In the wake of Christmas and in anticipation of the new year, charitable organizations are asking us for donations. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens included a brief, horrifying tableau that should give us pause as we consider where to place our money to do good.
Ebenezer Scrooge is about to be left by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge spots a small foot protruding from the giant’s robe, and what happens next sticks in the mind:
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.
Scrooge started back, appalled. “Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Many fine organizations focus upon Want. And the Bible makes it clear that we are always to care for the needs of the poor, the immigrant, the family-less, and the otherwise vulnerable.
I, however, work for two organizations that focus upon Ignorance: a Christian school of higher education, Crandall University, and a Christian public-affairs program, “Context.” And Dickens’s warning bears a second look:
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Want can be directly addressed and alleviated. But ignorance must be encountered, enchanted, and converted—not merely informed. What we do in Christian schools and in thoughtful Christian media is far more difficult than finding a need and filling it. We have to persuade, daily, audiences that are not always hungering for what we can give them. We need to change minds, not just inform them, so that whole ways of life will be altered for the better.
Education is therefore art as much as science, requiring wisdom and love as much as it requires erudition and expertise. It is not for those who like the satisfaction of quick fixes and obvious results. It takes time, time, and time—patience, delicacy, perseverance, creativity, and long-term horizons.
No one was more aware of the social dangers of modernity than Charles Dickens. No one wrote more powerfully of the roots of revolution not only in Want, but particularly in Ignorance. If our fellow citizens are merely given bread and circuses, they will be content for a time, but not forever. Eventually they will see their oppressive dependency and react in furious resentment.
This revolution is the Doom of which Dickens warned, a nightmare he would depict in A Tale of Two Cities as he reflected on the French Revolution and the several revolutions of 1848—some of which had salutary outcomes, but at the cost of thousands of lives and tremendous disruption. And do we not see various politics of resentment surging around us and around the globe today, much of which is enabled, even fueled, by ignorance?
There are lots of good places to give your year-end gifts and lots of good causes to support in the year to come. Want seems so obvious, so immediate, and of course we must give to its alleviation.
But take time also to beware of Ignorance—ignorance of Canadian history and world civilizations, ignorance of the skillful and beautiful use of language, ignorance of science and technology, ignorance of economics and advertising, ignorance of the basics of human life and interaction, and ignorance of the great truths of the Gospel.
Most Canadian Christians have not yet invested significantly in Christian education and media. But look around. Is this a cultural moment in which you are satisfied that Canadians do not need help in serious and devout Christian thinking? In which the culture at large doesn’t need penetrating Christian voices?
Or is it a moment in which God might be calling you to care for both this girl and this boy—but to beware especially this boy, and to forestall the doom that is written on his forehead?