One of the challenges of a proper doctrine of vocation — God’s care for all types of work, their importance, their value, their biblical dignity — is that it so easily slips into a warped, sinful, selfish doctrine.  This shouldn’t surprise us, of course.  Though vocation find its origin in Genesis 2, in the Garden of Eden, before there was sin, we work out our vocations under the curse of Genesis 3.  Our vocations, then, are marred by self, more particularly by selfishness, our twisting of a good doctrine into a curse on others.  Seventy years ago Dorothy Sayers wrote:

The modern tendency seems to be to identify work with gainful employment; and this is, I maintain, the essential heresy at the back of the great economic fallacy that allows wheat and coffee to be burned and fish to be used for manure while whole populations stand in need of food.  The fallacy is that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.  A very bale surgeon put it to me like this: “What is happening,” he said, “is that nobody works for the sake of getting the thing done.  The result of the work is a by-product; the aim of the work is to make money to do something else.  Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living–the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way.  Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession that enables them to live.”[i]

I have just finished reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens, all 1037 pages in my Penguin edition.  Dickens was clearly paid by the word, as his piles of adjectives attest.  Nonetheless, he was a keen observer of his day, weaving together the best of redemptive themes and an acute view of his society’s failings.  Bleak House may be, as Chesterton is said to have described it, “not Dickens’ best book, but perhaps his best novel,” and it fits squarely in his critique of Victorian individualism and self-interest, the twisting of vocation into self.  He shows us Sayers’ concern in vivid relief.

Dickens’ primary target in Bleak House is the Court of Chancery, an institution that dated back to the reign of Richard II.  Chancery governed the distribution of wills, and it followed precedent, not written law, meaning that legal arguments and complexities–and therefore disputes–abounded.  No disputant could bring his or her case directly to Chancery, as it would only address written evidence, and this necessitated the employment of a solicitor for any petition, great or small, and for any response to any other petition, great or small.  These solicitors employed clerks and barristers, followed elaborate copying and documentation procedures, and took regular holidays.  The inefficiency was staggering.  Further, all court costs were paid out of the disputed estate before any heirs could access the funds or properties, and so long as the wills were disputed, all assets in the estate were off limits.  Families crumbled into penury while great family estates were steadily whittled away, consumed by the legal fees.

If Dickens’ primary target was Chancery, the primary tragedy of the story is doubtless Richard Carstone, a young ward of the Chancery, tied up in the proceedings of a particularly valuable estate, a case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  With a financial interest in the outcome, Richard falls more and more under the spell of riches, trusting that Chancery will rule in his favor, providing him the security and resource that he is unable to build himself.  He descends through the novel from a carefree, though irresponsible, likeable young man into a hollowed-out shell of his former self.  Dickens writes, “Richard, more worn and haggard, haunted the Court day after day; listlessly sat there the whole day long, when he knew there was no remote chance of the suit being mentioned; and he became one of the stock sights of the place.”[ii]  Indeed, the pursuit of success in Chancery destroys Richard, costing him his very life.  Richard gains not a penny from the suit, and he loses everything, dying before he can even see his child.  The tragedy of Bleak House is that Chancery destroys a young man.  No single historical precedent for Dickens’ plot can be identified, simply because there were too many.

Possibly the deeper tragedy of Bleak House is that Chancery also destroys its practitioners.  Mr. Tulkinghorn’s shocking demise pivots the plot, but few Chancery lawyers meet their demise in such violence.  Instead, they sink into the life of a leech.  Richard employs one Mr. Vholes as his lawyer, a seemingly second-rate choice, but what Richard can afford.  Dickens is unsparing, both to man and vocation:

Mr. Vohles is a very respectable man.  He has not a large business, but he is a very respectable man.  He is allowed by the greater attorneys who have made good fortunes, or are making them, to be a most respectable man.  He never misses a chance in his practice; which is a mark of respectability.  He never takes any pleasure; which is another mark of respectability.  He is reserved and serious; which is another mark of respectability.  His digestion is impaired, which is highly respectable.  And he is making hay of the grass which is flesh, for his three daughters.  And his father is dependent on him in the Vale of Taunton.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.  There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.  Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it.  Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.[iii]

Vohles is always devoted to nothing other than his clients’ interest:

I am to attend to your interests.  I am to be found here, day by day, attending to your interests.  This is my duty, Mr. C; and term time or vacation makes no difference to me.  If you wish to consult me as to your interests, you will find me here at all times alike.  Other professional men go out of town.  I don’t.  Not that I blame them for going; I merely say, I don’t go.  This desk is your rock, sir![iv]

Except–of course–that it is never actually so.  Of all Dickens’ caricatures, Mrs. Snagsby, Mrs. Jellyby, Old Mr. Tuveydrop, even the legendary packrat Krook himself, Vholes may be the least likeable in the whole book.

