Columnist Terry Mattingly: The ghosts in ‘A Christmas Carol’ are on a mission

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On his way to becoming a Hollywood superstar, Bill Murray demonstrated great skill at delivering rants that blurred the line between lunacy and pathos.

In the 1988 flick “Scrooged,” he belted out lessons learned from visits with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, as well as from occupying his own coffin in a crematorium.

“I’m not crazy. It’s Christmas Eve. It’s the one night of the year when we ... share a little more. For a couple of hours, we are the people we always hoped we would be. It’s really a miracle because it happens every Christmas Eve,” proclaimed Murray’s character, a greedy, arrogant TV executive.

“If you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it. I know. ... There are people that don’t have enough to eat ... that are cold. You can go and say hello to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘Here!’ or you can make them a sandwich and say, ‘Oh by the way, here!’ I get it now. ... I believe in it now.”

“Scrooged” is a fascinating Tinseltown take on the Charles Dickens novella “A Christmas Carol,” said English literature Professor Dwight Lindley of Hillsdale College in Michigan, because of what the film contains and what it leaves out.

This dark comedy contains miracles, ghosts, angels, sin, judgment, penance, purgatory, damnation, the Grim Reaper and eternal life. What it lacks is any meaningful role for God or a Holy Babe in a manger.

“Scrooged” is as “far as some people in Hollywood can go with Dickens,” by “domesticating his message and making it more comfortable,” said Lindley, who is currently teaching a six-lecture online course about this 1843 text.

The class, he added, was created for “anyone who loves the story, but doesn’t know how to dig deeper into it than what they have seen in the somehow superficial versions that are around. ... Some people have a sense that there is something deeper, something moving underneath the surface.”

For many, watching one of the film adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday ritual. These movies usually include the basic story while ignoring the narration in which Dickens frames his parable.

At the heart of this drama, stressed Lindley, is “the Incarnation” — the doctrine that the Creator of the universe took flesh, as a baby, at Christmas. Thus, caring for the innocent and the vulnerable is at the heart of “A Christmas Carol.”

During the story, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is “taken back into the experiences of his own life ... and given a chance to learn the lessons he should have learned,” added Lindley. Scrooge is shown why he “needs to help the least of these,” especially needy children.

With the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge witnesses a family party, and the narrator explains: “They didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

During the pivotal visit by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Scrooge sees the large, poor family of his assistant Bob Cratchit gathered for a humble feast — while hearing the biblical Christmas story.

The narrator says: “Very quiet. ... ‘And He took a child and set him in the midst of them.’ Where had Scrooge heard those words? He had not dreamed them. The boy must have read them out, as he and the Spirit crossed the threshold. Why did he not go on?”

This verse is from the Gospel of Mark, and Lindley stressed its context: Jesus “took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but the one who sent me.’”

Another important question raised by “A Christmas Carol” is why Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley — wrapped in chains and money boxes — becomes the first ghost who returns with warnings about eternity.

“Marley’s own language suggests that someone has sent him, someone has required this of him as part of his penance,” said Lindley. “The mysteries in this story — Dickens really does attach them carefully to Christian foundations. The story doesn’t make sense without that. Why do we owe it to the least of these, to take care of them? ... If you turn this into mere humanism, it becomes incoherent.”