Book Review: Pilgrim’s Progress

Title:  Pilgrim’s Progress

Author: John Bunyan

Published: 1992, (256 pages)

Reviewer: Charlie

Comments:

I went round and round in my head on how I should review this wonderful book.  I have decided to post the narrative description from Wikipedia, and add my comments in the quote boxes as I go along.  This way, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel of summarizing this age-old story, and  yet can pepper it with my own thoughts so as to keep it from being a “canned” response.

Background:

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian allegory written by John Bunyan and published in February, 1678. It is regarded as one of the most significant works of English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print

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Christian, an everyman character, is the protagonist of the allegory, which centers itself in his journey from his hometown, the “City of Destruction” (“this world”), to the “Celestial City” (“that which is to come”: Heaven) atop Mt. Zion. Christian is weighed down by a great burden, the knowledge of his sin, which he believed came from his reading “the book in his hand,” (the Bible). This burden, which would cause him to sink into Tophet (hell), is so unbearable that Christian must seek deliverance. He meets Evangelist as he is walking out in the fields, who directs him to the “Wicket Gate” for deliverance. Since Christian cannot see the “Wicket Gate” in the distance, Evangelist directs him to go to a “shining light,” which Christian thinks he sees.[6] Christian leaves his home, his wife, and children to save himself: he cannot persuade them to accompany him. Obstinate and Pliable go after Christian to bring him back, but Christian refuses. Obstinate returns disgusted, but Pliable is persuaded to go with Christian, hoping to take advantage of the paradise that Christian claims lies at the end of his journey. Pliable’s journey with Christian is cut short when the two of them fall into the Slough of Despond. It is there that Pliable abandons Christian after getting himself out. After struggling to the other side of the bog, Christian is pulled out by Help, who has heard his cries.

“As you can see, this is an allegorical story.  It is very plainly so, with characters named after their character traits.  This makes it simple enough to be used as a teaching tool to children, yet useful to adults as we relate actual life-experiences to the examples set forth in the book.

For instance here, Pliable is used to represent someone who might like and identify with Christianity at first glance, but when they going gets tough turns back.  In biblical terms, this might well be represented by Jesus’ parable of the plant that does grow up, but is then choked out by the weeds (the worries of life.)”

On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian is diverted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman into seeking deliverance from his burden through the Law, supposedly with the help of a Mr. Legality and his son Civility in the village of Morality, rather than through Christ, allegorically by way of the Wicket Gate. Evangelist meets the wayward Christian as he stops before Mount Sinai on the way to Legality’s home. It hangs over the road and threatens to crush any who would pass it. Evangelist shows Christian that he had sinned by turning out of his way, but he assures him that he will be welcomed at the Wicket Gate if he should turn around and go there, which Christian does.

“This particular passage reminds me of the myriad of churches that dot the landscape of America, where many a hapless victim will enter, and instead of being presented with the gospel of grace, will be taught to buy a suit, put their wife in a long dress, get a KJV, learn how to “obey the rules” and look down on those who do otherwise.”

At the Wicket Gate begins the “straight and narrow” King’s Highway, and Christian is directed onto it by the gatekeeper Good Will. In the Second Part, Good-will is shown to be Jesus himself. To Christian’s query about relief from his burden, Good Will directs him forward to “the place of deliverance.”

“He is being shown to the cross.”

Christian makes his way from there to the House of the Interpreter, where he is shown pictures and tableaux that portray or dramatize aspects of the Christian faith and life. Roger Sharrock denotes them “emblems.”

“In this section, Christian is shown these dramatizations that represent they way people really are.  It is like our modern day “Judgment House.”  So in this case we actually have an allegory within an allegory.”

From the House of the Interpreter, Christian finally reaches the “place of deliverance” (allegorically, the cross of Calvary) where the “straps” that bound Christian’s burden to him break, and it rolls away into the open sepulchre. This event happens relatively early in the narrative: the immediate need of Christian at the beginning of the story being quickly remedied. After Christian is relieved of his burden, he is greeted by three shining ones, who give him the greeting of peace, new garments, and a scroll as a passport into the Celestial City — these are allegorical figures indicative of Christian Baptism.

“Here, with Christian being relieved of his burden, it reminded me of how I found when I was saved at the age of nine.  It fits well with the description of so many, who tell of how they felt forgiven, as if a weight were lifted off their shoulders.  This is symbolized literally in Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Atop the Hill of Difficulty, Christian makes his first stop for the night at the House Beautiful, which is an allegory of the local Christian congregation. Christian spends three days here, and leaves clothed with armour (Eph. 6:11-18), which stands him in good stead in his battle against Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. This battle lasts “over half a day” until Christian manages to wound Apollyon with his two-edged sword (a reference to the Bible, Heb. 4:12). “And with that Apollyon spread his dragon wings and sped away.”

“This is one of the most dramatic battles of the story.  Apollyon first tempts Christian to abandon his pilgrimage and return to the City of Destruction.  He tempts him by telling him he will raise his wages and give him his heart’s desire if he will turn back.  This is reminiscent of Jesus’ temptation in the desert when Satan offers Him the kingdoms of this world.  After that tactic fails, Apollyon then tries to guilt Christian into giving up, reminding him of where he had failed before in the Slough of Despond.  But when none of that works, he attacks him.  Christian deflects some of his fiery darts with his shield (the shield of faith), but does get wounded.  They fight it out until Christian finally defeats him.

