An Encouragement for Your Theological Journey from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Series: The Lord and Literature 

by Ronni Kurtz August 30, 2021

Some of literature’s most loveable characters were born from Charles Dickens’ pen. From Tiny Tim to David Copperfield, Dickens has a way of developing characters that live on even when the book is closed. If ever there was a writer who embodied the ability to make readers fall in love with, feel real emotions for, and truly befriend those men and women who are not really there, it is “the Inimitable Boz.”

One such character that demands reader’s affection is Phillip Pirrip, or as he is better known, Pip, from Great Expectations.

Like many of Dickens’ protagonists, Pip is an orphaned boy who lives with his overbearing sister. Growing up in hard conditions, often alone, often mistreated, and spending his days on the marches or in a graveyard near his home, Pip dreamed of one day receiving a true education and the chance to become a “gentleman.” In today’s parlance, being a gentleman is not much to speak of—be kind to others, courteous, and maybe hold the door open for someone now and again. In Dickens’ day, however, this wasn’t the case. The word was used to describe someone who was educated, wealthy, and distinguished in society. In short, Pip wanted to trade his simple, common ways for the finer linen of a higher society.

Part of Pip’s journey towards becoming a gentleman was education. In his first few lessons, he began to read and write for the first time. This leads to an important scene towards the beginning of the novel in which Pip practices his penmanship by constructing a letter to his loving brother-in-law, and adopted father, Joe Gargery. Joe, an illiterate and uneducated blacksmith, can only read his name in the letter and becomes overjoyed at Pip’s educational development which gives way to praising the young student: “You’re a oncommon scholar,” says Joe, “oncommon” being Joe’s mispronunciation of “uncommon” and his declaration that Pip is of superb intellectual quality.

Pip, embarrassed and discontent with his state, downplays the compliment and retorts, “No, I am ignorant and backward, Joe…I have learnt next to nothing. You think much of me. It’s only that.”

It is at this juncture in the conversation that Mr. Joe Gargery espouses wisdom that is rich enough to not only encourage the fictional Pip, but all readers of Great Expectations for a hundred years to come, including me and you. Joe replies:

Well, Pip, be it so, or be it son’t, you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommone one, I should hope! The king upon his throne, with his crown upon his ‘ed, can’t sit and write his acts of Parliament in print, without having begun, when he were a unpromoted Prince, with the alphabet–Ah! And begun at A too, and worked his way to Z.

The advice lands on the distraught student and Pip reflects, “There was some hope in this piece of wisdom, and it rather encouraged me.”

Pip is not alone in his newfound encouragement in Joe’s advice. Sitting in a coffee shop, with Great Expectations in hand, I too found comfort in Joe’s words of wisdom. There’s a balm in Joe’s advice for the anxious soul, especially as it relates to our knowledge of the Lord.

When it comes to our knowledge of the things of God, most of us have an aspiration to advance in wisdom. We want to know our Bibles better, we want to know theology better, and most importantly, we want to know our God better. This itch we feel for advancing in theological wisdom is often agitated and compounded when comparison sets in. Our friends and peers, those who know more than we do or who have it easier in understanding Biblical or theological realities, can serve as consistent reminders of our intellectual shortcomings.

There’s always another study to do, another book to read, another lecture to attend, and the untouched and unread resources add up as evidence that you’re not smart enough, not disciplined enough, or just don’t want it bad enough. True understanding of theology always seems just out of reach and never comes within arm’s distance.

It is into this whirlwind of intellectual defeat that Mr. Gargery’s words interrupt with grace. No king on Earth ever composed a royal decree without first learning his alphabet. Likewise, no theologian ever constructed brilliant gospel-illuminating propositions without first learning Biblical building blocks.

Theology is a journey and what many of us need to hear is that where you begin on this journey is okay. Take heart, Christian, you’re not responsible for understanding all the depths of theology today; you’re called to simply be intellectually faithful. The life of the mind for the Christian is not jumping from one to ten at conversion, it is working hard to move from one to two. Your educated friends and those unfinished books on your shelf need not be signposts of your theological inadequacy. Instead, know that you’re justified by the person and work of Jesus, not how much you know about the person and work of Jesus. Out of that position of grace, with a posture of humility, you are free to begin the necessary steps of Christian intellectual faithfulness.

There is much joy to be had in the process of understanding the pages of the Bible or grasping theological concepts. We must not wish it away or miss the gift of grace along the way in our discontentment with where we are currently. God has revealed himself in such a way in which he desires to be known, and it is the great joy of the Christian to wade deeper into the waters of theological understanding.

May the encouragement of the ever-lovable Joe Gargery motivate us to abandon our intellectual embarrassment and enable us, wherever we may be on our theological journey, to take up and read.