As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. Back in October we read and met to discuss The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Next up was the classic, Christian allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I put onto my new Classics Club list as soon as I found out we would be tackling it.
Part 1, published in 1678, follows Christian, an everyman, who leaves behind his home, wife and children in the City of Destruction to make the perilous journey to the Celestial City. Along the way he faces many trials, tribulations, monsters and spiritual terrors, as he travels through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle and the Delectable Mountains. His pilgrimage is hindered by characters such as Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Talkative and Ignorance, but he is also supported by Evangelist and his travelling companions, Hopeful then Faithful.
All of which is surreally presented as a dream sequence narrated by Bunyan as an omniscient narrator: giving him the power to observe all, but powerless to help. There is no arguing with the content, characters and wisdom in this enormously influential classic – which has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print – but I did struggle with the style and flow. I found it a bit jerky and I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to fully understand what was being said.
However I found Part 2, published in 1684, a much easier and quicker read. In this second part, Bunyan follows the subsequent pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, their sons and their maidenly neighbour, Mercy. They journey to all the stopping points Christian visited, but they take a longer time as the sons marry, have children and their party grows. They are also guided by the brave hero, Greatheart, who along the way slays four giants and a monster named Legion, that have been terrorising pilgrims.
This second part grabbed me instantly and flowed much better, especially as it has a more natural time frame for the journey – akin to a Christian’s life span. I was fascinated to see Bunyan express some very ‘modern’ thoughts and ideas through out this second pilgrimage too. First in his choice of a female pilgrim, but also in his portrayal and discussion of the important role women have in bringing people to and nurturing faith. I enjoyed it so much, that I actually finished this part in less than half the time the first part had taken me.
So, overall, I was left feeling a little confused about how I felt about this book, with the big difference I experienced between Part 1 and 2. It was not till after my church’s book club eventually met, last week, to discuss this, that I saw in hindsight how much more I enjoyed this than I initially thought. We discussed our struggles with Part 1; our preferment for Part 2 and our universal love of Bunyan’s emblematic characters – many of which are characters you can find in life today. And the general consensus was that the content was great, even if the style and language was problematic.
All in all then, I found The Pilgrim’s Progress to be a clever allegorical look at the journey Christians must take through life. I can’t say it was an easy read – in fact it was in parts hard work – however it was a rewarding read, and this is a book I feel with benefit from re-reading. Good read.
Have you read this? Can you recommend any other classic Christian books?
This is book 5/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.