The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
It is daunting to try to say something new about a book that is oft touted as the world's bestselling title, after the Bible. In the 300-plus years since John Bunyan published The Pilgrim's Progress, it has never been out of print. It has had a tremendous influence as both a work of religion, offering an accessible presentation of Protestant theology, and as a work of literature. Think of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (or the magazine), named after a location in the book. Or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which the girls recreate the pilgrim's quest in their own home.
For those not familiar with the book, it is a Christian allegory depicting the path of salvation through two pilgrimages. The first part, published in 1678, follows Christian, a man who has left his hometown, the City of Destruction (e.g. Earth), on a journey to the Celestial City (e.g. Heaven). Through reading the Bible, he has become burdened by the knowledge of his sinfulness. He is guided toward the Wicket-Gate (e.g. Christ) by the helpful Evangelist:
Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, "Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, "No." Then said the other, "Do you see younder shining light?" He said, "I think I do." Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."
So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ear and ran on crying, "Life, life, eternal life." So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
And so on, as Christian meets a variety of friends and foes and traverses a series of obstacles and sanctuaries. I must admit that at first, and at various times throughout the book, the allegory struck me as heavy-handed and naive. There is just something a bit childish about Christian being rescued from the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. But if the allegory is quaint or awkward at times, there are also passages of tremendous beauty and profundity. After Christian makes his way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and is joined by the aptly named Faithful, they encounter Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative is more attached to words of faith than faith itself, and Christian warns Faithful against this doomed path:
[Saying and doing] are two things indeed and are as diverse as are the soul and the body. For as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practice part...This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life, and let us assure ourselves that at the day of doom, men shall be judged according to their fruits. It will not be said then, 'Did you believe?' but, 'Were you doers or talkers only?' And accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit...
Dark though Christian's journey is, it ends well. But what of the wife and children left crying after him? Bunyan did not neglect them, and in the second part of the book, published in 1684, we follow them on a second pilgrimage. Inspired by her husband's efforts and ashamed of her treatment of him, Christiana sets out with her sons (and her neighbor, Mercy) along the same path her husband took. Though reflecting the antiquated 17th (and 18th and 19th and most of the 20th) century notion that women are the frailer sex and thus need a male escort (Great-Heart), this second part also highlights the spiritual needs and capabilities of women (as well as children, and the mentally and physically handicapped):
[W]hen the Saviour was come, women rejoiced in him before either man or angel., I read not that ever any man did give unto Christ so much as one groat, but the women followed him and ministered to him of their substance. 'Twas a woman that washed his feet with tears, and a woman that anointed his body to the burial. They were women that wept when he was going to the cross, and women that followed him from the cross, and that sat by his sepulchre when he was buried. They were women that was first with him at his resurrection morn, and women that brought tidings first to his disciples that he was risen from the dead. Women therefore are highly favoured and show by these things that they are sharers with us in the grace of life.
The second pilgrimage is warmer and more uplifting, reflecting the effect that widespread knowledge of Christian's journey has had on the countryside. In Vanity, the site of Faithful's dramatic execution as a martyr in the first part, a new era has dawned:
You know how Christian and Faithful were used at our town; but of late, I say, they have been far more moderate. I think the blood of Faithful lieth with load upon them till now; for since they burned him, they have been ashamed to burn any more. In those days, we were afraid to walk the streets, but now we can show our heads. Then the name of a professor was odious; now, specially in some parts of our town (for you know our town is large), religion is counted honourable.
The Pilgrim's Progress is a flawed, imperfect work. The allegory can be clunky and sometimes masks the underlying message. Bunyan's preaching is often strident, with Judaism and Catholicism coming under heavy attack, but it is clearly reflects a sincere espousal of his belief that salvation through faith alone is the one true path. The book should be required reading for its historical importance and literary influence, but as its enduring popularity suggests, it retains much to be appreciated in our own age.