“What shall I do?” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (1)

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a certain place where there was a cave; and I lay down in that place to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed a dream, and in this dream I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a place with his face turned away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a heavy burden upon his back.

I looked and saw him open the book and begin to read; and as he read, he wept and trembled. Not being able to contain himself, he cried out in a loud voice, “What shall I do?”

It’s impossible to overstate the power of the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress.1 Bunyan masterfully captures the plight of man in his description of Christian—he is a man burdened, weeping, utterly destroyed by the book he carries. But he cannot turn away from its pages.

He can only read and cry out, “What shall I do?”

Personal reflection

How many of us have faced a similar crisis in our own hearts? Conviction comes—and what shall we do?

Many of us, like Christian, keep it to ourselves for as long as possible. We pretend everything is fine, even though we’re troubled to the core of our being. Sooner or later, though, we reach a breaking point and can no longer keep what’s going on hidden—”For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

And, as is so often the case, when we speak, people begin to reject us. They find our message absurd, laughable, ignorant. Family rejects us. Friends scorn us. Some come alongside us and encourage us to stay on the path; others seek to draw us away. We have moments of joy, from which we quickly slip into the slough of despond…

This is how the journey to the celestial city begins for so many of us.

Reading tips from Ryken

But the first chapter of The Pilgrim’s Progress is equally as demanding as it is captivating. As Leland Ryken puts it well in his guide to this classic book, “Part of the genius of Pilgrim’s Progress is that it requires readers to analyze the symbolic level of the story and in particular to figure out the nuances of the theological truth that is embodied in the narrative details.”2

So as we feel our way around the first chapter, we need to consider what each detail symbolizes and what it teaches us about the Christian life at the point at which Christian finds himself on the journey. But even so, we would do well to heed Ryken’s advice as he offers four tips for reading this book:3

(1) The most important prerequisite for enjoying this book as literature is the ability to abandon oneself to the travel motif and the adventure genre. At this level, the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals. (2) Equally, we need to relish the technique of allegory in which places and characters bear the names of abstract qualities. But the word allegory does not quite do justice to what is happening, so we need to add the concept of symbolic reality, which results when we enter a realm of the imagination in which the leading ingredient is a “forest” of symbols. (3) Putting the previous two points together, Pilgrim’s Progress requires us to read at a physical level as the basis of everything else, but also to see that the two protagonists have undertaken a spiritual and psychological journey in addition to the physical journey. (4) The primacy of the spiritual governs everything that Bunyan does in the story and determines his storytelling techniques and choice of material.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Two points to consider:

  1. How does this chapter portray the lost state of man?
  2. How does what you’ve read in this chapter reflect or differ your own experience?

Feel free to post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

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