This morning before work, I sat in bed with my morning coffee and read through a lecture on Pilgrim’s Progress which confirmed for me some initial thoughts I had upon reading Bunyan’s book – one of the most influential and popular works of literature ever written. These initial thoughts?
Before I go any further, let me say that I do not hate religion (though I find it a highly questionable organization of power), and I highly value the act of pilgrimage as a spiritual and contemplative practice – but the Pilgrim’s Progress is a work promoting an almost-ruthless individualism which is counter to any spirituality I would willingly embrace. I recognize, of course, that this emphasis is only one of many, and that Bunyan’s work must be taken in the context it was written (shortly after the Reformation) – sadly, many evangelicals carry this same perspective forward today.
For those of you unfamiliar with the work, Pilgrim’s Progress was written in 1678 as an allegorical tale of one man’s journey to the Celestial City atop Mt. Zion. The character – so-named Christian – is helped along the way by “Evangelist” and meets with many unsavory people along the way who seek only to hinder his path or who are otherwise to be judged unfit to enter the city (Obstinate, Pliable, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Hypocrisy, Timorous, Ignorance to name a few). Before Christian sets off, he is weighed down by a terrible burden which he fears will cause him to sink into hell. It is to relieve himself of this burden (his sins) that he sets off, leaving his family (wife and several children) behind. (In the second part, Christian returns and leads the way for his wife who initially hesitates because she is too attached to the world.) As you can tell, the allegory is pretty straight-forward and easy to follow, ending with Christian’s final test and his entry into the Celestial City in which he is welcomed.
Returning to my three initial impressions, here are some notes on each:
Puritanism is a selfish doctrine: The character of Christian basically starts off by abandoning his wife and family. Never mind that in Part 2 he comes back, when he leaves on the original pilgrimage he has no way of knowing whether he will be able to return, or even where he is going exactly. Basically, his spiritual needs are much greater than the needs his family has of him and that’s that. So off he goes on an individualized quest in which he must valiantly resist the meanies and fools he encounters – each one of them judged because they do not have the temerity of this intrepid pilgrim. Throughout, we see Christian receive help from others (like Evangalist, and the House Beautiful, and Hopeful) but we do not see him extend the offer of help unless it also benefits himself (as when he frees himself from the imprisonment of the Giant of Despair and Hopeful is freed with him).
Interestingly, the lecture mentioned at the start of the post goes into some detail about the transition from the “good works” focus of the Catholic Church (ie: Good works get us into heaven) to the “good faith” doctrine of the Protestant Reformation (good works seemed too much like bargaining with God, they maintained that if anything was going to get you into heaven it was perfect faith). This simplified things for the character Christian who was allowed by virtue of his religion to ignore the needs of others (like his *family* and other stragglers on the road) in order to receive the tests of his faith without impediment.
I can accept that pilgrimage is ultimately an individual act – even when traveled with others – because the progress of spiritual conversion/renewal/accomplishment is so much one that happens internally. What I have trouble accepting is that one’s spiritual salvation takes precedence over the needs of every other, including willingly-taken-on responsibilities.
The Puritans hated nature: Like other people, nature is simply an obstacle to be overcome in this allegory. Names like the Slough of Despond, Valley of Humiliation, and the River of Death are indicative of how the main character experiences the natural world which is mostly treacherous and designed to impede him from meeting God. This is both a rejection of “worldliness” (that which ties us to this world) and “wildness” or wilderness which left man open to unknowable dangers. The beast Apollyon (“Destroyer”) is the most obvious representative of this mistrust of the natural world – hybrid of dragon, bear, human and fish – he is symbollic of the four elements and this is a fearfully powerful being. Sadly, this take on the natural world – as base, as destructive to the human soul, as dangerous – really demands of the Puritan that he bend nature to his will rather than adapt himself to it. I think we all see the outcome of this shift in thinking which begins around the 1500s and is a predominant feature of the governing philosophy of the world we live in.
Bunyan’s character Christian finds echoes in the evangelical Christianity of today: This one is a bit obvious because of course the evangelical church takes its doctrine from the radical Protestants – but it’s hard to ignore the paranoia and smug tone of Pilgrim’s Progress which sees *everyone* else who is not on the same path as Christian as either 1) an impediment, an intentional destroyer or 2) an idiot who doesn’t know enough to get educated about the good word of the Lord. Sound familiar? As I feel towards the modern-day evangelists, this work grated on me in its supercilious tone towards others – the antithesis of the golden rule, and far distanced from the Christ-figure who cared for all despite parentage, ignorance, profession or tribe. Again, sound familiar? I can’t help but feeling that Bunyan would have felt right at home in the television-chapels of today…..
I was originally going to pen a piece on the power of pilgrimage in response to this book, but by the time I had finished reading, I felt mostly frustration and the opposite of introspective. Rather than being a salve for a world in crisis, Pilgrim’s Progress exposes the core of a moralizing and self-righteous faith – a faith that predicated the killing of indigenous people, the destruction of wilderness, and the erection of temples to arrogance and selfishness in the new world. It’s presented as logic, of course, the figure of reason fighting off the passions of the world – the individual against it all. As if there is no other way. As if responsibility to the family, responsibility the community, and caretaking the resources of the earth can only be seen as burdens on the road of life – lightened only by running off on a personal quest. And we live in a nation founded on this view of things! (Have I mentioned enough lately that ideas matter? They do. They really do.)
I highly recommend you check out the lecture at the beginning of this post if you are looking for more edification on the context that Bunyan wrote in, but I’m not particularly inclined to recommend reading Pilgrim’s Progress unless you like your Christianity rigid, with a dash of moral smugness. Like the God of Genesis – this is nothing I can embrace, though learn from it I have.