It is not good for people to be alone. Such were the words of God when He created Adam. Ever since the beginning it has been God’s design for humanity to live together with each other and with Him. This idea of relationship existed long before humanity did; after all, God didn’t create humanity because He was lonely and bored. God is three persons after all. God, in essence is a relational being; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit coexisting in a love relationship. Out of that happy family God wanted to further spread His love and goodness, so He created the cosmos and all therein, including us. Early on though, humans broke contact with God and became self-centered and idolatrous, rather than relationally oriented and in tune with God. The systematization of this self-centeredness and idolatry has created a corrupt world system that perpetuates loneliness, shame, inequality, greed, and dysfunction.
The aforementioned themes are central to much of Charles Dicken’s work. As someone who experienced the corrupt system first hand (debtors prisons and such), Dickens was greatly influenced to write about it. Any reader of Dickens may think I’m going to get into The Tale of Two Cities, for that does include a wonderful metaphor for the mission of Christ, but it was altogether intended and straightforward, so I’d rather not beat a dead horse. While these themes are present in much of Dicken’s work, I would like to focus on Oliver Twist, one of his most beloved and well-known novels. As with all of my literary metaphors, I will be giving a brief synopsis of the plot, so be forewarned of spoilers!
Oliver Twist is born into the world by a poor, unknown woman who expires shortly after his birth. Oliver is raised in an inhumane orphanage and then transferred to a workhouse at age 9. The workhouse prides itself on overworking and underfeeding people in poverty. One day Oliver asks the server for more food, which led to a full-scale meltdown ending with Oliver in solitary confinement. The workhouse then tries to get rid of Oliver, seeing him as a trouble maker. The first man that tries to adopt him is a chimney keeper who is only interested in working Oliver to death and collecting to 5 pound adoption bonus. Oliver is briefly adopted by an undertaker, but is treated very poorly in his house and runs away.
Oliver makes his way towards London, slowly and excruciatingly. Just outside of London he meets the Artful Dodger, a precocious thief roughly the same age as Oliver. Oliver doesn’t know anything about the Dodger’s line of work, only that he has food and a place to stay in London. So Oliver follows the Dodger to London and stays at a house that is a den of young thieves run by a sinister old man named Fagin. They begin to groom Oliver to enter a life of crime, though he remains unaware of it until the day he goes to work with the Dodger and his accomplice, Charlie Bates. Oliver is shocked when he witnesses them pickpocket an old gentleman and takes off running. He is apprehended as the thief, with the whole town in pursuit, including the real thieves. He is brought to the magistrate but the old gentleman, Mr. Brownlow, accompanies him there and is convinced he is innocent. After more evidence, he is released into the care of Mr. Brownlow. When he arrives at Mr. Brownlow’s house, he is feverish and lays in bed several days to recover. During this time he encounters kindness that he has never experienced before. He was always seen as an unwanted nuisance and a troublemaker, usually for just responding as any normal human being would to unjust treatment.
When he recovers, he goes out on an errand for Mr. Brownlow but falls back into the hands of Fagin, who was frantic about getting Oliver back, fearing that he might snitch on his outfit. Fagin and his cronies lock Oliver up and then begin grooming him for a life of crime again. Fagin sends Oliver on a special robbery mission with Sikes, a cruel criminal, and Toby Crackit. Oliver is horrified when he learns the purpose of the mission but presses on under threats of death. Sikes puts him through a small opening in the house to unlock the doors for them. Oliver is intent upon alarming the house of the scheme but is shot first by an overzealous butler. Crackit and Sikes split, shortly leaving Oliver for dead. The next day Oliver stumbles to the house he had been at the night before and is brought in and nursed back to health. The Maylie family are kind to Oliver, like Mr. Brownlow, and show compassion to him after hearing his story. Oliver spends his time with the Maylies picking flowers in the countryside, taking walks, and overall having a wonderful, heavenly time. This is interrupted by the girl of the house, Rose Maylie, becoming deathly ill. She recovers to everyone’s relief.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s old overseers from the workhouse have a strange interview with a mysterious Mr. Monks who is interested in acquiring a locket that belonged to Oliver’s mother. After bribing the Bumbles (overseers) to get the locket, he throws it in a river. This meeting makes sense when Nancy, Sike’s significant other and an regretful apprentice of Fagin, hears a conversation between Mr. Monks and Fagin. She learns that Monks is Oliver’s brother and the locket could prove Oliver’s identity, which would entitle him to an inheritance. Monks wanted to keep the inheritance for himself. Nancy related this conversation to Rose Maylie. In turn, Rose gave this news to Mr. Brownlow, who they came across in London. Brownlow and Rose meet Nancy again at midnight near a bridge to plan what to do. They decide that they will get Monks and wring the secret out of him of Oliver’s identity and force him to give him the inheritance. Nancy, however, was followed by one of Fagin’s new cronies, Noah Claypole. Noah hears the conversation and relates it to Fagin who informed Sikes. In a paroxysm of rage, Sikes kills Nancy when he gets home and then runs. Sikes flees town, tortured by his conscience, but decides to return to try to hide out then leave the country.