Even the better of the Chancery lawyers are tainted in Dickens’ vision.  Kenge rationalizes, “We are a prosperous community, Mr. Jarndyce, a very prosperous community.  We are a great country, Mr. Jarndyce, we are a very great country.  This is a great system, Mr. Jarndyce, and would you wish a great country to have a little system?  Now, really, really!”[v]

More fully woven together, Dickens’ entire plot emphasizes that Jarndyce and Jarndyce destroys everyone it touches.  This is John Jarndyce’s point again and again.  Lady Dedlock is undone.  Miss Barbary, the epitome of coldness.  Tulkinghorn dead.  Sir Dedlock lapsed into incoherence.  Snagsby’s marriage.  Ada widowed and her child without a father.  Jo sick and dead.  When Jarndyce and Jarndyce finally ends, only the law has profited, yet again.  For the Chancery, Dickens summarizes, “With a great many people, in a great many instances, the question is never one of a change from Wrong to Right (which is quite an extraneous consideration), but is always one of injury or advantage to that eminently respectable legion, Vholes.”[vi]

The implications today seem obvious.  We watch too many representatives and senators of both parties who care only for re-election, not to govern well.  In 1991 Václav Havel, the Czech dissident later elected president, spoke when he received the Sonning Prize for contributions to European civilization.  He focused on those who “are starting to lose their battle with the temptations of power.” Politicians, he said, soon learn how easy it is to justify staying in power even as they give up bits of their soul in the process. It is easier than they think, he said, to get “morally tainted.”[vii]  Dickens reminds us, though, that these insidious temptations are hardly unique to politics.  Lawyers do their work to charge, not to pursue justice, as Sayers warned.  Doctors start to work not to heal, but to bill.  Insurers work to profit, not to provide security.  Businesses run to wring out the last possible cent, not to serve a customer well.

This is no rant against capitalism.  A return on investment is a good and necessary thing, the cost of capital which ensures an efficient system.  But it is too easy for us to baptize the American dream with a Christian sprinkling, to twist doctrine of vocation and make it an excuse for selfishness.  We take the very real truth of God’s care for–and value of–all vocations and we twist it into a justification to pursue an easy, self-serving life.

Paul suggests the Christian life as an antithesis to this attitude:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Ephesians 4:17–28, ESV)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. …  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:1–4:1, ESV)

In this Dickens does not leave us hopeless.  If the song of Bleak House is a sad, depressing melody, John Jarndyce is the counterpoint.  John Jarndyce, Esther’s guardian is, as Nabokov says, “one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel.”[viii]

John Jarndyce is part of the case but not consumed by it.  He alone sees Jarndyce and Jarndyce for what it is, a trap and a curse.  And his clarity of sight frees him from bondage to the case.  He warns Esther, Ada, and Richard, but only Esther is able to fully hear him.  Even Ada is sucked into Richard’s maelstrom, though more out of love than greed.  Jarndyce himself, though, is one of the most selfless characters in literature.  He uses his own fortune to house, feed, nurture, and protect those consumed by the case, the “family curse.”  By the end of the book, we see his self-sacrifice, putting the good of Esther above his own.  With John Jarndyce, Dickens reminds us that there is another way.

[i] Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos,” Letters to a Diminished Church.  Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004. 68-9.

[ii] Charles Dickens, Bleak House. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 936.

[iii] IBID 621.

[iv] IBID 625.

[v] IBID 950.

[vi] IBID 623.

[vii] Václav Havel.  Note that some of this phrasing is borrowed from my friend Pete Wehner.

[viii] Vladimir Nabokov, “Bleak House”, Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. 90.


An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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