The Pilgrim’s Progress: Introduction

John Bunyan was a dissenting pastor of the mid-17th century: “dissenting” meaning that some of his biblical interpretations differed from those of the established (state-supported) Church of England.  His views were not so different that they were something other than Christianity; he was most definitely a Christian.  Where he differed from the established church was on secondary matters such as when and how to baptize. To dissent in Bunyan’s day was not just a matter of splitting off from the old church and starting a new one down the street.  Depending on who was king and what was law, dissenters could find themselves in jail for preaching what they believed to be the truth, and that’s exactly what happened to John Bunyan.

It was while he was in Bedford County jail (or gaol) that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.  “Neither did I but vacant seasons spend/In this my scribble; nor did I intend/But to divert myself in doing this/From worser thoughts which make me do amiss.”  In other words, a period of enforced idleness led him to write the book, partly to keep himself from going stir-crazy.  His “scribble” is now considered a classic—why?  One sign of “classic” is that the story is true for any day and time, and any people.  The Pilgrim’s journey is as relevant for a Chinese convert today as it was for an English youth of 1645.  Another indication of a classic work is that it’s rewritten and repackaged over and over, and that raises another question.  With all the picture books, comic books, films, updated and revised versions of Pilgrim’s Progress, why read it in its original form?

Good question: it’s not necessary to read the story in the original any more than it is to read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew.  But even though it’s relevant to all times, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a product of its own time, and can perhaps be best understood in its own dialect.  If Bunyan’s prose is too dense to penetrate, it’s better to go with something more recent than skip the story altogether.  But for an uneducated tinker (pot-mender), he wrote clear, vigorous English that’s worth reading for its own sake.  There’s also no question that the Pilgrim’s journey is his own—this is allegorical autobiography.  The best sense of Bunyan the man comes through in his own words.  Literature, remember, is one way to connect with other minds, and here’s a mind worth encountering.  Give it a try, at least: the sense should become plainer as you go along.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is in two parts, the first concerning Christian’s journey, the second about his wife Christiana and their four children.  For this go-round, we’re only reading first part: not because the second isn’t as good, but because of time.  Maybe next year . . .  I’ll be referring to the Project Gutenberg online copy, first because some of the paragraphs are numbered and that will make it easy to call attention to certain places in the text.  Numbers in brackets {} will correspond to the numbers in the Gutenberg site.  Also, it’s been said that The Pilgrim’s Progress “leaks scripture from every pore,” and the Gutenberg copy gives scripture references.  It’s in one file running to 87 pages, so it would be easy to print out if your toner cartridge can stand it.

Another option that’s easier on the eyes is found at Answers in Genesis.  This version is in 10 files, but the text is spread out more and it’s divided into chapters (but no paragraph number references, unfortunately).  Throughout the read-along I’ll refer both to paragraph numbers and chapters.

Please note: This read-along is not intended as a “study guide,” because I’m not studying the book as a scholar; I’m searching it as a Christian.  So my approach will be more devotional than academic, and I will try to make it applicable to readers from high school age to old age.

Now, it’s time to look at the text itself.  Bunyan introduces himself in verse: THE AUTHOR’S APOLOGY FOR HIS BOOK.  This doesn’t mean, “I’m sorry for this book,” but rather sets out his justification for writing it.  He makes some interesting points, such as

  • He addresses the anticipated objections in Sec. {5}: 1) “It is dark,” 2) “It is feigned” (i.e., fictional); 3) “But [the words] want solidness,” or, more plainly, “Metaphors make us blind.”  Just for practice, note where the objections are found and number them in the text.  Then find Bunyan’s answers to the objections and number them correspondingly.  He has a lot to say about metaphor, but I particularly like this:

My dark and cloudy words, they do but hold

The truth, as cabinets enclose the gold.

  • When you think about it, all language is metaphor; all words are symbols.  He says he’ll be using symbols to frame other symbols, as a way of presenting (enclosing) the truth.  That’s what we all try to do, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, or simply talking.  I picked up a hint of exasperated humor in Bunyan’s defense of his method, a touch of “What do you want?  God Himself to spell everything out for you?  Use a little brain muscle!”
  • I like his commendation of story ({9}, 15), as an aid to memory: “Then read my fancies; they will stick like burs.”  Doesn’t a story often do just that?

Finally: “This book will make a traveler of thee” ({9}, line 5).  In other words, this book will demonstrate that all humans are travelers.  Though we long for stability and predictability, it’s not to be had in this life.  Think about your situation right now: Are you settled and comfortable, or edgy and dislodged?  Is your life stable, or rocky with uncertainty?  Whatever it feels like, you’re on a journey; whatever you’re experiencing now will change.

So reader, let this book “make a traveler of thee,”

To warn in comfort and encourage in difficulty.

 Activities:

  • To get a handle on the language and vocabulary, try rewriting {1} in prose form.  Don’t worry about rhyming, just try to “enclose” the sense of what he’s saying.
  • Bunyan justifies his use of metaphor and symbolism by pointing to the parables in the Bible.  See if you can list at least five metaphors in scripture that are not parables (for example, Jesus’ comparison of himself to the light of the world).  They can include not just word pictures but also the symbolic “types and shadows” in the Old Testament that point the way to Christ.
  • Look up “allegory” in the dictionary to be sure you understand what form of literature we’re reading.

See Pilgrim’s Progress: From the City of Destruction to the Cross for the next installment of this series.  If you find this interesting, you might also enjoy our interview with Simonetta Carr on her kids’ book, Athanasius.

COMMENTS

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6 Responses to The Pilgrim’s Progress: Introduction

  1. Janie January 25, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks for the link, Chaz. I’m delighted to hear about this resource!

  2. Chaz January 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Thanks for this devotional guide. I love Pilgrim’s Progress and am reading it through with my children for the first time. This is helping.

    The best version of the book I’ve found (free or otherwise – and this one happens to be FREE!) can be found at bunyanministries.org (http://bunyanministries.org/books/pp_full_text.pdf). Dr. Barry Horner has done a masterful job of making this work accessible. His work is not so much an adaptation but a return to the original. He defines terms that aren’t familiar and modernizes spelling.

    He also has has a commentary of the work and a coloring book (http://www.bunyanministries.org/?page_id=59)

    Thanks again for all your hard work!

  3. Janie October 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks, Summer! I’m very glad to have you aboard. Remember, it’s not that long–especially for four weeks!

  4. emily October 12, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Thanks for the intro, Janie. I read conflicting accounts of why Bunyan was put in jail, but your overview cleared it up. Many thanks.

  5. Summer Lee October 11, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    I am excited to join you in reading “Pilgrim’s Progress”. I hope I can keep up with you. At least Bunyan is easier to understand than Shakespeare, at least for me. Thanks for this wonderful site, I am blessed by your work.

  6. Katie in Ohio October 11, 2011 at 4:42 am #

    I finally got around to reading this a few years ago and I was so glad I read it! Enjoy!

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