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Journeying to the Celestial City

06 March 2015

Alison Shell provides a road map for our progress as pilgrims


Heavenly journey: engraving of John Bunyan's dream by J. Rogers (1846)

Heavenly journey: engraving of John Bunyan's dream by J. Rogers (1846)

IF JOHN BUNYAN had been a contemporary of ours, he might have conceived his classic allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), as a computer game. His story has enough monsters, giants, and fantastic landscapes to please the most ardent gamer, and invites readerly role-play at every turn. As we pass through Bunyan's narrative step by step, and encounter his graphic renditions of good and evil, we gradually assume a heroic per- sona in an imaginative endeavour that carries through into everyday life.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator - perhaps to be identified with Bunyan himself - tells us, "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream." In this dream, a "man clothed with rags" is reading a book, and weeping and lamenting as he reads. The book is the Bible, and the reader is Bunyan's protagonist, Christian. The conversion he is undergoing would have been considered exemplary by a Puritan of Bunyan's era: one where the full extent of human sinfulness was borne in on the convert, who is then brought to realise his utter dependence on God's grace.

But salvation is not just instantaneous. If God's grace is truly working within someone, it will fortify him to continue on the strenuous path of righteousness; which is why Christian has to go on a pilgrimage. The burden that he carries on the journey stands for the weight of sin that he, in common with all humanity, has to bear; when it falls off at the foot of Christ's cross, readers are as relieved as if they had been carrying it themselves.

This episode prefigures the conclusion, in which Christian and his friend Hopeful cross a deep river and leave "their mortal garments behind them". After all their trials, they can be welcomed into the Celestial City and united with God.

Christian's one-time travelling companion Ignorance is not so blessed. Of his fate, Bunyan's narrator comments laconically: "Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven."

The various ways to hell within the moral landscape of The Pilgrim's Progress have long haunted the English consciousness, most famously in Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair. But perhaps the episode where Christian and Hopeful are trapped by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle best exemplifies the difficulties with which Christians struggled in Bunyan's own time. The ruthless logic of Calvinist theology did indeed drive many of Bunyan's co-religionists to desperation, while free-thinkers were beginning to ask tricky questions of orthodox Christianity.

Getting to grips with one of the tougher Christian classics is, for many, a productive Lenten task. Few are so tough as The Pilgrim's Progress, not because it is unapproachable - Bunyan's is some of the most lucid writing in the English language, and wonderful to read aloud - but because the book's moral and spiritual mercilessness is hard to take. Given that, in our era, most Christian denominations tend to downplay the idea of a judgemental God, readers of The Pilgrim's Progress might feel that the end of Part I does not quite see off Giant Despair.

BUNYAN, however, clearly mellowed in the six years before the sequel, published in 1684. Perhaps - like so many Calvinist pastors before and since - he found too fierce an approach to human failings pastorally problematic.

Part II narrates the story of how Christian's wife Christiana - whom he walked out on in Part I - also receives a call to salvation and follows her husband, together with her children and a motley crew of other pilgrims, including Great-heart, Valiant, Feeble-mind, and Despondency. Though their spiritual shortcomings are as keenly exposed as anything in Part I, Bunyan's tone is less dismissive by far: weakness is treated constructively, as providing an avenue for God's grace to operate. As a shepherd boy sings to the pilgrims in the Valley of Humiliation: "He that is down need fear no fall; He that is low, no pride; He that is humble, ever shall Have God to be his guide."

Bunyan's "Who would true valour see" - another of the many poems in Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress - is well-known as a hymn. Its modern rewriting by Percy Dearmer is often condemned as colourless, especially in its change of "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend Can daunt his spirit" to "Since, Lord, Thou dost defend Us with Thy spirit". Yet Dearmer's change, in the last verse, from the third person to the first, exhorting himself and the hymn's singers to persevere in the Christian life, brilliantly captures the spirit of The Pilgrim's Progress: "Then fancies flee away! I'll fear not what men say, I'll labour night and day To be a pilgrim."

IN A story that has retained its archetypal power through three-and-a-half centuries, Bunyan does indeed challenge his readers to make his pilgrims' journey their own.

Dr Alison Shell is Professor of English at University College, London.


The Pilgrim's Progress - Some questions

How, if at all, does Christian change over the course of his pilgrimage?

What do you think of Bunyan's naming of his characters?

Bunyan's narrative uses many forms other than simple prose - poetry, dramatic dialogue, and lists, for example. How did this affect your reading of the book?

With which of Christian and Christiana's experiences do you most identify?

What do you think of Bunyan's choosing to present The Pilgrim's Progress "under the similitude of a dream"?

What do you think about the end of Part I? Should it have finished with the fall of Ignorance?

Do you prefer one Part of the book to the other? Why?

What does The Pilgrim's Progress have to say about fellowship and evangelism? Do you agree with it?

"One may, I think, say, Both his laughs and cries, May well be guess'd at by his watery eyes." What do you think of the book's tone?

How far does the book accord with your idea of pilgrimage, or of the Christian life in general?

Coleridge wrote that The Pilgrim's Progress "is one of the very few books which may be read over repeatedly at different times, and each time with a new and different pleasure". Do you agree?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 April, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Children of Men by P. D. James. It is published by Faber at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-57125-341-8.

Book notes
In the year 2021, England languishes under the rule of a despotic Warden. No child has been born for two decades; in this ominous atmosphere, the old are despairing, and the young are cruel. Theo (a cousin of the Warden) is an Oxford professor living a solitary life, until a chance encounter with a young woman brings him into contact with a group of dissenters who want him to help overthrow the Warden. His life is changed irrevocably, as he faces agonising decisions that could affect the future of the whole human race.

Author notes
P. D. James (Baroness James of Holland Park) was an award-winning British crime writer, best known for her series of detective novels featuring the police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh; and for Death comes to Pemberley, and The Murder Room. A lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society, she died in November 2014, aged 94.

Books for the next two months:
May: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
June: Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive by Ben Thompson (editor)

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