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    As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and
    I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I
    saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book
    in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read
    therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out
    with a lamentable cry, saying, "What shall I do?"

    In this plight, therefore, he went home and refrained himself as long as he could, that his wife and
    children should not perceive his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble
    increased. Wherefore at length he brake his mind to his wife and children; and thus he began to talk
    to them: "O my dear wife, said he, and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in
    myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed
    that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself,
    with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I
    see not) some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered."
           -John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim's Progress, though hardly anyone reads it anymore, is one of the best-selling books of all time and was enormously influential for several centuries; in fact, we are still living under its influence.  However, like Dante's Inferno, it has passed out of favor in recent years, not because of its pedantry and antiquated style, but because much of its message is simply too harsh for the tenor of our times.

The narrator relates an allegorical dream in which Christian, having received knowledge that his city is to be destroyed by heavenly fire, leaves his wife and children and sets out on a quest for salvation which takes him to the Celestial City.  In the Second Book, his wife, Christiana, and the kids follow.  In their travels, they must pass through such places as The Valley of Humiliation and Death, the Slough of Despond, and Vanity Fair, and must resist the blandishments of folks like Ignorance and Hypocrisy.   Ultimately, all of the pilgrims do make it and enter through the gates of the City, saved by their unbroken faith.

It's easy to see why the story was so popular.  First, it's an exciting tale of adventure; one reviewer aptly refers to Christian as a Protestant Indiana Jones.  Second, it is triumphant, with Christian overcoming all the odds to arrive in the Celestial City, nor is there ever any real doubt that he is going to succeed.  Bunyan, who had become a Baptist preacher after a lifetime of tormenting dreams and struggles with doubt, wrote the story (and an autobiography) during two periods of imprisonment, one lasting twelve years, for holding services that were not in accordance with the teachings of the Church of England.  Especially in light of the author's circumstances, he expresses a bold certainty that Christian's path is in fact the path to Heaven.

But it's here that we see why the book is no longer popular.  Start with the idea that God's judgment is coming and that most of us face the fire this time.  Then add in the concept that Christian's are embattled by temptation and the sinners around them, and that many will succumb.  Top it all off with the notion that it is only by following in the Pilgrim's footsteps that you can attain salvation, that everyone else is doomed to Hell.  These aren't exactly the humanistic, inclusive, permissive doctrines which inform modernity are they ?

But there's one crucial tenet of Nonconformist Protestantism which Pilgrim's Progress captures and which is both the religion's greatest gift and worst legacy to modern times : the primacy of the individual.  John Bunyan experienced the struggle for faith as an intensely personal battle and his protagonist, Christian, likewise makes his pilgrimage alone.  It shocks our sensibilities for him to abandon his family and friends to their fiery fate, but such is his desire for "eternal life" that abandon them he does.  Here lies the two-edged sword of the radical Protestantism of the 16th and 17th centuries, for if it is true (and I think it is) that this emphasis on the individual in religious matters also spread to economic and political matters and brought about the concurrent rise of protestantism, democracy and capitalism, it is also true that this emphasis on the individual, if unchecked by morality, ethics and institutions, leads to the complete atomization of society and a cult of selfishness which undermines the very free society that it creates.  Personal freedom has been the greatest engine of progress that mankind has ever known, and it has been generated in large part by the Protestantism of which Bunyan was a part; but that same freedom, if torn loose from the laws, responsibilities and moral precepts out of which it grew, becomes mere license.  The individual, though paramount, is not sufficient.  Freedom, though vital, is not everything.  In particular, extreme individualism and liberty are inadequate ideals around which to build a civil society.

Christian's pilgrimage conveys the message that faith is the most important quality we bring to our approach towards God.  As theology, this doctrine of "salvation through faith alone" is harmless enough, and for all we know it is absolutely correct.  But in organizing Man's affairs here on Earth, we have to emphasize works as well as faith--works which manifest themselves in following the law, accepting one's responsibilities to one's fellow men, and behaving morally.  Otherwise, come Judgment Day, God won't have to smite us with heavenly fire, we'll have destroyed ourselves already.

Bunyan's book, besides being a rousing adventure tale, should be read both because of the influence it has exerted in shaping the modern world and because the issues it raises, of individualism and the like, are still just as important today, when they have gone to far, as they were when he was writing, and they had not come far enough.  It is a brilliant, though flawed, work, one who's impact on English Literature and Western Culture can not be overstated.


Grade: (A-)