It seems far too presumptuous of anyone – especially me – to review one of the greatest Christian classics of all time, so let me say up front that this is not a review in the sense of a critique of this timeless allegory first published in 1678. It is, rather, a reaction to having read it yet once again as I have been so inclined to do periodically for the past several decades. For the benefit of those who have never read it, I’ll include some basic explanatory info as well.
For those unfamiliar with the book or its author, John Bunyan was a 17th century preacher and writer in England. A Protestant, Bunyan wrote this allegory to describe the journey – the pilgrimage – of the Christian from that point in time when the heart and mind are awakened to one’s need for God to that glorious point in time when the troubles of this life are past and one’s eternal inheritance has come to pass.
I love the sometimes lengthy titles of old books. The full title of this one is “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream Wherein is Discovered, The Manner of His Setting Out, His Dangerous Journey; and Safe Arrival at the Desired Countrey.” How can you not love that?
What was published in 1678 is now considered to be Part 1, whereas Part 2 describing the pilgrimage of the original main character’s wife, family and others came along six years later in 1684. You can find editions with both parts together as well as separately published, and you will find plenty of editions at that. The book has never been out of print since its 1678 publication and a search on Amazon yields many choices, both in the original English of the late 1600’s as well as more contemporary versions. I chose to read it in the original English to help put my mind back in that century as I read. Doing so helps me connect with my Christian and biological ancestors. For those who get derailed reading the King James Version of the Bible with all its language differences from today, you may want to jump ahead to a contemporary version when you read it if that helps you focus on the content and meaning as opposed to the language. I assure you that when it comes to Bible study, I prefer modern translations except when enhancing them through a better understanding of Greek and Hebrew. For the brevity of time it takes to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, however, I prefer the original language.
I don’t recommend substituting a stroll through the whole book with a quick synopsis such as you will find on Wikipedia. However, if doing so whets the appetite for the full course, by all means, take a look. You will find there a brief history and listings of the main characters and destinations encountered along the pilgrimage.
Bunyan uses obvious names for his characters in the book. The main character is called Christian. Others include Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Hypocrisy, Faithful, Goodwill, Hope, Talkative, Ignorance, Atheist, and many more. With no chapter divisions throughout the book, dialogue and occasional dream narrative are joined back to back as the characters experience places in their journey from the point of origin (City of Destruction) to the destination (The Celestial City) and many points along the way such as Slough of Despond, Hill Difficulty, Valley of Humiliation, Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle, The Enchanted Ground, The Land of Beulah, and The River of Death.
Dialogue is generously sprinkled with references to Scripture along the way by which the wisdom or folly of the speaker is measured. While reading, I was amazed at the depth of Bible knowledge Bunyan had in order to write what he did. Oh, that the daily walk of Christians today was filled with remembrance of God’s word as we encounter the struggles and temptations we face. It is a treacherous and dangerous world in which we live, and to face it armed only with one’s own thoughts, feelings and limited knowledge, and not the truth of Almighty God is a path doomed to failure. It is impossible to call to mind, though, that which we have not learned in the first place!
There are times reading the book when I marvel that it was published 335 years ago. It could just as easily have been written today, judging from the soundness of its teaching and how familiar the journey is to this fellow pilgrim. Not many books pass the test of time, but this one has done so because it’s truth and the familiarity of the pilgrim’s journey resonates anew with each generation of believers. There are events in the news today that could be responded to with the words of Bunyan. To do so would be a perfect response to the same temptations faced in 2013 as the heart and mind of man faced in 1678. Our technology, affluence and accumulated knowledge have not changed the human heart one little smidgen in 335 years.
If you have never read The Pilgrim’s Progress, I implore you to do so. Print and electronic editions are plentiful with several of the electronic editions at no cost. By reading it, the Christian will be encouraged and the non-Christian may just see himself or herself in one of the other characters.
I’ll leave you with Bunyan’s own conclusion:
“Now, Reader, I have told my dream to thee;
See if thou canst interpret it to me,
Or to thyself, or neighbour; but take heed
Of misinterpreting; for that instead
Of doing good, will but thyself abuse:
By misinterpreting, evil ensues.
Take heed, also, that thou be not extreme,
In playing with the outside of my dream:
Nor let my figure or similitude
Put thee into a laughter or a feud.
Leave this for boys and fools; but as for thee,
Do thou the substance of my matter see.
Put by the curtains, look within my veil,
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail,
There, if thou seekest them, such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.
What of my dross thou findest there, be bold
To throw away, but yet preserve the gold;
What if my gold be wrapped up in ore?–
None throws away the apple for the core.
But if thou shalt cast all away as vain,
I know not but ’twill make me dream again.”