Pilgrim’s Progress definitely qualifies as a book that every person who calls himself a Christian should read. The preacher Charles Spurgeon is reported to have read Pilgrim’s Progress 100 times! Spurgeon said he suspected that if John Bunyan were to be poked, he would bleed scripture. The story is a wonderful allegory which richly illustrates deep biblical truths, and Bunyan’s knowledge and understanding of the Bible is evident as he weaves so many ideas and terms from the Bible throughout his story.
A little background
Pilgrim’s Progress is not only an important religious text, but also a literary classic, and I believe any student of English literature should be familiar with it. (I recall in a college English Lit. class when we were reading the Victorian novel Vanity Fair, the teacher didn’t even mention where the novel’s title came from and how its meaning relates to the novel, which I thought was pretty sad.) Pilgrim’s Progress is the first work of its kind; it was written in a time when fictional writing was not common; there was no such thing as a novel yet. Allegory as a genre dates back to ancient times (Aesop’s Fables), and allegorical plays and poetry were common in the 14-16th centuries. But Bunyan’s allegory is a full-length story written in prose. In the 17th century, most reading was done for the purpose of instruction, not entertainment. Literature consisted primarily of religious works, history, science, and poetry. Some religious groups believed story-telling was a waste of time, and Bunyan was criticized for writing Pilgrim’s Progress because it was fictional. Since it was common for a writer to provide a defense or reason for what he wrote, Bunyan wrote a poetic “Apology” in which he gave his reasons for writing his story and why people should read it. In his Apology, he explains that God through the Old Testament prophets used story-telling, symbolism and metaphor to make a point, and even Jesus told stories to teach a lesson, so what he was doing was nothing new, nor was it wrong. He wrote the story for his own enjoyment, and when some suggested that he publish it so others could profit from it, he figured, why not? Besides, Bunyan argued, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.
During Bunyan’s life, England was going through a lot of political turmoil which affected the churches. Bunyan was a non-conformist minister and because he refused to preach according to government regulations (which were always changing), he was imprisoned on more than one occasion. It was while he was in jail that he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress (in 1678), as well as some of his other works, including his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Bunyan’s goal in writing Pilgrim’s Progress was to present Christian doctrine and truths in a way that was entertaining and memorable so it would be easily understood and remembered by the average layperson. Bunyan gives his metaphorical characters and places self-descriptive names, such as Worldly Wiseman, Evangelist, Faithful, Atheist, Doubting Castle, Celestial City, so his meaning is clearly conveyed to the reader. His descriptions and use of symbolism create a lasting impression in the reader’s mind. He has a way of taking an idea from Scripture and graphically bringing it to life.
The image Bunyan draws of Christian at the opening of story stays forever with the reader:
I had a dream in which I saw a man dressed in rags standing in a certain place and facing away from his own house. He had a Book in his hand and a great burden on his back. As I looked, I saw him open the Book and read out of it, and as he read he wept and trembled. Unable to contain himself any longer, he broke out with a sorrowful cry, saying, “What shall I do?”
When he tells his wife and children what’s been distressing him, saying, “Oh my dear Wife and Children… I’ve been reliably informed that our city will be burned with fire from Heaven…,” they think he’s crazy.
Here Bunyan depicts a man who, as a result of reading God’s Word, has become weighed down by the guilt of his sin and is afraid of impending judgment. And why is he wearing rags? A footnote references the verse in Isaiah that states, “all our righteousness is like filthy rags.” (Later, when Christian arrives at the Place of Deliverance, his burden falls from his back, and his rags are replaced by rich garments.) When he meets Evangelist, Christian again asks the all-important question, “What shall I do to be saved?” and Evangelist points him in the direction he should go.
And so Christian sets out on his journey to the Celestial City. Along the way he meets with various people and situations that sometimes help and at other times hinder his progress.
As Christian and the other characters share their experiences and discuss various issues along the journey, Bunyan uses their dialogue to communicate rich truths to the reader, almost like mini sermons. Anyone who isn’t a Christian or is unfamiliar with the Bible can enjoy and profit from reading Pilgrim’s Progress, but it definitely holds more meaning and instruction for the Christian reader.
A few ideas are repeated throughout the story that communicate spiritual truths clearly taught in the Bible. Probably the most prevalent and important theme is that there is only one right path – one way to heaven (see John 14:6). Every time Christian strays from this path, he gets himself into trouble. On one of these occasions, Evangelist rebukes Christian, “You have forsaken the Good Road, and you have begun to walk in forbidden paths…Take heed that you don’t turn aside again lest you perish from the Way.” When he arrives at the Wicket Gate, Goodwill instructs him,
Look in front of you. Do you see the Narrow Road? That is the way you must go…There are many paths adjacent to this one, and they are crooked and wide; but you can distinguish the right one from the wrong one because only the right one is straight and narrow.
On several occasions, Christian in turn warns others he meets that if they stray from the path or try to take a short cut, either they won’t reach the Celestial City or won’t be admitted.
Another truth which comes through is that the journey to heaven, ie. the life of a Christian, is not an easy one. Bunyan’s story reminds the Christian reader that he will certainly face various temptations, obstacles, distractions, and difficulties throughout life. At the very beginning, Christian’s own family refuses to listen to him or go with him. He tells his friends at the House Beautiful, “My wife was afraid of losing this world, and my children were carried away with the foolish delights of youth. So because of one thing or another, they left me to wander like this alone.” When Christian arrives at the Wicket Gate, Goodwill pulls him in, saying, “[Beelzebub] and those with him shoot arrows at those who come up to this Gate, hoping they’ll die before they can enter in.” The most obvious example of opposition Christian faces is Apollyon, who threatens Christian and announces, “I’m an enemy of this prince! I hate his person, his laws, and his people. I’ve come here to oppose you!” at which Christian must unsheathe his sword.
Bunyan also shows in his story that God always provides instruction, help and comfort along the way, through his Word and through His people.
By the way, Bunyan wrote a sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress which is about Christian’s wife, Christiana and their children, escorted by Greatheart, as they travel to the Celestial City to join Christian. There are various versions of Pilgrim’s Progress available on the market – the best ones include Bunyan’s footnotes with scripture references. Some readers may prefer a modern English edition if they find that the “Old King James” English bogs them down, but be sure to avoid abridged versions. My favorite version (the one I’ve quoted in this review) is The Modern English Edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, edited by L. Edward Hazelbaker and published by Bridge-Logos. There are also some children’s versions, notably a beautifully illustrated picture book entitled Dangerous Journey: The Story of Pilgrim’s Progress (by Oliver Hunkin), which we read to our children when they were little. The characters of Apollyon and Giant Despair made a memorable impression on them. The children’s version introduced them to the basic plot and characters so they were able to transition more easily to an unabridged version later on.Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Which part in the story did you found especially memorable or helpful to you as a depiction of the Christian walk?
- John Bunyan – Bio & Works (www.chapellibrary.org)
- Pilgrim’s Progress Conversations (www.bloggingtheologically.com)
- Charles Spurgeon – May We Bleed Bibline! (theoldguys.org)
- Heroes of History for Kids: John Bunyan (www.heroesofhistory.com)
- The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678) (theguardian.com)
- The Celestial Railroad by Nathaniel Hawthorne – a parody of Pilgrim’s Progress (www.online-literature.com)