Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan

On the one hand, I find this book pretty tedious; Bunyan works according to the dictum (originally addressed to speechwriters, I think) "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you told 'em" and he's not at all subtle about it. And I really can't find the characters or their dilemmas involving, nor wish them on their way to such a boring salvation as a city made all of gold and precious stones. However, reading this reminds me just how much the Non-Conformist (usually referred to rather inaccurately as Puritan) theology of Bunyan's community pervades American life nowadays. I keep nodding, saying "Yep, I recognize that; yep, that's what so-and-so was referring to." As far as I can tell, most aspects of this book are still relevant to Evangelical thought. However, there are also clear signs of the book's origins in the bloody 17th century. It's certainly very warlike. The pilgrims are always likely to be slain by enemies (among whom the Pope has an important place), and they go armed and armored, although Christian is only called on to actually do battle once. At one point, Christian is shown a treasure house containing the relics of past heroes, dear to God; every last one is a weapon with which Old Testament warriors overcame the foe. I can easily imagine Puritan soldiers reading such tales before going out to kill their neighbors, being as implacable to them as this book indicates God to be. However, to be sure, the theology being promoted is far more about maintaining a passionate love of Jesus in one's heart.

One thing that struck me is just how radical the religious and social model presented in this book is, the kind of thing that kept inspiring utopian communal settlements in the New World, and differing from most religion found nowadays, also from American Puritans (see Demos's A Little Commonwealth). Except for the insistence on obedience and submission to God, and the requirement that a literal interpretation of Scripture takes precedence over the individual conscience, it's very anti-authoritarian. At one point, a believer is asked what he should do if he does not understand a passage of Scripture, and the answer is that he should pray for illumination -- note that he does not ask a preacher for interpretation. There are no intermediaries between the believer and God, the only purpose of preachers being to encourage people to seek their own salvation. The model of society is also radically egalitarian, with Bunyan being very serious about choosing poverty. The believer is expected to take no heed of worldly laws, and participate as little as possible in politics and commerce. The community of believers support each other as they seek their own salvation; friendship and mutual aid is a big theme in this story. What's more, a woman is expected to put her own spiritual good above her husband's wishes! Bunyan explicitly says that women have an equal part in grace, and what they need to do for salvation is essentially the same as for men; obedience to her husband is no part of her duties if it would interfere with her Christianity. I can easily imagine some societies looking askance at The Pilgrim's Progress, especially the second part, as encouraging women to disobey and even leave their husbands.