I ran across an article on one of my favorite blogs that highlighted this book. A Modern Christmas Carol by Bob Seidensticker is a retelling of Dicken’s classic with an atheist twist to the story. It’s an independent novella and I’m all for stepping outside of the major publishers’ circles. As an added bonus, it’s a holiday-themed book. The result is a mixed bag both in terms of method and message.
Seidensticker writes the Cross Examined blog for the Patheos website. From what I’ve read of his posts, he makes solid, reasonable articles that question faith without haranguing faith. With this novel, the formula is laid out in the title and it does not deviate from its source material. The plotting is predictable. There are four ghosts (with each one taking on an appearance that mirrors the faults of the protagonist) and a lesson is learned by the end. Despite following the predetermined path, Seidensticker makes excellent use of the material to put across his message (more on that in a moment).
A Modern Christmas Carol has a Scrooge-like protagonist: Nathan, a slick televangelist. Seidensticker takes a bit to form Nathan for his audience through actions, internal dialogue (which is swiftly-written and doesn’t linger), and interactions with those around him. Nathan is portrayed as the consummate salesman and marketer of faith. This is the kind of man who considers how much return he can get off investing in charitable donations from his ministry. The character was instantly familiar to me. The character is drawn from snippets of real televangelists, particularly shills like Peter Popoff. Seidensticker uses Nathan to show the artificial nature of most televangelism, again using examples from real life to reveal some of the less savory aspects. The language used by the author is direct and without pretension.
The story is a mixed bag, however. While the writing is focused and crisp, the message is right on the nose. Seidensticker inserts more oblique atheist critiques in this novel than most books by other authors of this persuasion. Issues like the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness are presented, as a pair of examples. It’s during these moments when Nathan stops being a character and simply becomes a mouthpiece for the author. Even as an atheist myself I find the message to be heavy-handed.
The scenarios presented play out the actions of others as a consequence of Nathan’s ministry. Through reveals of present day people, Nathan and the reader are given a view of where the money for luxurious ministries comes from and where it goes. The human factor is on display through the emotional and mental repercussions arising from religious rhetoric. Through the ghosts, which are treated with a fair amount of ambiguity, the reader is given a glimpse of the ripples of Nathan’s current and prior decisions.
The ending does not occur how I thought it would when I started. One would expect the televangelist would come out as an ardent nonbeliever. Instead Nathan develops a more humanistic touch, understanding the impact of his decisions. Seidensticker could have easily written an anti-religious screed. There are times where it will read like that to a believer. It serves to poke holes at common apologetic arguments and fallacies used with regards to faith matters. The novella has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball slamming through a wall. The novella is not an incendiary diatribe, though. Seidensticker uses reason, civility, and honest inquiry to approach one of the most sensitive topics we have. I would recommend the book, especially to those who have questions, doubts, and are tired of easy answers. But if you’re a person of faith, this is definitely not going to be the book for you.