06 October 2009

'I Have Loved to Hear my Lord Spoken of'—Pilgrim's Progress

When I was in second grade, my sister and I spent one year at a fundamentalist Baptist school, chosen because my non-fundamentalist parents liked the curriculum they followed. One of my few memories of academic life there was my teacher reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to the class. I remembered enjoying it at the time (especially the battle with the ‘foul fiend’, Apollyon), but in later years I could only associate the book in my experience with fundamentalism or, historically, with Puritanism. Nevertheless, I eventually elected to read Bunyan from an interest I had developed in learning more about Puritanism and as a specimen of classic English literature (C.S. Lewis refers to it as such, for instance).

Roger Sharrock’s introduction to the Penguin edition—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Penguin, 1987)—assisted me greatly in enjoying the story, not only as a window on Puritanism or as literature, but even, despite some obvious difficulties, as a spiritual work. (Incidentally, Sharrock compares Bunyan’s experience of prison and its ‘supreme existential test’ to that of the subject of yesterday’s post: Boethius [p. ix].) Indeed, I realised that in many ways the allegory of a Christian fighting demons and passions—what Sharrock calls ‘the adventurous journey of the armed and vigilant Christian through hositle country’ (p. xii)—was not only basically Orthodox, but seems to me in some ways to contradict the Calvinist notion of predestination and the Lutheran doctrine of imputed righteousness. Now it is true that Bunyan’s is a Protestant work, but all in all, I felt that I had not been wrong to have enjoyed Bunyan as a seven-year-old and that my fundamentalist teacher had not been completely crazy.

I particularly enjoyed the poems which introduce both parts of the story, the narrative of Christian’s journey to the Celestial City and that of his wife’s and children’s. Bunyan’s defense of using sometimes obscure allegory is quite fascinating for instance:

Whereas some say a cloud is in his head,
That doth but show how wisdom’s covered
With its own mantles, and to stir the mind
To a search after what it fain would find,
Things that seem to be hid in words obscure,
Do but the godly mind the more allure;
To study what those sayings should contain,
That speak to us in such a cloudy strain.
I also know, a dark similitude
Will on the fancy more itself intrude,
And will stick faster in the heart and head,
Than things from similes not borrowed. (151)

But this passage is typical of the pleasant surprises I found in revisiting Bunyan for myself. It’s always nice to find a bit of truth in unexpected places. In the words of Mr Stand-fast before the ‘beautiful Gate of the [Celestial] City’, ‘I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of, and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too’ (p. 277).


JLB said...

I first read an abridged version of Pilgrim's Progress when I was about seven or eight, I think. I have read several different versions since, though not for a long time. My memory is somewhat fuzzy; which parts of this delightful tale had which Protestant hang-ups?

Anonymous said...

Loved the closing quote. I've stolen it for the status box of my Facebook page!

aaronandbrighid said...

Jonathan> You've caught me! I wrote this little piece quite some time ago, and I myself have now forgotten what specifically it was that prompted this statement. A quick flip through the book yielded very little. For this reason, I've decided to edit the post slightly!

My apologies for the delay in responding. I wanted to have time to take a look for relevant passages before writing back, but I just can't seem to manage it!

Dad> Steal away!