A Jane Austen Devotional and A Charles Dickens Devotional (Thomas Nelson, 2012) are beautiful books. When I received my copies in the mail, I was delighted by the lovely, understated cover art—a pastoral scene on the Austen volume and some calligraphic quotations on the Dickens—as well as by the size, perfect for holding comfortably in one or two hands. As a bonus, there’s a ribbon marker in each book, which is always fun.
When I opened the books, I continued to be pleased. The layout is attractive, with a passage from one of the novels on the left-hand page and the devotional reading on the right. I was happy to see that both books represent all of the major novels of both authors, a point on which I was particularly skeptical when I first heard about these books. I was worried that all of the quotations would be from Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist and that they would be very short and taken egregiously out of context. So far, however, during the week or so that I’ve been using these books in my personal devotions, I’ve read and enjoyed substantial quotations from less hyped works such as Northanger Abbey and Dombey and Son.
And yes, you read that right; I’m breaking a cardinal rule of book reviewing by writing and posting this review before finishing the books. But in the case of a devotional book, which is meant to be read in small pieces and has no narrative flow, I think that rule can justifiably be broken. Still, I’m hoping that some of the less positive observations I’m about to make may be proven wrong as I continue through the books. If that happens, I will be sure to revisit this post and make changes in the spirit of fairness and charity, which both Jane and Charles would no doubt approve.
I said that the quotations from the novels are well-chosen, and this is true. I am less satisfied, however, with the quality of the devotional readings. I’m finding them a little shallow, especially in the Dickens volume. I haven’t encountered any heretical doctrine, of course, and I’ve only run across one clearly misinterpreted Bible verse (it was removed from its context). But when I read the devotions, I get the impression that I’m listening to a very short sermon into which the preacher is determined to incorporate as many individual scripture verses as possible. I tend to prefer an expository style as opposed to a topical one, and these books are very, very topical. And it’s virtually impossible to do justice to any topic in just one page, which has very wide margins.
The reasons why the Dickens volume might be a bit weaker than the Austen volume are twofold. One is the coverage issue: Dickens wrote a lot of books, and some of them lend themselves more aptly than others to a life-lessons style of interpretation (A Christmas Carol is a gold mine; Pickwick Papers, perhaps not so much). I’m happy that the person selecting the excerpts was determined to represent a large sampling of the Dickens canon, but sometimes that determination leads the reader into odd places. The other reason is that unlike Austen, who was a clergyman’s daughter, Dickens wasn’t exactly an orthodox Christian. He was often critical of the church, and his doctrines skewed a bit toward the Unitarian. (Note: That statement is based solely upon my own observations, and I’m not a theologian.) Dickens’s novels contain many biblical motifs and symbols, which would make a fascinating book, but it wouldn’t be a devotional book.
Conclusion: If you are a lover of Austen and/or Dickens, buy the book(s). At the very least, they will look nice on your shelves. You will also enjoy revisiting some of your favorite characters and locations in all of literature (if you’re like me, that is). If you want to incorporate the books into your personal devotions, plan to use them as a jumping-off point for excursions deeper into Scripture. For example, I’ve been looking up the verses cited in the text and reading them in their surrounding context. I’m finding it to be a rewarding venture. Oh, and make sure you read the introduction(s). So far, my favorite part of either book has been a sentence toward the end of the Jane Austen introduction.