Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2008).

imagesAs I do every semester, I am about to kick of my “Western Civilization since 1500” course with two weeks of lectures on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Written by an English tinker who was in prison for preaching the Baptist religion, Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of a man named Christian who flees the City of Destruction and goes through a series of adventures on his way to the Celestial City. Among other things, his friends Obstinate and Pliable try to convince him to turn back, he falls into the Slough of Despond, is shown the way by Evangelist, and must defend himself against the fiery arrows of Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. The allegory is very thinly veiled and Bunyan’s message is clear (at least, that’s what I thought before I set an exam on it. What some undergraduates don’t understand from this book would blow your mind).

I grew up with this story from the time I saw my first picture book about Christian’s quest and it reflects my own spiritual journey better than any other book I have ever read. Any evangelical, I think, will easily find him or herself in Christian’s struggles with temptation, the encouragement he gets from reading the Bible, the miraculous aid provided by Help and the Interpreter, the joy of Faithful and Hopeful’s companionship, and the feeling of profound alienation he discovers in Vanity Fair. But since I have been teaching on it I have discovered ways of looking at the text that I had never expected. Here are three things that you probably don’t know about Pilgrim’s Progress:

1) It is a revolutionary book. The great historian of the English working class, E. P. Thompson (1924-1993) wrote that alongside Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), Bunyan’s tale is “one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement.” But apart from reminding us how incredibly popular it was, Thompson never explains what it was about the book that made it revolutionary. Here are some thoughts: As a young man Bunyan fought with the Republican armies against the king in the English civil wars from 1644 to 1647. Here he probably came across the radical ideas of the Levellers (who demanded universal suffrage) and one of his close friends was a Fifth Monarchist (who believed that Christ would soon come to destroy the secular monarchy). We see hints of these ideas when Apollyon refuses to let Christian leave “his realms.” Christian replies: “I was born indeed in your dominions, but your service was hard, and your wages such as a man could not live on, for the wages of sin is death; therefore when I was come to years, I did as other considerate persons do, look out, if perhaps I might mend my self.” This is the earliest Christian text I know of which expresses rejecting the devil using such political language. When Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke about throwing off the devil who was an evil ruler he argued that God had to defeat Satan to free the Christian. In Bunyan’s story Christian rejects the devil simply because he thinks it is a good thing to do. Add to this the passionate condemnations of promiscuity (King Charles II was famous for his womanizing), Bunyan’s disdain for people who change their religious ideas (England’s reformation had involved converting from Catholicism to Protestantism to Catholicism to Protestantism to a different form of Protestantism), and his scorn for formal and external religion (officials from the Church of England had put him in prison) and you have a book that would warm the heart of any poor laborer who was disillusioned with the government of the rich and powerful.

2) It is a poor man’s book. It is amazing how many of the positive characters in the book are poor, such as the shepherds who live with their sheep or the homeless wanderers Faithful and Hopeful, while so many of the evil characters are wealthy and important. From Mr. Worldy Wiseman to the merchants at Vanity Fair anyone who has money or who even understands the legal system is headed directly to hell. Christian describes anyone who would run after money as “an Enemy to the right ways of the Lord of this way.” Anyone who wanted to get ahead in Restoration England had to become part of the Anglican Church, and Bunyan mocks characters like Hypocrisy and Formalist whose religion was socially acceptable to the upper classes.

3) It is a book about grace. If you just read part one you might be forgiven for thinking that only adventurous and courageous pilgrims ever make it to the Celestial City. Bunyan fights monsters, faces lions, is almost killed by giants and narrowly escapes death at the hands of an angry mob. But in part two we see Christian’s wife, Christiana, and her three boys travelling to the Celestial City together with a woman named Mercy who is prone to fainting fits, and the weak and sickly Mr. Feeble-Mind. This group could never overcome the challenges before them alone, and God provides Mr. Greatheart who fights the giants for them. The message of the second part of the book is that you don’t have to be brave to be a pilgrim – just trusting and resolute. God looks after the women just as he looked after Christian, and ultimately they reach the Celestial City because He wants them to, not because of any merits of their own.

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One thought on “Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Your insight is remarkable. I must read Bunyan again as I now have a much deeper appreciation and understanding of what the book is all about.

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