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Wednesday 14th November, 7pm, All Hallows by the Tower
JustShare lecture: "A Dickens of a time: Lessons in social transformation from a national treasure"
The Rt Revd Adrian Newman gave a fascinating talk exploring Charles Dickens’ vision for social transformation and how it speaks to us today, 200 years after Dickens’ birth. Bishop Adrian argued that Dickens poses three challenges to us:
1. See the Invisible
Dickens was, Bishop Adrian suggested, a chronicler of the poor, lifting the lid on some of Victorian Britain’s most sordid and poverty-stricken districts. His words made his readers see and feel scenes they might pass daily without noticing. Who today, asked Bishop Adrian, makes us really see the many layers of poverty and exploitation which surround us? We have statistics, social analysis, media, social media, politicans, academics and faith leaders aplenty – but still we all collude in ignoring poverty, its causes and symptoms. What would Dickens have written about the bonus culture, tax avoidance, pay gap and growing inequality in London today? Where are the artists to open our eyes as Dickens’ opened his contemporaries’ eyes?
2. Think the Unthinkable
Here the Bishop quoted Daniel Dorling: ‘Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind, so what matters most is how we think.’ Dickens, Bishop Adrian noted, was a contemporarty of Darwin and Marx, and proved a philosophical counterpoint to them, balancing their systematic emphasis on scientific and economic structures with his own emphasis on personal stories of transformation. In our increasingly commodified world, where even our genes and organs have a price, where science and consumerism rule, where we have lost sight of values beyond the financial and where utilitarianism makes some people and places expendable, can art, philosophy or faith provide the counter-balance which Dickens provided in his generation? Can we still ‘think the unthinkable’ and reshape our values so that they reflect more than consumerism? Or, given that our economic system is predicated upon ever-increasing consumption, are we, as one member of the audience asked, greedy beyond the point of no return?
3. Be the Change
Finally, Bishop Adrian suggested that Dickens challenges each of us to begin with our own personal transformation. Structural or systemic change is important, be that through Occupy movements, legislation and regulation, community organising, political parties or NGO campaigns – but all of these forms of social transformation require first personal transformation, at the level of each individual. Social transformation is incarnational, the Bishop said – it happens from the inside out. Perhaps this is one of Dickens’ most powerful lessons for us; often mocked for his sentimentality, he did understand that personal transformation precedes social transformation.
So what does Dickens teach us today as we seek social transformation 200 years on? That we should follow Dickens’ lead in exposing poverty to full view; that we should challenge the prevailing ideology that governs almost every aspect of life; and that we should see transformation incarnationally, ‘from the inside out.’ We need personal transformation if we want to transform society and create a fairer world.
Questions from the audience ranged from the role of the Church in effecting personal and social transformation to the dynamics of global and local poverty today. Discussions continued over Fairtrade wine sponsored by La Riojana.
Discussions continued over Fairtrade wine generously sponsored by La Riojana.