The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 3: Dangerous Detours


Part One

Part Two

(The online text we’re using is located at Project Gutenberg, here.)


Vanity Fair

After leaving Talkative behind, Christian and Faithful notice Evangelist catching up to them. Even though he’s going in the same direction, he has probably lingered to encourage and instruct other pilgrims on the way. His speech is composed almost entirely of scripture: how much do you recognize? There’s no hint of the two friends’ reaction to his sober warning about what lies ahead, but it must have been with some trepidation that they continue on to Vanity Fair. Presumably there is no way around it. What does this say about a Christian’s involvement with the world? Can we avoid it, or should we even try?

The thing that struck me most about Vanity Fair on this reading is that everything in it is for sale: not just property and goods, but intangibles such as honor, pleasure, and delight, and people (husbands, wives, children). Respectable items are on the market as well as disreputable, but the prices are set by man, not God. I recall at the beginning of the “women’s liberation” movement how some housewives were protesting that their work of home-making and child-raising was not valued enough to be paid. That’s because it was invaluable, as we see from decades of trying to get by with broken homes and outsourced child care. When a young mother at our church walked out on her family a few years ago, it took at least ten of us, pitching in when we could, to make up for one wife and mother whose worth would have been far above rubies. The world puts a price on everything—like thirty pieces of silver for the Son of God—which inflates the value of some items far above their worth and makes priceless items cheap.

Christian and Faithful aren’t buying. This sets them apart, as well as their outlandish (i.e., foreign) garments and attitudes. The reaction of Vanity Fair reflects how the church and Christians are misrepresented by the media today: gullible fools or heartless hypocrites. Yes, the church has always contained tares among the wheat, but it has also fed the hungry and cared for the sick and, most importantly, spoken truth to a hostile world. When the pilgrims insist they will buy nothing but the truth, what do they mean? Is the truth for sale?

Another thing to notice: Vanity Fair is not purely secular—in fact, a multitude of religions are among the goods offered for sale, and the citizens are very solicitous of them. This is evident during the trial of Faithful, {226} – {240}. Envy’s testimony: ”I heard him once myself affirm that Christianity and the customs of our town of Vanity were diametrically opposite and could not be reconciled. By which saying, my Lord, he doth at once not only condemn all our laudable doings, but us in the doing of them.” Superstition echoes that thought: “I heard him say that our religion was naught, and such by which a man could by no means please God.” The thing the world hates most about Christianity (now more than ever) is its claim to be exclusive—after all, who are we to say that our way is the only right way? Several years ago, a relative tried to convert me to the Forum, a self-improvement quasi-religion that supposedly is compatible with any other worldview. She would not accept that following Jesus meant rejecting earthly systems; she was offended by the very thought, though our conversation remained amicable. To reject the world is seen as rejection of individuals in it, as Pickthank (flattery) testifies.

Notice how Judge Hate-good uses the Bible in his instruction to the jury: what “laws” does he cite, and how does the Bible testify to the opposite of his conclusion? Notice also that Faithful is executed “according to the law.” So was Christ, and his execution was equally unjust. But deliverance is near at hand.

By-ends and His Friends

We’d like to know just how Christian escapes, but at least he has a companion for the next part of his journey. Hopeful was converted by the pilgrims’ faithful witness under trial, a reminder to believers that God works all things out for the good of those who love him. Also, it’s a reminder that our behavior is always being watched and can be used by God to bring others to faith. That’s an awesome privilege, as well as a huge responsibility!

They soon encounter By-ends (a term that indicates using questionable means to a supposedly noble end), who is reluctant to share his name but willingly shares his theology {246}. He imagines it to be the same as Christian’s, but for “two small points.” When challenged, he dumps these two companions (conge is French for an abrupt departure) in favor of more congenial ones. Masters Hold-the-world, Money-love and Save-all are reflections of the established church, where accommodation, materialism and universalism have replaced sound doctrine (the Anglican Church at the time was a reliable path to respectability and ease for the middle class). Notice how they justify their positions to themselves by appealing to scripture and reason {252}. Their shallow defense of materialism (if getting religion is good, who cares about the motive?) is easily demolished by Christian in {261} – {265}, reminding them of those in the Bible who tried to get the power of Christ without true belief. (See Genesis 34 for the story of Hamor and Shechem and Acts 8 for Simon the Sorcerer.) The gist of Christian’s argument is that “the man who takes up religion for the world will throw away religion for the world.” It doesn’t make a dent in By-ends and his friends, but Lucre (wealth) tempts their greedy nature and lures them to their end.

