“Why are We Still Reading Dickens?” is the title of an article in The Guardian blog. It’s also a question asked by myriad high school and college students.
Change the last word and it’s the question asked around the globe about a long list of classic texts, including the Bible.
The blogger, Jon Michael Varese, suggests that one of his students offers the best answer to the question:
“because they [Dickens’ novels] tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”
Varese concurs and adds his own testimony:
Like most people, I think I knew who I was without knowing it. I was Oliver Twist, always wanting and asking for more. I was Nicholas Nickleby, the son of a dead man, incurably convinced that my father was watching me from beyond the grave. I was Esther Summerson, longing for a mother who had abandoned me long ago due to circumstances beyond her control. I was Pip in love with someone far beyond my reach. I was all of these characters, rewritten for another time and place, and I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.
Why am I still reading the Bible? Because biblical narratives tell me who I am. I am Eve, who knows that the only way to be a mature adult is to accept the fallenness of yourself and the world. I am Esther, who in negotiating my responsibilities to everyone else sometimes forgets to name her own desires and is emeshed in a culture convinced that safety justifies violence. And Jacob. And Rachel. And the women conspicuously absent from the story of the Prodigal Son.
I am all these and more. Biblical stories help me see these things about myself, about those around me, and about the world. They aren’t the only way to see ourselves, but, to use the words of Varese’s student, they help us see in the “grandest way possible.”