February 28, 2011 by Steven Worden
In case you missed it, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, turned 333 this February. Although the ancients believed three to be the perfect number and thus, three threes might be extremely portentous, you don’t have to be an ancient numerologist to marvel at a book that has been in continuous print for over 300 years. Said to be second only to the Bible in popularity, it has been translated into over 200 languages. In fact, when the Chinese government loosened up and first allowed Progress to be published, over 200,000 copies were sold in three days. Even considering that in China the US Tax Code might sell 200,000 copies in three days, that’s still pretty amazing demand. In addition to impressive print-runs, numerous adaptations of Pilgrim’s Progress have been produced as radio serials, television and film treatments, stage plays, musicals, cartoons, operas, and even computer animations, the most recent being released in 2009. As a producer might quip, “It has legs.”
So, how can we account for this longstanding fascination with The Pilgrim’s Progress? Probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that it is simply a great, fantastical, allegorical adventure. Rudyard Kipling was so moved by it as to hail Bunyan as the father of the English novel. Two hundred and seventy-five years before The Lord of the Rings, and Frodo’s ordeal to destroy the Ring, Bunyan depicted his hero “Christian” slogging through dark hazards such as the “Slough of Despond” and scaling “Hill Difficulty,” all the while encountering unhelpful travellers such as “Obstinate,” “Presumption,” and “Worldly Wiseman.” Three hundred and twenty five years before the chain-gang escapees in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” Bunyan’s hero eludes the snares of the merchants of Vanity Fair, only to be captured by the giant “Despair,” and imprisoned in Doubting Castle. Miraculously, he escapes with a key he finds that he had in his possession all the time, “Promise.”
But, beyond the imaginative allegories and finely detailed dangers that “Christian” encounters on his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Progress speaks to us a deeper social-psychological level. Bunyan depicts the spiritual life not as a vaporous abstraction, but as a gritty process, a “career” in which a seeker wrestles with a variety of obstacles, hurdles, and barriers that threaten to throw the wayfarer off his/her path. Bunyan frankly accepts doubts, uncertainties, fears, and confusion as all to be expected as part of the journey.
Further, it was Bunyan’s genius to give heft and substance to theological abstractions such as legalism, grace, and morality. Bunyan makes concrete nuances in sectarian struggles and denominational divisions, lending them an unmistakable clarity.
Lastly, by depicting faults such as Envy, Talkative, and Mistrust as misguided and confused characters straying down their own wayward paths, Bunyan enabled readers to see, examine, and reduce to often amusing human scale, formerly bewildering impulses and beliefs. Truly, Bunyan understood both the social psychological importance of viewing human life as a process and the critically important step of naming our fears and foibles so as to take away their unfathomability and thereby enable us to contend with them as ordinary, manageable objects.
So, now 333 years later, we should salute the old Non-conformist, huddled away in his jail cell serving one of his all-too-frequent stints for preaching without a license, crafting with pen and paper and an unbounded imagination, a manuscript that would live on in history as a worldwide classic.