There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.
The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.
During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.
When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.
But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).
At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”
Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?
Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?
Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?
Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?
- digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
- combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
- recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!
Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?
- spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
- silence when others mistreat minority groups – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?
Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.