as an excuse to try to get him to spend his own hard earned money. Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, died many years previous, and on the night of Christmas Eve Scrooge is visited by Jacob’s tortured ghost. Jacob explains the cause of his suffering, and warns Scrooge that he’s to be visited by three more ghosts. Scrooge is forced to relive Christmases in his past, observing how he became a cold, pitiless man, watch the Christmas events of London the following morning, seeing how he’s almost universally despised and ridiculed, and then look on as he sees a Christmas of the future where his death occasions no sadness in anyone. Following all these visitations, Scrooge has a conversion experience and vows to keep the spirit of Christmas the whole year long. He cancels numerous debts, raises his clerk Bob Cratchit’s salary, and keeps his word for the rest of his life.
Now I don’t care who you are, that’s a good story.
So why the heck did Jack Chick decide that there needed to be a Chick tract version?
Humbug! takes the story of A Christmas Carol and recasts it as a peculiarly evangelical take on the tale. Where the original has explicitly real ghosts, Chick’s version reduces Scrooge’s visitations to a mere dream. It’s not Jacob Marley’s visage that greets Scrooge at his door, but a horn and goatee sporting devil. The agents in Scrooge’s conversion are Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who pray for him overnight.
Now, aside from these differences, I’ll say that it’s still a pretty good retelling of the story (just with more explicit Jesus). Chick’s art, which I usually find rather coarse, fits well in this setting (I might be inclined to forgive the art simply because I rather liked the Robert Zemeckis adaptation from a few years back, because he fully embraced the fact that people in Victorian London would have been rather ugly). I even like one bit of theology that Chick includes here (well, the first half of it anyway): it’s scandalous that God would incarnate as a human, what with all of our flaws. Chick goes on to espouse some stuff about utter depravity that I just can’t truck with, but that bit about the utter scandal of Christ’s incarnation does get to me.
Of course, that’s more because of a really good Advent meditation I read on Richard Beck’s blog the other day about just that very topic. Check it out if you’d like some exposure to a bit of theology that has some love crafted into it.
Anyway, back to the story at hand.
My biggest complaint with this tract, and it may be moot considering that the point of the tract is to make the conversion story explicit, is that I think the conversion in the original is already breathtakingly good. Scrooge has a truly divine revelation about the course of his life, and he immediately sets about making amends. The fact that it’s framed as a ghost story is incidental to me; it still shows a person discovering and reveling in the love that Christ models for us, even if he’s not explicitly mentioned (again, I’ve not read the novella, so I can’t confirm how much the Christian angle plays into Dickens’s original). Here in Humbug!, I can’t help but feel that Chick’s eliminating the ghosts and reshaping the narrative around Bob and Tim’s prayers because of some deep-seated feeling that it would be dishonest to suggest that ghosts are a real part of his theological outlook (the devil’s manifestation on the door knocker is totally okay though). I can respect that from a perspective of not wanting to mislead readers in what he believes, but it diminishes the story!
I also can’t help feeling like there’s something off in this presentation of A Christmas Carol as it relates to the social justice that’s so integral to the story’s power. Scrooge goes from being the worst kind of miser to being exceedingly generous with his wealth, and part of the benefit for everyone is that their quality of life is improved by Scrooge’s buying into the idea of communal responsibility. Contrast that with Chick’s version of the gospel, which focuses almost exclusively on how Scrooge’s conversion means that he’s not going to hell. Yes, he’s helping the poor and needy, which is wonderful and what God expects him to do as part of his repentance, but the big deal here is that Scrooge will go to heaven. The possibility of eternal damnation is a bugbear that raises its head in Jacob’s visitation to Scrooge, but as the story progresses, that becomes less of a concern as the damage that Scrooge has done to the people around him takes center stage. Scrooge’s ultimate punishment, if he fails to change his ways, is highlighted as the fact that no one will mourn him when he dies. He’s doomed to being a drain on the community. The eternal torment hangs there in the background, I suppose, but Scrooge’s conversion comes about because he realizes he’s already suffering in the absence of love.
Anyhow, if you’re looking to indulge in a particular version of A Christmas Carol as we draw closer to Christmas, give this one a pass. It’s short, saccharine, and they took all the good bits out.