During Sikes flight, Brownlow is able to catch up with Monks. Brownlow threatens to turn him in if he will not disclose the identity of Oliver and set things straight with the inheritance. Monks agrees to his terms. Sikes is now hiding out in a squalid part of town with some old associates, but is soon discovered by an angry mob. Defiant to the end, Sikes tries to descend from the building on the backside via rope. He sees a vision of Nancy’s haunting eyes, trips and falls off the building, and accidentally hangs himself. Fagin is also apprehended and hung.
It is further revealed that Rose Maylie, is actually Oliver’s sister. Rose marries the love of her life, Oliver receives his inheritance and is adopted by Mr. Brownlow and lives happily ever after (that’s the short of it, the story is much more complex than a small synopsis can convey, read it if you haven’t!).
Oliver, like many of us, felt alone and worthless. He was alienated and rejected by everyone. The only people who wanted him, were harsh taskmasters seeking to wring every bit of work out of him that they could and deprive him of necessities. He fell into a wolf-pack like Buck from Call of the Wild. If it wouldn’t have been for the love and kindness of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies, then he probably would’ve become a criminal too. The kindness of these people begin to make him feel loved and happy for once in his life. The idyllic setting of the Maylies’ country estate coupled with their filial love stands in stark contrast to the workhouse, Fagin’s den of thieves, or really any situation that Oliver has been in. The contrast between corrupt, unloving society and blissful, beautiful families as well has probably never been captured by anyone as well as it was captured by Dickens (in my opinion).
I like to compare this contrast to the corrupt world system versus the family of God. Mr. Brownlow recognized Oliver’s value while most the world rejected him, loved him while no one else would , and adopted him into his family. So too does God recognize our inherent value. Others may recognize our instrumental value, what they can get out of us, but God loves us because He is love. He invites us to leave the squalid inner-city of human existence and be adopted into His family and live at His paradaisal estate. He even makes that invitation to us when we aren’t as innocent and good as Oliver was. He sees the gold hidden in the muck, our potential and God-image, buried under the deception and brokenness.
Society assaulted Oliver’s self-worth through deception and his enemy (Monks) deprived him of his inheritance by keeping him in the dark about his identity . That’s a great picture of how our jacked up world treats us and how our enemy tries to break us down. “You’re not skinny enough”, ‘You’re too skinny”, “You’re not talented enough”, “you don’t have enough money” — the accusations go on and on. They are lies engineered to deprive us of our inheritance in God by forming a false identity. Our identity is not based upon peoples’ arbitrary standards nor even our failings. Our identity is first and foremost found in that we are people who have a God-image, who are loved by God, and are meant to live with God. When we act like wolves, bent only on self-preservation, we end up like Sikes or Fagin (Romans 6:23 The wages of sin is death more on that in my articles Lepers in Paradise and Moral Government: Jesus’ Political Party).
Furthermore, He wants to adopt us into His family. Until we are adopted by Him, our father figures will be people like Fagin, who tried to lead Oliver astray. Oftentimes people project their experiences with negative authority figures on God. I have certainly done that, thinking that God is a stingy task manager who wants to squeeze the work out of me. He is not even a fair employer, trying to earn His love and pay Him back for His gifts is absurd and insulting. God is a giver and a lover. The Bible says that all good gifts come from the Father of Lights. A father delights to provide for his children and prosper them; he does not expect to get paid back. Even great fathers cannot measure up to our heavenly daddy though. He invites us to His eternal family reunion, where the universe and His people are restored and reconciled to God. Far from the cold streets where scared, self-seeking wolves prowl seeking to fill their bellies at the expense of others, God invites us to His gloriously ecstatic cuddle-puddle, His divine love fest. There is no fear, insecurity, hatred, or hurting — only loving, giving, and celebrating.
photo credit to detroittechnohouse.com
This union with God establishes our identities in God, which nothing can change. It doesn’t matter what Fagin, workhouse masters, or anyone else says, we are loved and valuable. This identity and experience of love empowers us to love others without expecting anything in return when we are in tune spiritually. It is just so easy to revert to that idea that we have to earn our way with God and people.
“The Christian lives by grace as Abba’s child, utterly rejecting the God who catches people by surprise in a moment of weakness—the God incapable of smiling at our awkward mistakes, the God who does not accept a seat at our human festivities, the God who says “You will pay for that,” the God incapable of understanding that children will always get dirty and be forgetful, the God always snooping around after sinners. At the same time, the child of the Father rejects the pastel-colored patsy God who promises never to rain on our parade.” -Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (excellent book)
Romans 8:15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba (daddy in Hebrew), Father.”
1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! . . .