Despite the fantastical nature of the battle, it does bring to mind the many times we as Christians would be without hope if it were not for what God arms up with for battle. (Our faith, our salvation, our bible, truth, etc.)  These types of weapons are manifested physically in this story.”

As night falls Christian enters the Valley of the Shadow of Death. When he is in the middle of the valley amidst the gloom and terror he hears the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, spoken possibly by his friend Faithful:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalms 23:4.)

As he leaves this valley the sun rises on a new day.

“This is meant to symbolize when we are at the lowest of our lows; when it seems there is no way out.  Certainly King David gave us many of his lamenting psalms to identify with here.”

Just outside the Valley of the Shadow of Death he meets Faithful, also a former resident of the City of Destruction, who accompanies him to Vanity Fair, where both are arrested and detained because of their disdain for the wares and business of the fair. Faithful is put on trial, and executed as a martyr. Hopeful, a resident of Vanity, takes Faithful’s place to be Christian’s companion for the rest of the way.

“It is very plain and notable that in Pilgrim’s Progress, not everybody “makes it,” in the traditional sense.  Here Christian’s friend Faithful is executed, and so gets a “shortcut” (so to speak) to the Celestial City.

I think Vanity Fair is one of the most striking scenes in the book, because it so accurately reflects the American, materialistic culture.  I have said many times, that I am reminded of Vanity Fair whenever I enter a shopping mall.  It is described in the book in this way, “The people of the town were vain, caring for nothing but money, pleasure and fame.  The town was very old, and the fair had been going for many, many years.”  And later, “The broad road that leads to destruction which brings the fair much trade lies through the town.”  The book lists dozens of vices going on in the city, from gambling to cheating to swindling; it also mentions taverns, night clubs, seductive shows and even professional pastors using popular psychology to fleece their flock.

Vanity Fair is meant to symbolize the “system of this world,” and all it has to offer.  Again, just think of a shopping mall, with all its vanities and trivialities and that is the modern-day picture portrayed in the story.”

Along a rough stretch of road, Christian and Hopeful leave the highway to travel on the easier By-Path Meadow, where a rainstorm forces them to spend the night. In the morning they are captured by Giant Despair, who takes them to his Doubting Castle, where they are imprisoned, beaten and starved. The giant wants them to commit suicide, but they endure the ordeal until Christian realizes that a key he has, called Promise, will open all the doors and gates of Doubting Castle. Using the key, they escape.

“This is actually a rather long, and depressing part of the story.  Their misery seems to go on and on, and the author makes a point to emphasize that by describing in excrutiating detail their doubts and fears and feelings of hopelessness while being held prisoner in Doubting Castle.  Being held captive by Giant Despair reminds me of fellow brothers or sisters in Christ who for various reasons find themselves stuck in the bondage of depression. “

The Delectable Mountains form the next stage of Christian and Hopeful’s journey, where the shepherds show them some of the wonders of the place also known as “Immanuel’s Land”. As at the House of the Interpreter pilgrim’s are shown sights that strengthen their faith and warn them against sinning. On Mount Clear they are able to see the Celestial City through the shepherd’s “perspective glass,” which serves as a telescope. This device is given to Mercy in the second part at her request.

With the perspective glass, reference is made to the fact that we now “see through a glass dimly.”  This area is one of several refreshing places along the journey.

On the way, Christian and Hopeful meet a lad named Ignorance, who believes that he will be allowed into the Celestial City through his own good deeds rather than as a gift of God’s grace. Christian and Hopeful meet up with him twice and try to persuade him to journey to the Celestial City in the right way. Ignorance persists in his own way that leads to his being cast into hell. After getting over the River of Death on the ferry boat of Vain Hope without overcoming the hazards of wading across it, Ignorance appears before the gates of Celestial City without a passport, which he would have acquired had he gone into the King’s Highway through the Wicket Gate.

“This was a very dramatic section of the story, when Ignorance, who was a legalist is described as crossing the river which symbolized death in a ferry boat call “Vain Hope.”  This intimates that this person died believing (in vain) that they would enter heaven.  However, because he did not come by way of the cross, but by belief in his own morality, he did not enter.”

The Lord of the Celestial City orders shining ones to take Ignorance to one of the byways to hell and throw him in.

Christian and Hopeful make it through the dangerous Enchanted Ground into the Land of Beulah, where they ready themselves to cross the River of Death on foot to Mount Zion and the Celestial City. Christian has a rough time of it, but Hopeful helps him over; and they are welcomed into the Celestial City.

“I really love the imagery of death being this river.  The idea is that you must cross it to reach Heaven.  You begin to cross, and your head goes under, but you come out on the other side.  Much in the same way, I picture someone dying (on a bed perhaps) and they know they are about to be overtaken by death, and they are scared and unsure of what will happen to them and what death will feel like.  But then they come out on the other side, much like coming up out of a river.”

Quotes:

The book is sprinkled with poetry.  Here are some samples:

I must climb up to the mountain top;

Nevermind if the path is steep,

For I know that through strife lies the way to life,

And the way-farer must not weep.

So courage! My heart, don’t faint, don’t fear

Though the rough rock makes the way slow,

The easy track only leads me back,

Up and on is the way I must go.

This next quote is actually my favorite from the story, but is actually not found in this modern English version, but in the original.  I noticed it about 10 years ago when I was leafing through the original version at the public library in Young Harris:

Now, now look how the holy Pilgrims ride

Clouds are their Chariots, Angels are their Guide;

Who would here for him all Hazards run,

That thus provides for his when this World’s done?

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Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 4:15 am  Leave a Comment