“When enduring all this persecution…” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (4)

While enduring all this persecution, Christian and Faithful remembered what their faithful friend Evangelist had told them about the suffering that would happen to them. This strengthened their resolve to bear all the abuse and await patiently the outcome of their situation. They also reminded one another for their mutual comfort that whichever one of them suffered death would have the best outcome. Therefore each secretly hoped that he might be the one chosen for that fate. Nevertheless, each committed himself to the wise plans of Him who rules all things, and so they were content to remain in their current condition until it should please God to use them otherwise.

Then at the appointed time they were led to their trial, which was planned with only one purpose in mind—the condemnation of them both. First they were brought before their enemies and formally charged. The judge’s name was Lord Hate-Good. Their indictments were the same in substance, though somewhat varying in form. The contents were as follows: “That they were enemies to, and disturbers of, trade; that they had made commotions and divisions in the town and had won a faction over to their own most dangerous opinions, in contempt of the law of the prince.”1

Personal reflection

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One of the tragic fruits of cultural Christianity, at least as it’s stood in the West for the last 50-odd years, has been our being lulled into a false sense of security. We expect the culture to be “for” us, when it’s only natural that it would be against us. After all, the gospel is an offense to those who do not believe. When it takes root, things inevitably start changing, from business practices to sexual ethics.

So is it any wonder, then, that (as we’ve just seen in New York) churches can be barred from renting public spaces and lease agreements can be cancelled? Is it any surprise that someone holding to a traditional view of marriage would be forced to resign from his position in the name of keeping corporate America “inclusive, safe, and welcoming to all”?

Is it any wonder, then, that we seen so many Christians fail under the weight of the temptation to compromise, to give in and go along with the cultural scene?

Christian and Faithful endured their trial, one met his end. This is not (yet) the world we face in North America. But it could be, eventually. If we can barely whether the storm of cultural distaste, how can we stand against true opposition? Lord, grant us mercy.

Reading with Ryken

The episode of Vanity Fair became so famous in the cultural history of England and America that it has held the status of a proverb and familiar metaphor for the cheap and trivial. On the story level, Bunyan does two things to make the episode come alive in our imagination. First he draws upon his great descriptive ability to paint a verbal picture of a crowded local fair or concentration of street booths for selling trinkets and entertainment. He secondly creates a plot conflict of the utmost intensity as the evil crowd victimizes a pair of helpless travelers. This expands into a false trial with a stacked jury. Everything in the episode makes our blood boil in protest against what is happening.2

Next week (in a couple of weeks, actually)

The next discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters eight and nine.

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. Here, again, is a bit of insight from Ryken to help guide our discussion:

There is no more modern or contemporary chapter in Pilgrim’s Progress than this one. Our day specializes in the cheap and tawdry, and Vanity Fair in effect gives us an outline into which we can fit manifestations from our own culture. What links are suggested to you? Equally, the unwillingness of an unbelieving society to allow Christians to live their religious lives in peace is something that every Christian faces; what have been the examples of persecution and discrimination in your own life and observations? The temptations to a life of wealth and earthly success are also always at hand in the modern world; what forms have they taken for you? On a broader cultural scope, what are the current manifestations of the “prosperity gospel” that By-ends and his friends represent?3

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

“All this is true, and much more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (3)

Apollyon accused, “You almost fainted when you first set out, when you almost choked in the Swamp of Despond. You also attempted to get rid of your burden in the wrong way, instead of patiently waiting for the Prince to take it off. You sinfully slept and lost your scroll, you were almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions, and when you talk of your journey and of what you have heard and seen, you inwardly desire your own glory in all you do and say.”

“All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention,” Christian agreed. “But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive. Besides, these infirmities possessed me while I was in your country, for there I allowed them to come in. But I have groaned under them, have been sorry for them, and have obtained pardon from my Prince.”1

Personal reflection

If I ever flirted with the idea of the Christian life being one of health, wealth and happy relationships, God effectively ripped such notions out of my head and heart very quickly. My earliest weeks as a believer were filled with strife and conflict.

  • Sins I’d committed (all related to speech) were levelled against me.
  • Conflict with family over lifestyle changes created tension.
  • Trying to untangle the mess of Emily’s and my pre-Christian life together into something pleasing to God nagged at us.

This was a time of intense accusation mixed with serious conviction.

I wonder if this is the case for more of us than we think—and I wonder if it’s part of the reason so many get frustrated in their walk with the Lord? There seems to be an assumption that everything should be coming up Milhouse once we put our faith in Jesus. And as soon as anything remotely bad (or mildly inconvenient) comes up, we start shouting, “Why isn’t this working? Where are you, God?”

We forget that the Christian life is a war. It’s a war that’s already one, to be sure, but a war nonetheless. Our enemy is constantly accusing us, and yet we do not need to despair. We win the battle when say with Christian, “All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention… But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive.”

Reading with Ryken

At a purely narrative level, the two episodes are among Bunyan’s most inspired creations. They take their place among the best of epic and romance adventures and are triumphs of the literary genre known as “fantasy.” Doubtless the book of Revelation was an influence on Bunyan’s imagination when he composed this chapter. The journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is equally heightened, replete with such archetypal details as a place “as dark as pitch” and a narrow path with “a very deep ditch” on one side and “a very dangerous” bog or quagmire on the other. Adventures such as the two in this chapter require a childlike willingness to be terrified by monsters and dangers. C. S. Lewis’s comment on Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene applies equally to Pilgrim’s Progress: it requires a dual response, one childlike and the other sophisticated and able to figure out the allegorical meanings of the details.

On the allegorical level, then, we are given pictures of the power of evil in the form of what the Bible calls “principalities and powers.” Compared to these giant threats, the more subtle obstacles to the Christian faith represented by people named Talkative and Timorous seem rather tame. The dangers through which Christian passes in this chapter are more than human.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters six and seven.

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. A few questions and points to consider:

  1. How does Christian’s battle with Apollyon reflect your own experiences as a believer?
  2. What similarities do you see between the physical details of Christian’s adventures to this point and the dangers we face in our spiritual lives?
  3. What means has God given us to overcome these dangers?

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

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.1

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

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. A few questions and points to consider:3

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

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

Leland Ryken wants to help you study The Pilgrim’s Progress

Last week I invited you all to read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me starting in March. Today, in partnership with my friends at Crossway, I’m giving away two copies of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from their Christian Guides to the Classics series by Leland Ryken (which, incidentally, officially releases today!).

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In each book in this series, literary expert Ryken takes readers through some of history’s greatest literature while answering anticipated questions along the way. Each book:1

  • Includes an introduction to the author and work
  • Explains the cultural context
  • Incorporates published criticism
  • Defines key literary terms
  • Contains discussion questions at the end of each unit of the text
  • Lists resources for further study
  • Evaluates the classic text from a Christian worldview

In this volume, Ryken leads readers through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, offering insights into the nature of faith, the reality of temptation, and the glory of salvation.

Ryken’s volume is sure to be an excellent resource to all of us during our community reading project. To enter, sign up using the handy-dandy PunchTab app. The contest closes tonight at midnight. Enjoy!