Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a landmark work in both Christian theology and English literature. Since its publication in 1678, it has encouraged countless Christians on their journey from this world to the next, and its impact on the literary tradition of England has been profound.
Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory in the purest sense of the word; everything in the book has a one-to-one correlation with a spiritual principle.
In part one, a man living in the City of Destruction becomes troubled by what he reads in a book (the Bible) and leaves his home, warning his scoffing family and neighbors that their city is going to be destroyed. He carries a heavy weight on his back and initially undertakes his journey to find a way to take it off.
Along the way he meets a man named Evangelist who speaks truth to him, but not all fellow travelers are so congenial. He meets with characters with names like Mr. Worldly-wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Timorous, Mistrust, and Wanton, as well as Apollyon (an archdevil) and the Giant Despair, among others. Through a landscape of theological traps and oases Christian (for that is now his name) must make his way ever onward to the Celestial City, sustained on his travels by the Lord of Pilgrims.
The second part recounts the story of Christiana, Christian’s wife, who eventually follows her husband’s path from the City of Destruction to eternal life in the Celestial City. In terms of sheer dramatic effect, part two is far inferior to part one; instead of fleeing her city in despair over its coming destruction, Christiana receives an invitation from the Lord of Pilgrims to join Him and her husband in His city.
She takes along her four sons and her handmaid Mercy, and they are aided on their journey by a Mr. Great-heart. There seems to be less action and more catechizing in this section of the book, but there are some valuable theological refinements as well. There are some pilgrims who probably wouldn’t have been considered worthy of pilgrimage in the first part, like Mr. Fearing, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Much-Afraid. These pilgrims are characterized by fear and weakness, but they are still loved by their Lord and they too eventually come to the Celestial City.
Nowadays I think there is an attitude of amused condescension that many feel towardPilgrim’s Progress because of its theological themes sticking out in plain sight under the see-through fictional covering. I know I felt that way… oh Bunyan, my dear man, you mean well but must you be so hamfisted? Can’t you cover things up a little more artistically, add some adornment to your catechismic dialogues?
Don’t you know that straight allegory is far, far out of fashion just now? But this was before I read it, before I understood the narrative power that can come from an author being completely honest about his themes and intentions. By stripping away every non-essential, Bunyan can get down to the theology while still working within his fictional frame. The result is rich doctrine with the immediacy of a gripping story — a heady mix that is very rarely imitated successfully.
And you can’t doubt the man’s sincerity. Bunyan knew what it meant to be persecuted; he started the book from a prison cell where he ultimately spent twelve years of his life, imprisoned for holding church services outside the bounds of the Church of England. His imprisonment was costly not just to him, but to his family. His message is given weight by his experiences — here is a man who knows what it means to be on pilgrimage through lands ruled by the enemy. Persecution is inevitable; Christians will suffer in this world. But equally true is our reward in the Celestial City, where our Lord Himself will welcome us home. What a hope, what a joy on our journey!
I have said that Pilgrim’s Progress is stripped down, but maybe a truer statement would be that our conceptions of the Christian life are covered in needless accretions that both complicate and hinder our journey. Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, the Valley of the Shadow of Death — these are universal places we all visit. Bunyan’s characters also have their counterparts in our world. Bunyan dramatizes the Christian life not to change it or present it as something it’s not, but to show us where our experience is deceptive. Things are clearer in the realm of allegory. If we have never had pilgrimage experiences like those of Christian, we ought to check that we’re on the right road and that we’ve come in through the right gate.
The language is beautiful and not at all hard to understand. It has its quaint 1678-isms, but for me they added to the flavor. In many places I just stopped to savor it. I read this with my adult Bible fellowship, and most people read a version that was updated with modern English. I wouldn’t advise that. The original writing is not that difficult, and while the updated version isn’t terrible, it does lack Bunyan’s indefinable force of language. Also there were some odd additions in the new version, theology I agreed with but that was not part of the original text. Hmm.
I had read an abridged version as a child which didn’t really grab me, but now I’m a pilgrim and have had some experience of the road. And now I see how powerful this story is and why it has informed the Christian imagination for centuries. In some sections I would just stop and marvel at Bunyan’s fantastic theology and fertile imagination. And it doesn’t hurt that the narrative is soaked in Scripture! Of Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon said, “‘Prick him anywhere, his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is FULL of the Word of God.'” I couldn’t get enough of it; who knew that Pilgrim’s Progress could induce late-night reading vigils? I will certainly be rereading this!
In the “apology” poem at the beginning, Bunyan writes, “this book will make a traveler of thee.” Indeed it will.