The River of the Water of Life and By-path Meadow

But Christian and Hopeful have their own temptations, as the monument to Lot’s wife reminds them {272}. After this sober reminder, they enjoy easy travel beside the pleasant river (rivers are a source of refreshment in the Bible; see Ps. 46:4, Rev. 22:1, John 7:37). If you’ve ever hiked out of the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, you know a place on the first half of the journey called the Corkscrew, a series of grueling switchbacks. After climbing for a hot, dusty hour, the hiker comes within hearing of Bright Angel Creek, the very sound of which seems to lighten one’s step and encourage pressing on. The path follows the creek to Bright Angel Campground, a pleasant place of trees and rest.

After a few hours or a night at the campground, the hiker is ready to press on. But there won’t be any creeks from here to the rim, and if a shortcut were available, however treacherous, it would be very tempting to take it. So I understand Christian’s willingness to step off the path in favor of what looks like an easier way {278}, but his decision to follow Vain-confidence leads to their greatest trial yet.

Doubting Castle

After blundering around in the dark (hearing Vain-confidence fall to his doom {279}), and being trapped by a flood, Christian bitterly regrets his decision. Hopeful encourages him that even this mistake will be for their good. But it doesn’t seem like anything good will come of their capture by the Giant Despair, who throws them into the deepest dungeon of his castle. No light penetrates its thick walls; the darkness is so oppressive it’s a material presence. The interior enemy—doubt—is far worse than the cruel beatings the Giant subjects them to at the urging of his wife, Diffidence. “Diffidence” means lack of confidence, which doesn’t at first seem to apply to this monstrous creature. But self-confidence is not what her name refers to; what she lacks is any confidence in God whatsoever. Consider Job’s wife, who counseled her own husband to kill himself, and the name of Diffidence makes more sense. Mistrust feeds on Despair, and vice-versa. As the days pass (Wednesday to Saturday) with no relief, Christian sinks lower and lower into suicidal feelings, and it’s all Hopeful can do to keep his hand from the knife. The remedy {292} seems too obvious at first, but what do Christians often when we fall into depression? Too often, we turn our backs on the only means of comfort: fellowship, experience, sacraments, and above all the word of God. We forget that our feelings are only our feelings (even though they may be provoked by severe physical circumstances), as temporary as God’s promise is permanent. And we forget Despair’s great weakness; he can’t abide the light. Sunshine throws Despair into fits– which may seem terribly naïve and polliannish until we consider the Source of all light. What other means of deliverance do you see?

Not all Christians fall into such depths of despair—thank God—and not all experience such crushing doubt. But a surprising number of heroes of the faith have, and do. Edith Schaeffer described her husband’s “dark night of the soul” before he went on to become one of Christianity’s great authors and thinkers. Have you experienced a similar captivity in Doubting Castle? How did you escape?

The Delectable Mountains

I’ve used up my self-imposed space allotment, so I won’t spend a lot of time here, but consider how the Mountains are similar but distinct from the Celestial City. Also, who are the Shepherds and how do their names apply to their service? What kind of Error does the cliff {299} represent, and how can we guard ourselves from it? What other warnings do the pilgrims receive before they go on their way?


  • List the specific ways that the pilgrims at Vanity Fair, and particularly Faithful at his trial, are treated like Christ during his trial.
  • Write a scene or a short narrative showing how Christian escaped from Vanity Fair. Who might have helped him, and how?
  • If you’re an artist, picture Faithful’s deliverance as it might have looked to him, still tied to the stake.
  • Remember the old question, “If you were indicted for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Write a one-act play depicting your trial: who would your accusers be, and what would they say? Who is the judge, and what are his instructions to the jury? Finally, what’s the verdict?
  • Read Ps. 88 and note specifically how the Psalmist’s despair corresponds to Christian’s experience in Doubting Castle.

Part Four (the conclusion) lies ahead:

One Response to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 3: Dangerous Detours

  1. emily October 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I’ve given a lot of thought to Doubt, but not so much to the temptations of Vanity Fair. I really appreciate Bunyan’s (and your) thoughts on the real value of things. The world’s value of things seems to sneak up on me in so many ways, and it’s something that I really need to do a better job of combating.

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