Allison's Book Bag

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Posted on: November 6, 2011

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan was once the most widely read and translated book in the English language apart from the Bible. Protestant missionaries translated it first thing after the Bible. In the days of westward expansion in the United States, early settlers often owned only two books: the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress. While these days it mostly appears only on lists of top Christian books to read, I grew up with a copy in my Children’s Illustrated Classic series. Moreover, while many of my childhood favorites are no longer available, today I can still easily buy or borrow a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress. If you are not already familiar with The Pilgrim’s Progress, that I keep mentioning it along with the Bible tells you it is Christian in nature. It is an allegory about the Christian journey. Given that, what explains the endurance of The Pilgrim’s Progress?

At its core is a thrilling story. The first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress is about Christian, who undertakes a dangerous journey. Carrying a burden of sin, Christian leaves behind his family and friends to seek deliverance from an impending judgment on his city. Christian meets Evangelist (characters are helpfully named after their traits) who advises Christian to follow the yonder light until he comes to the wicket gate. There, Christian will receive further instructions. While the beacon of a lighthouse might guide a ship through a storm and into the harbor, this doesn’t mean the journey is without strife. The same holds true for Christian. Despite a light to guide his way to the wicket gate, he faces interference from neighbors, a miry slough, and a hill so high that it seems insurmountable. Our hero eventually does reach the wicket gate, but it is like the first leg in a race. Christian must overcome many more dangers if he is to reach his final destination. Some seem simple enough, such as rainstorms. Others are more life-threatening such as the battle in the Valley of Humiliation with the dragon Apollyon, imprisonment by the Giant Despair in the Doubting Castle, a trek though the Enchanted Ground where Christian faces the temptation of eternal sleep, and the River of Death where Christian flounders in the water.

This first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in 1678. The second part appeared in 1684 and is about Christian’s wife and sons. They undertake a similar journey to Christian after a visitor delivers a note from the Lord, written in letters of gold, inviting Christina to come to the Celestial City. Regretting that she hadn’t accompanied her husband, Christina sets off with her sons and a neighbor named Mercy. With this second part, John Bunyan doesn’t simply recreate his original tale, but imagines new adventures that might happen to other pilgrims. For example, after the women gain entrance at the wicket gate, they are accosted by two villains who attempt to rape them. At a later time, Christina’s sons (who are mentioned so infrequently that sometimes I forget about them) eat fruit from Beelzebub’s garden and one gets deathly sick. The two women also receive help on their journey from Great-Heart, who fights off and even kills giants and monsters for them. Okay, this part sounds similar to our aforementioned hero’s journey. By now, you might also be thinking that both parts are simply one danger after another, when that is simply not true. Christina’s sons and Mercy find marriage. We also meet some new types of pilgrims, with whom many of us probably readily identify, such as Mr. Fearing who is weak in faith. There is also Mr. Feeble Mind and Mr. Right Halt, who represent the weak in mind and weak in body.

Besides being a thrilling tale, The Pilgrim’s Progress is also an allegory about the Christian journey. Christian and his family live in the City of Destruction, a place which symbolizes our sinful world that has no hope of salvation. To be relieved of his burden of sin and woe, Christian seeks out the wicket gate and knocks on it. Christian is sent on a journey, throughout which he must stay on the straight and narrow path, towards the Celestial City. If Christian reaches it, he will enjoy eternal life with God and heavenly beings. Yet along the way there are many temptations even from seemingly-innocent people. For example there are those who live by the Ten Commandments but unfortunately encourage Christian to settle in their Town of Morality. Individuals like Evangelist, who talks like a spiritual tract, come to his rescue and keep Christian on the straight and narrow. Not everything on a pilgrim’s journey is dark. Just outside the Interpreter’s House is the Cross. Here, Christian’s burden of sin and woe is removed from him. He receives instead new raiment and a parchment roll which will serve kind of as a passport into heaven when he reaches the pearly gates. There are also places of excellent sights and rest such as Palace Beautiful, the Delectable Mountains, and Country of Beulah. Too often for my taste, there are the moral passages. For example, when Christina and her sons meet Prudence, she catechizes them for four pages. Sometimes this Christian classic felt like being in at everlasting church service, which is the main fault I find in this otherwise epic tale.

As such, I wrestled with what recommendation to give. John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress for Christians. While other religious allegories such as The Chronicles of Narnia appeal to general audiences too, I am not sure that  The Pilgrim’s Progress would appeal to anyone but Christians. In reading about his life story to prepare my daily teasers, it also seems as if  The Pilgrim’s Progress is a reflection of Bunyan’s own realization that the Christian life is a journey that can be fraught with strife while also having moments of joy. For this reason, despite the old English, I think that it is an important and encouraging book for Christians to read.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

P.S. If you find the language of  The Pilgrim’s Progress daunting, you might try Dangerous Journey, a version of The Pilgrim’s Progress prepared by Oliver Hunkin and published by Eerdmans in 1985. I’m still waiting to borrow it from my local library, but this is the version my adolescent sister read and enjoyed. Having read both her copy and the original version, my dad also recommends it.

1 Response to "The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan"

A fine summary and evaluation of a Christian classic! Unfortunately today The Pilgrim’s Progress fits Mark Twain’s description of a classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Hopefully your review will encourage some of your readers to read it, either in its original form or in an adaptation such as Dangerous Journey, so that they can both enjoy the story and benefit from the lessons it presents on the Christian life.

“As such, I wrestled with what recommendation to give. John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress for Christians. While other religious allegories such as The Chronicles of Narnia appeal to general audiences too, I am not sure that The Pilgrim’s Progress would appeal to anyone but Christians. In reading about his life story to prepare my daily teasers, it also seems as if The Pilgrim’s Progress is a reflection of Bunyan’s own realization that the Christian life is a journey that can be fraught with strife while also having moments of joy. For this reason, despite the old English, I think that it is an important and encouraging book for Christians to read.”

I appreciate the struggle that you had with what recommendation to give to The Pilgrim’s Progress. Although knowing its high reputation and being a Christian, I didn’t finish my first reading of it and on subsequent readings skimmed through some of its longer exhortations. However reading Dangerous Journey made me realize that it is, as you put it, “a thrilling tale.” And working through the original in preparation for our family discussion of it made me realize how much it has to say about the Christian life. Thus I agree wholeheartedly with your concluding that The Pilgrim’s Progress “is an important and encouraging book for Christians to read.”

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