I recently finished reading John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which I was inspired to read while in Northern Ireland visiting Libby’s parents when we watched one of Liam Neeson’s first, and worst, performances as an actor in the 1979 film version of the book (“Flee from the wrath to come…”).
Most people are at least familiar with the story of Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but I wonder how many of those same people have ever sat down with the book. Two weeks ago I would have fallen into that category. It’s really a shame that such is the case, because John Bunyan’s extremely blunt allegory is quite a masterpiece. Using extremely simple characters that are named after their archetypes, Bunyan gives an exposition on the Christian path to sanctification. Pilgrim begins with a heavy burden (sin) acquired from awareness of his sinful nature, and begins to seek the way to be free of it. When he encounters Liam Nee—erm, Evangelist—he is pointed toward Calvary, essentially. His burden falls off of him as he has a vision of the Savior on the cross.
The beauty of the story is that it doesn’t end there. Pilgrim (now named Christian) still has his entire life ahead of him, and has only one instruction: do not stray from the path. The bulk of the story occurs after Christian becomes…well…Christian. Amazingly, I never knew that the story went beyond salvation! From that point on, Christian goes through many toils and snares, including the Valley of Death, Vanity Fair, and more. Christian often loses his way, straying off to a side path for ease of travel or to avoid some apparent danger or another, and each time he does the worst happens, and he ends up in dire straits. He even ends up being beaten down by the Giant, Despair, until he is nearly ready to take his own life (luckily, his friend Hopeful is there to stop him).
When Christian isn’t in danger of his own, he shares the path with several people, both wholesome and otherwise. Faithful, an old friend from his home town, the City of Destruction, joins him until he is killed at Vanity Fair, where he is whisked away to heaven in the style of Elijah. The aforementioned Hopeful is converted as a result of their proselytizing in Vanity while detained, and ends up being Christian’s dearest ally.
Other people on the road are false converts, it seems. Christian and Hopeful do their best to minister to these poor souls. The character Ignorance has the most grievous story. He believes, in his ignorance, that legalism will earn him his place beside the King of Kings, but the very last paragraph of the book tells of his denial at the gates, after he had crossed through the River of Death, and how he was taken to the cave that leads to Hell, in an eerie reference to Matthew 7:21.
The version I read was retold in today’s English by James H. Thomas, which did wonders for my understanding. I highly recommend finding this version. I think if I had read it as it was originally written, I would have lost some of the more subtle allegories. In any case however, this is a book worth any Christian’s time. After all, most of what I’ve just written could be read as advice. “Christian(s) goes through many toils and snares,” “Christian(s) often loses [their] way,” etc. This is most certainly a book that has obvious life application.
Don’t be Obstinate, who does not have the ears to hear the message of God’s salvation. Don’t be Pliable, who gets gone when the going gets tough. Do not try to circumvent the hill of Difficulty, if God’s path is laid out for you to go over it. Know that Apollyon, the devil, has no power of you and that God has given you the tools and ability to overcome him. Rely on “effectual, fervent prayer” in the Valley of Death. Travel with those whom you can trust—those who are Hopeful and Faithful. Do not be Talkative, or Ignorant, who do not glory in their salvation but their works and knowledge. Don’t leave the path to explore the silver mine, which may bring you fortune, but also death. Know that you have been given the key to be free from any desperate situation. Follow the path, meet with God.
These are just a few of the lessons learned from Bunyan’s work. At every turn, Christian has another challenge before him, and we can learn from his successes and failures. God speaks deeply through this book, and that is the reason for its success.