Bring the Books: Pilgrims Progress

Don’t think of Pilgrim’s Progress as kids’ stuff or a 17th-century Puritan allegory about people with funny hats. It is up-to-date, God-given food (and warning!) for the Christian’s soul today, and an excellent aid for presenting the gospel to young and not-so-young.

Pilgrim’s burden does not roll away until we are one quarter through Part I. Before that we have experienced the wicket gate (OK, that’s an unfamiliar term; let’s say a door built into a larger door), Pliable, the Slough of Despond, and the Devil throwing water on the flames of grace. That’s gospel, but it is also rich in application to Christian experience. We go on to read of lions at the side of the path, Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation, and, of course, Vanity Fair. That’s Christian experience, also rich in gospel truth.

John Bunyan does not take us away from our Bible; he drives us to it. The serious reader, and certainly the conscientious Sunday school teacher, is constantly asking himself what Scripture that unlearned prisoner in Bedford had in mind when he wrote about Worldly Wiseman and the man with the muck rake (I’ve talked about that mournful hunchback a dozen times in ministry meetings). That’s the way we prepare our lessons. We don’t say: “I like that Bible story; is there a verse for unsaved or saved that I could tack on at the end?” No, our thought process is: “My message is summed up in this key verse; what miracle, parable, or Old Testament event illustrates this truth?”

Bunyan doesn’t give us chapter and verse, “the Greek of the matter,” or even Newberry marginal references. However, he gets his message across and in the process perhaps gives us an example to follow. Are we going to imagine that our author was really dreaming, or maybe filling in space, when he spelled out the names of the jury that condemned Faithful to death? Blindman, Nogood, Malice, Lovelust, Liveloose, Heady, Highminded, Enmity, Liar, Cruelty, Hidelight, and Implacable. Had he been reading in, say, Titus 3, or could it be that the Spirit had given him instructions to remind me pointedly that “because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be ye not therefore partakers with them”?

Sunday school teacher, how many copies of this book have you given as rewards? (You could base a year’s lessons on the Bible in one hand and Pilgrim’s Progress in the other). Assembly overseer, have you suggested to your Sunday school superintendent that skits based on this allegory would make excellent presentations at some special event? Gospel preacher, has your heart thumped as you described how Pilgrim gave three leaps for joy and exclaimed:

Blest cross! blest sepulcher! blest rather be the Man that there was put to shame for me!

Seventy years ago I was shaken when the preacher told us that Ignorance had no certificate to present to the King, and Bunyan “saw that there was a way to hell from the gates of heaven.” Has that language lost its cutting edge in the 21st-century?

This story comes in one hundred languages; in full-length editions and in chopped-down versions; in young adult text and in kiddies’ style; as an Internet book, in videos, and in MP3. A few years ago I downloaded six sets of illustrations, some good, some poor. The series showing Evangelist and all the others as natives of Beijing, or maybe Canton, might appeal to some youth groups in Canada. (The gospel is not an Anglo-Saxon exclusive!)

But let me urge you not to make the mistake of assuming that in these times everyone is dumb or illiterate. Within limits that you will know best, use a reasonably extensive edition with those expressive character names, that unique language and those fearsome beasts as attention-getters. Do people still sit on the Ale-bench? Have you ever been attacked by Giant Despair? What new word did the class – or I – learn today?

Pilgrim progressed “from this world to that which is to come.” Millions of us are on the journey, so the story is relevant! Personally, I am confident of my destiny, but need to learn from Pilgrim’s experiences along the way.