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#181: WHAT SHALL I DO TO BE SAVED?

#181: WHAT SHALL I DO TO BE SAVED? In these distracted and amnesiac days, I wonder what young readers make of The Pilgrim's Progress--if there is any way for them to make their way back to it. The imaginative leap required to read Bunyan must be enormous. Two terms that have been rendered nearly meaningless of late are allegory, now applied to wildly dissimilar works, and Puritanism, which in its early days had already fractured into “hot Protestant” dissenters, separating versus conforming Puritans, and mad-dog Presbyterians. Combine these two, allegorist and Puritan, and you get John Bunyan, and you get The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book most readers these days face with the enthusiasm they would show for catheters or dental surgery.

The difficulty is to get past the book’s dreadful reputation and return to the work itself. What struck me when I reread it recently was the imaginative grip of the story combined with the modest and simple beauty of the prose. Realistic fiction starts with detailed characterization and arrives at moral import; in Bunyan, the characters wear their traits in their names—Faithful, Talkative, Mr. Know-Nothing, Mr. Feeble-Mind—and then the author puts startlingly convincing skin on their bones. And for all the plain allegorical import, the scenes where the pilgrims are besieged by the crowd in Vanity Fair, or come near to drowning in their last crossing of the River of Death, are as involving and finally as frightening as in many a thriller. These were days when people's beliefs could easily lead to imprisonment or execution. The Pilgrim’s Progress is theological danger given flesh.

The framework is the simplest imaginable. Christian, the protagonist, discovers that he is living in the City of Destruction, and flees for Zion. On his way, joined by his fellow Faithful, he faces mobs, giants, cliffs, impassable rivers, and, every bit as dangerous, dissuaders and the unfaithful—people who have no notion that their houses are on fire. Christian’s way is frought, in a way that must have been entirely convincing during the sectarian battles of seventeenth-century England, and a time when the established church was seen by many as lax and corrupt. The Progress, thought of by many as a dreary and preachy book, is actually hot with the spirit of dissent. It is surely not mere coincidence that Bunyan is interred only a few hundred feet from William Blake, in Bunhill Fields in London, a nonconformist graveyard.

There are imperfections. In one dull swath towards the end, Christian and Hopeful argue their theology for pages and pages; it’s as if Bunyan came to distrust his allegorical approach and gave in to straight preachment. And though the Puritan belief of salvation purely by faith and not by works is easily enough argued and understood, it is alien to our sense of the importance of personal responsibility. As Kenneth Rexroth observed, there is no figure of ethical activism in Bunyan’s story. In one chill late passage Ignorance, so near to the gates of the Celestial City, is turned away on a theological nicety and carried off to hell. It’s at these pages that we may say, as Ignorance did, “That is your faith, but not mine.” The severity is happily much tempered in the second part of the book, when Christiana, Christian’s abandoned wife, pursues her own path to the City. This whole section is illumined with a softer and more joyous light, as Christiana and her sons (she got left with the kids, of course) and her friend Mercy make their own pilgrimage, on a path more often marked by friendship and hospitality.

It may not only be those aspects of Bunyan’s puritanism that separate us from him. Surely some of the distance must be laid to the vulgarization, nationalism, chauvinism, and plain flat ugly smugness that characterizes much of what Harold Bloom called “the American religion.” What the original and pristine message was of Christianity I would not hazard to guess, but I imagine it was some ways away from the televised nickel-licking fraudulence and manufactured emotion of much Christian practice today, with its megachurches that close their doors in times of flood. Young people who cannot get the stink of this out of their noses when they hear people speak of Christ may simply assume that Bunyan is more of the same—and will have lost the beauty of a book that has been a common property for generations.

A property not just in England and America, either. As the second book commences, Bunyan begins with a little crowing in rhyme as to how far afield Christian’s fame had reached. This is forgivable: the Progress, well past the bounds of Europe, was translated into dozens of African languages, became famous in Tamil, and may indeed have helped set a match to the blaze of the Taiping Rebellion. It has been filmed, staged, musicalized, televised, riffed on, quoted, mentioned, snitched from and parodied by writers from Thackeray to Vonnegut, by creators from Alan Moore to Winsor McKay and to (my favorite citation) an album by a “progressive metal deathcore band” called Slice the Cake. There have been an untold number of editions, and Blake did beautiful illustrations for the first part. Christian, the world over, soldiers onward.

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