"The Pilgrim's Progress" is a salvation story chiefly but not only of Christian’s, and in Part II, Christiana’s escape from the City of Destruction, to eventually reach the Heavenly City. It is also, as allegory, the salvation story of any "Graceless" (Christian’s former name) reader who would heed the call of the good news of Jesus Christ and undertake the walk of discipleship, through trial and error, until death or the Lord’s return. Like any account of Christian salvation in Christ by God’s grace it is a story of:
- Providence and human agency – God saves as the Christian is called to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13);
- A story of the individual and the church – "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30) "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 38), "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13);
- In the world (Matthew 5: 14-16), but not of it (John 17: 14-18);
- Saved, being saved and striving to attain the salvation that is to come (1 Peter 1:3,5,9).
Moreover, as a protestant classic, is it a story not only full of biblical motifs and allusions, but also driven forward in its dynamics by the distressing and comforting reading of the book, the Bible (as per the illustrations of the book or scroll by William Blake below).
What does this story that is shaped by biblical salvation mean for Bunyan’s pilgrim?
First, that "progress" of the title is not the progress we might initially hear and imagine today. It is not, although it has been read this way, a text about moral improvement and social betterment. It is certainly not about God helping those who help themselves. Indeed, despite human agency of response, perseverance and gratitude, the narrow path for Christian is not an early version of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ nor a player centered online gaming universe. Progress is journey, along a determined path, established by God’s grace. It is, of course, the narrow and hard way of Jesus’s teaching (Matthew 7:13-14 ) wherein rest from the burdens of our sin in the journey is offered (Matthew 11:28-30).
Therefore, "The Pilgrim's Progress," secondly, is certainly not a book commending pilgrimage as a religious act of devotion or manner of securing merit before God. Biblically, the Christian life is referred to as the Way (Acts 9:2, 18:26), for followers of the Way, who is Jesus (John 14:6). Some critics have suggested that Bunyan interiorizes the Christian life, such is the projection beyond the real and material in the mode of his allegory, to make it a life of purely mental assent and often mental anguish. Only a world refusing spirituality of escape from creaturely condition would allow that individual ascent.
But, thirdly, progress in the way is never solo. Against readings that see Christian in Part I, for example, as about a dynamic and solitary hero, nothing is further from the case. Mercifully, the Christian reader need not turn solely inwards for their spiritual quest (however much searching for signs of election was part of the Puritan inheritance for Bunyan). The pilgrim "professor" (who professes faith in Christ and follows Him) will meet Evangelist, Help, Faithful or Hopeful along the way; they will find comfort and company and willing hearers of their testimony in the Interpreter’s House, the Palace Beautiful and along the path itself; finding themselves equipped for spiritual battle and nourished for the walk ahead. Christ, the Lord of the Way, is ever near, and his word of Promise, not the state of mind of the pilgrim, is the Key to safe passage – as Christian calls to mind in doubting castle (Hebrews 13:5-6).
If you’ve never read The Pilgrim's Progress, I’ve tried to allude to episodes of the text without spelling out full spoilers. In my next post I’ll give some guidance to a few different ways to find access to the book (in English, at least. Translations will wait for a later post).