“THE CHAIN I FORGED IN LIFE” (Reflections on Marley’s Ghost)

“The hand that chastises us must be moved by the heart that loves us, or it does no good.”

— Hall Caine

Christmas traditions abound at our home, and they are among the holiday hallmarks we come to cherish every December. 

Several of these traditions involve taking in movies that we only watch this time of year, but we insist on watching every year, just the same. A Christmas Carol, sometimes multiple versions of it, is a must-see.

The story of Scrooge’s redemption has been so repetitive I find it beneficial to endeavor to find new angles of perspective to the story. This year I watched two versions (including my favorite, the 1938 rendition starring Reginald Owen) and reread excerpts of the Charles Dickens novel upon which they are based.

Scrooge was visited by three spirits. Yet, this year my rumination centered on the apparition that, somewhat like a spooky John the Baptist, played their herald. Scrooge’s business partner and only friend in earthly life was Jacob Marley, who had died exactly seven years prior on Christmas Eve.

Scrooge assumed himself alone in his chambers after another long day at work when he heard chains clanking against wooden floors, growing louder as they grew closer and eventually burst forth through the cellar door. 

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” Marley explained to his old partner. He also described his seven years of death as an “incessant torture of remorse.” 

What was the purpose of Marley’s visit this Christmas Eve? “I am here tonight to warn you that you have a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”

When I read the novel, I am struck by the omissions the movie versions make regarding some of the more explicitly Christian themes present. Consider, for example, that every film I have seen contains the lines from the scene where Scrooge tries to reconcile Marley’s position in life:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”

But I remember seeing no film that contained what the ghost said immediately after:

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down , and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”

Upon taking his leave, Marley pauses at the open window through which he is about to exit. It is at this moment that Scrooge hears “confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory.” After listening for a moment, Scrooge succumbs to his curiosity and looks into the night air. The visit of a ghost seven years dead still could not have prepared him for what met his gaze.

“The air was filled with phantoms…Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free…”

How interesting that, almost 200 years ago, Dickens only singled out one profession among these tortured phantoms that were actually linked together due to their collective crimes against humanity. Since then, Western man has continuously looked to government to (impossibly) legislate evil away, all the while being blind to the fact that government itself had been the culprit of many of the greatest evils in the history of mankind.

We are told that Scrooge “had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

What was causing the angst? The fact that the ghost was dead? The uncomfortableness of the iron safe attached to the ankle? No, the chief cause of misery was the inability to help “the least of these my brethren.” It was a power they possessed while living, and had lost in death. 

This meditation is not meant to stir a debate about purgatory (Dickens, himself a professed Christian, held misgivings toward Roman Catholicism). What it did for me is to reinforce the fragility of this world, and the short time we suffer it. St. James instructed us that our life is merely a vapor, here for only a little time before vanishing away. Moses asked the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

Life is filled with distractions, the source of which should be readily apparent. Do we number our days? Do we take heed of the opportunities for Christian service God presents us on a daily basis? Are we, like Scrooge and Marley, so preoccupied with “business” that we turn a blind eye to “the least of these”? 

Justification is a one-time blessing of God and an assurance to live forever. Sanctification is day by day, hour by hour. 

Whom are we uplifting? How well are we nourishing our relationships? What is the status of our family, our kinsmen, our communities? Are we operating in an atmosphere of gratitude? What shall be the fruits of our labor by which men may know us? What will be the grade given to our earthly resume when we stand before The Great White Throne of Judgment?

Josh Doggrell

Josh Doggrell

3 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    These are questions I often wish a pastor would let loose with from the pulpit. “What do you think God will judge you on when you stand before Him? How well your son can kick a soccer ball? How accomplished is your daughter with the violin? Whether they got into an Ivy League school? . . . .etc.” It’s not that these things are bad in and of themselves (well, with soccer maybe the exception), but the amount of time and energy parents put into those endeavors, including allowing practices and games and recitals to completely rule their family schedules and do-away with any idea of Sunday as the Lord’s Day – it’s completely disproportionate with how much that grade will be weighted on the final of all final exams. If even half as much energy was put into teaching children their Faith (in a serious manner, not in a silly Veggie Tales manner) how much better would everything be? Perhaps the only thing I would add to Dickens’s emphasis is that our business is primarily to serve and worship the Lord, and that the natural extension of that is to serve our fellow man. I think he sometimes put the cart before the horse and wound up leading the charge in what is now the prevalent understanding that the Christian Faith is primarily concerned with the material good of all mankind.

    That being said, my family and I also enjoy the Christmas Carol on an annual basis along with “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  2. Josh Doggrell says:

    Mr. Cornell is absolutely right. My main criticism of Dickens was his inability to put Christ at the very center of what was otherwise a very Christian message. The novel A Christmas Carol was cut even further of its explicitly Christian themes in the film versions, and we know how old and “wholesome” those appear now when contrasted with modern television and movies.

    The oldest of my three children is blessed with very good athletic ability. For that reason, we chose in his seventh grade year to stay homeschooling in favor of enrolling him in a private Christian academy so he could play sports at a varsity level. He has also played on several “travel ball” teams over the years, with the clear understanding up front that we would not sacrifice the Sabbath day to participate nor would regularly missing Wednesday night Bible studies be permissible. We had to reinforce that position a couple of times, and he missed out on some opportunities to play on some teams where there was no resolution on that subject.

    We parents must keep the emphasis on Christ. If something that can be a good thing in and of itself comes into conflict with that, we must choose Christ. That sometimes seems more difficult than it really is, and many parents have faltered mightily in this regard due to our sinful propensity to make idols of just about anything.

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    Mr. Doggrell – that is encouraging to hear! I wish more parents took an approach like yours to keeping their children’s extracurricular activities properly ordered. Going as far in the opposite direction as possible, I know some who are so devoted to their child’s sport they even harbor desires for their child to attain college level or, hope against hope, professional level achievement. It’s hard for me to be patient with a Christian parent who wants his child to become a professional athlete. Along with movie star, pop music star, and politician, pro-athlete must be one of the best ways to lose one’s soul and live a life overflowing with pride-filled sin. Why on earth would a Christian wish that for their child, let alone encourage it? The line from Scripture asking what father would give his child a scorpion when he asked for an egg comes to mind.