Between 1846 and 1849 Charles Dickens wrote The Life of Our Lord, a simplified version of Jesus’ life for his children, who ranged in age from newborn to 11 years-old at the time of its completion. The work was never intended for publication—it was a family text, written exclusively to teach his children “the best book that ever was or will be known in the world” so that they might “remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them.” Despite Dickens’s well documented respect for the New Testament and his attempt to stick closely to the gospel accounts of Jesus, his Jesus is not at all like the Jesus of the New Testament. His Jesus is distant … ethereal… boring.
Many people today would think that those three words describe Jesus pretty well—after all, the Jesus of popular literature, of religious paintings, of those syrupy jingles sung in churches across the globe is exactly as Dickens describes him in the first paragraph: good, kind, gentle and sorry for all the people who do wrong. One can easily imagine the soft smile and heavenly glow encircling this Jesus because we’ve seen it time and again. (Granted, Mel Gibson’s Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is hard to describe in soft and glowing language but this portrayal of Jesus was so powerful, at least in part, because it differed from the ubiquitous image in the western world’s imagination.) The problem is, this isn’t the Jesus of the New Testament at all.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to argue for a tough, combat-boot wearing Jesus as is popular in some Christian circles—that is a conversation for another time. What I do want to suggest, though, is that part of the brilliance of the New Testament image of Jesus lies in the fact that it is not really kind or gentle so much as good.
Dickens makes a few major mistakes in portraying Jesus but, most importantly, he omits any passage where Jesus is cranky, frustrated, or damning of the society in which he lives. The New Testament Jesus, on the other hand, is frequently deeply frustrated with his listeners—and even his best friends—for their failure to understand God’s values and priorities, especially where power, prestige and wealth are concerned. At times, Jesus even condemns the self-righteous and self-satisfied religious folk who are certain that they know what God wants and are even more certain that they are doing exactly that. The difference between Dickens’s Jesus and the Jesus of the New Testament, in a word, is justice.
Where Dickens’ Jesus is kind and loving, and certainly encourages the rich to be kind to the poor, servants, and the like, the New Testament Jesus is willing to condemn the systems and practices that lead to want, to suffering, and ultimately to death and… to condemn those who benefit from and reinforce these broken systems. The Jesus of the Christian faith—the real Jesus—is an uncomfortable dinner guest, maybe an attraction to gawk at, as Simon the Pharisee thought. Yet, after assuming his self-satisfied air at dinner, it is Simon who is ashamed and the poor prostitute-turned-object-lesson who is forgiven. The real Jesus, in C. S. Lewis’s words, is not safe. But he is, in all his uncomfortable justice, good.