Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Gospel in Dickens:
Selections from His Works

edited by gina dalfonzo
plough, 264 pages, $18

Charles Dickens, according to his son Henry, “never made a point of his religious convictions,” which were “very strong and deep.” They were also liberal and rather loose. Although he sometimes attended Anglican services and was well-versed in Scripture, Dickens was not interested in theological debates, and he memorably mocked religious zealotry and hypocrisy in his fiction. He ends The Life of Our Lord, a ­children’s book, with this straightforward exhortation: “Remember!—It is Christianity TO DO GOOD, always—even to those who do evil to us.”

Gina Dalfonzo’s The Gospel in Dickens is a collection of well-chosen excerpts from Dickens’s writings illustrating his persistent interest in Christian themes. As Dalfonzo notes in her introduction, Dickens was a satirist who grew increasingly aware of his own moral flaws, his frequent inability to “live up to that perfect standard exhibited by Christ.” From the start, his writing reflects “the fundamental truths of fall, repentance, redemption, and restoration found in the Gospel.” Dalfonzo’s excerpts illustrate the Christian elements in such novels as David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House, and in lesser-known pieces from Dickens’s first book, Sketches by Boz.

The Gospel in Dickens is part of a series of volumes illustrating Gospel images and ideas found in other important Christian writers, including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is an affordable, attractive, well-made book that fits comfortably in the hand. It offers a highly readable look into both the nature of Dickens’s religious views and the evolution of his art.

—Brian Murray

Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics
edited by james f. keenan & mark mcgreevy
orbis, 320 pages, $45

This collection of essays looks at homelessness from several different angles. The first section profiles the challenges that particular populations of homeless people (for example, veterans, refugees, the addicted) face. The second describes efforts from around the world to end homelessness. As with almost any collection of essays, the quality of the contributions varies widely. However, two themes stand out.

The first is the importance of a personalist ethic in encountering the homeless. This is one of the true strengths of Francis’s papacy, and he is rightly praised for it by a number of contributors. In a reflection on solidarity, Meghan Clark holds up Pope ­Francis as a model and adds: “Solidarity is both an invitation to become more fully human together and to more deeply ponder the mystery of the incarnation.” The gospel compels Christians to enter into personal encounters with the poor. Doing this always drives us to our knees in prayer, for when we encounter Christ in the poor, we realize how little we are able to effect without the aid of grace.

The second theme is a dissatisfaction with the teachings of the Church. One contributor laments that “the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church cites ‘housing’ and/or ‘homelessness’ in only four numbers.” Another criticizes nation-states because “one of the fundamental roles of the state is to protect property rights.” Yet another proposes “develop[ing] new theological resources inspired by CST to help us reflect on the issue of homelessness.” This attitude is disappointing. The Church has riches stored up—from the Gospel of Matthew to the writings of saints—if only these writers were faithful miners.

—Jacquelyn Lee

Stanford White in Detail
by samuel g. white
photographs by jonathan wallen
monacelli, 256 pages, $40

Stanford White and his partner Charles McKim were responsible for some of America’s greatest architecture. The Boston Public Library, the original Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, Columbia University’s campus, churches, private clubs, corporations, Newport homes—the list of their recognizable accomplishments goes on and on. Most books on architecture give a grand view of facades and sweeping staircases. Samuel White includes these in his book, but mostly focuses on the details of his great-grandfather’s work. Jonathan Wallen’s photographs capture the textures of White’s wall tiles, capitals, doorknobs, lamps, shingling, and furniture. This helps us appreciate how creative and astonishing White’s designs could be, especially the natural forms that provided the themes for his variations.

White writes that his great-grandfather produced “riotous combinations of materials and details and mutations of classical elements . . . resulting in a degree of opulence that was sometimes overwhelming but never overbearing.” This bears out to an astonishing degree. In different parts of White’s home, Box Hill, walls covered in split bamboo or marsh grass are juxtaposed against a helical column with putti, a baroque fireplace with an Italian frieze over the mantle, and black lions standing guard by the staircase. It’s not how I’d decorate my living room, but somehow it all works.

The recent fracas over President Trump’s executive order on architecture shows how many see classical architecture as hegemonic and staid, a kind of corset restraining creative freedom. Stanford White proves this view wrong. White took the vocabulary of classical architecture and used it to create structures that were creative and beautiful, innovative and a pleasure to inhabit.

—Nathaniel Peters

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift