Back to Basics: Bunyan

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For this week's Back to Basics, I have returned to a hardy perennial of Christian literature.  The recent comments by J.I. Packer that John Bunyan had come to join John Owen and Richard Baxter in first equal position in his list of Puritans sent me back to Pilgrim's Progress once more.  It is some years since I last read it and yet I was struck again at what a remarkable feat of religious imagination it is.   In its ability to summon up powerful and lasting mental images, it is surely equaled only by the work of Bunyan's heterodox contemporary, John Milton.  It is no wonder that the visionary poet William Blake (who is, incidentally, buried near Bunyan in Bunhill Fields) chose works by these two men as material for his hallucinatory artwork.  Milton, though, was highly educated; Bunyan was a self-taught tinker.  

The book is deceptively simple and yet deeply complicated.  I have elsewhere touched on the class issues which emerge in the narrative and on the astute social criticism which the book contains and which has been blunted by its reception over the years.  Yet the book's power to fascinate ultimately lies in three things.  First, the allegorical nature of the narrative allows the readers to place themselves into the text.  Second, the narrative is so closely tied to biblical categories that the typical characters it contains are indeed Everyman.  The reader is Christian, just as he is also Worldly-Wiseman and Timorous.  Third, despite the typical nature of the characters, the psychological portraits are subtle and complex.  There is a beautiful marriage of biblical narrative and personal experience in Bunyan's work that marks all of the best Puritan writing. Reading once again about Christian's fight with Apollyon and then his immediate descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the reader recognizes the psychology of sin and temptation and the frequent rhythm of the Christian life. It is a childlike tale full of adult complexity. Like Augustine's Confessions, one leaves the work understanding oneself a little better - a sure sign of great literature.

Various editions are available.  There is a nice 1941 limited edition which contains Blake's illustrations which you might find on the second hand market.  Crossway also do a version in modern English.  The children's version, Dangerous Journey ,is also very well done.

I close with a quotation from J. G. Machen who was a great admirer of the Puritan Bunyan.  He closes his little book, What is Faith?, with a reference to Pilgrim's Progress, touching precisely on the experiential psychology of faith:

In the second part of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress there is one of those unforgettable portraits which have caused the book of the tinker of Bedford - that tenderest and most theological of English books - to be one of the true masterpieces of the world's literature.  It is the portrait of "Mr Fearing."  Mr Fearing had "the root of the matter" in him; he was a true Christian.  But he got little comfort out of his religion.  When he came to the Interpreter's house, he was afraid to go in; he lay trembling outside till he was almost starved.  But then, when at last he was brought in, he received a warm welcome.  "I will say that for my Lord," said Great-heart, "he carried it wonderful lovingly to him."  And so Mr Fearing went moaningly on his way; and when he was come to the entrance of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, "I thought," said the guide, "I should have lost my man."  At last he came to the River which all must cross, and there he was in a heavy case.  "Now, now, he said, he should be drowned for ever, and so never see that face with comfort that he had come so many miles to behold."  But never, we are told, had the water of that River been so low as it was on the day that Mr Fearing went across.  "So he went over at last, not much above wet-shod.  When he was going up to the Gate, Mr Great-heart began to take his leave of him, and to wish him a good reception above.  So he said, I shall, I shall.
That is true brilliance.  Who is not terrified of death?  And, outside of scripture, has the biblical teaching on God's tender response to human Christian experience ever been so beautifully and memorably expressed?

Posted June 15, 2012 @ 9:38 AM by Carl Trueman

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