John Bunyan’s classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress is often considered the one of the first true novels, second in chronology to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Bunyan’s most popular work allegorically tells the tales of Christian and Christiana (understood to be all Christians in a sense) and their journeys to heaven, called the Celestial City.
Though somewhat tedious to the modern reader, I undertook the reading of Parts I and II of Bunyan’s novel as the first step on my own journey toward gaining a classical education – one that my U.S. public primary education made no visible attempt to bestow upon me. So, many years later, I am going on this journey and will, from time-to-time, write about various topics related to those readings. (Next on my list is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).
So, what are some of the main takeaways from The Pilgrim’s Progress? Here, are the top nine.
For a video version similar to this article, check out the ThinkingWest Podcast episode here (and be sure to subscribe!):
1. The Way is Narrow
The first takeaway, particularly from Part I, which details the journey of Christian first, is that the path to heaven is narrow. This is exemplified in many instances throughout the book. While Christian treks through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the author notes, “The pathway was here exceedingly narrow…when he sought in the dark to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to top over into the mire on the other”.
The same idea is visited again when Christian and his friend Hopeful stray from the path, resulting in their capture by the ruthless Giant Despair (a literal giant) who dwells in Doubting Castle. This part of the story highlights how there is only one true path: all other paths leads to despair and doubt.
Not intending to belabor the point, I saw the same message in two more instances. Christian and Hopeful are tempted by a man named Demas to leave the path to gain wealth at the nearby silver mine. Luckily, Christian and Hopeful stayed true to the right path and were spared from the hidden death that awaits those in the silver mine.
Lastly, in Part II, Christiana and her fellow travelers were led very briefly off the one path by a Mr. Flatterer, who subsequently caught them in his net. Thus, Bunyan echoes the Biblical teaching that the way is narrow throughout his work.
2. Good Company Goes a Long Way
Keeping good company is not only important in our practical lives, but also in our spiritual lives. Bunyan makes this points abundantly clear in both Parts I and II, but particularly poignantly in Part II with the tale of Christiana’s journey to heaven. I noticed Christiana’s journey highlights fellowship and community much more than Part I does.
In Part I, Christian is largely alone for much of his adventure, though he eventually finds great help in the companionship of Faithful and Hopeful. But Christiana meets with a much greater number of like-minded pilgrims, including the characters of Mercy, Great-Heart, Honest, Valiant-for-Truth, Feeble-mind, Ready-to-halt, Mr. Despondency and his daugher Much-afraid, and Standfast. These Christian characters, along with Christiana’s children, eventually complete the journey to the Celestial City together (except for Great-Heart who goes back to help other Pilgrim’s before his death has come).
Furthermore, both Christian and Christiana found great comfort, aid, and encouragement from others that, though they did not make the Pilgrimage alongside them, nonetheless shared in their faith. These characters included the Interpreter (much like a pastor that interprets Biblical scripture), the family at the house called Beautiful, the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, and of course Evangelist (Jesus) himself. Christiana was also granted greater help that Christian through the kindness of Gaius and Mr. Mnason in Vanity Fair along with fellow townsman Penitent, Love-Saint, Contrite, Dare-not-Lie, and Holyman.
3. Bad Company Will Drag You Down
The perversion of good company is of course bad company: those peers that we either willingly or unwillingly travel with that only make the journey more difficult. Bunyan recognized the need for pilgrim’s to purge their company of negative influences, those who do not share a cogent theology or life style.
The first character who exemplified bad company was Talkative, who represented a “religious” man in talk only. He talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. Christian warned his friend Faithful of Talkative’s true nature after they met him soon after the Valley of the Shadow of Death; the two friends were speedily rid of him so as not to hinder their journey.
A second character exemplifying this point was By-Ends, who was similar in nature to Talkative. By-Ends was a “wearer of Religion”, one whom was religious when advantageous and nonreligious otherwise. As By-Ends put it himself, “…we are always most zealous when Religion goes in his Silver Slippers…”.
Lastly, there was Ignorance, who followed Christian and Faithful during their progression toward the River (which represented bodily death). Though Christian and Faithful tried to convince Ignorance of the error of his ways (for he did not live his faith out but assumed his place in Heaven), they ultimately had to leave him behind. Ignorance was not good company, as when he crossed the River he was taken into Hell. This episode was the finale of Bunyan’s Part I (the journey of Christian), as Bunyan memorably wrote, “Then, I saw that there was a away to hell, even from the Gates of Heaven…”.
In summary, we should not let our faith be hindered by those who impede it.
4. The Way is Difficult
Quite clear, more greatly from Part I than Part II, is that the way of the honest pilgrim is difficult. There were many difficulties along the way.
In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Bunyan described it like so: “…the pathway was here so dark, that oft-times when [Christian] lift up his foot to go forward, he knew not where, nor upon what he should set it next.” Here, Bunyan is highlighting one important way that the path of the pilgrim is difficult. The traveler is often times feeling lost, with no clear way forward; this leaves us only to trust in God above that we will make it through.
“Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear none ill, for thou art with me.” Bunyan took this line more or less directly from the Bible, as many will notice. This highlights that the Lord will guide us, though we walk through darkness.
From the same episode (Christian in the Valley), Bunyan goes further to describe the very real dangers of the journey, saying “the way was all along set so full of snares, traps, gins, and nets here, and so full of pits, pitfalls, deep holes, and shelvings down there, that had it now been dark, as it was when he came the first part of the way, had he had a thousands souls, they had in reason been cast away…” Bunyan here is saying that given a thousand lifetimes, Christian could not have made it through without the guidance of the Lord.
Beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Christian and Christiana’s journeys involved the “hill of difficulty”, the trial at Vanity Fair, the lions on the way to house Beautiful, the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, and many Giants.
The way of our Christian pilgrimage to Heaven is difficult, but it is through Christ that we can ultimately pass through the gates of the “Celestial City”.
5. Every Pilgrim’s Path is Different
All the Christians (Pilgrims) in Bunyan’s work ultimately began their journey at the Wicket Gate operated by Evangelist (Jesus). I believe the Wicket Gate may represent either 1) Baptism or 2) Jesus’ allowing of our knowledge of Him and desire to be with him in heaven.
Nonetheless, it is the hope of all those who go through the Wicket Gate to end up in the Celestial City (Heaven). However, every pilgrim in the Pilgrim’s Progress experiences a unique set of experiences, with a few common experiences.
Bunyan is pointing toward the reality that all Christian’s must turn away from the same evils (such as the “Seven Deadly Sins”) while each may struggle in different ways. In our world, this wholly true. We all must turn away from greed, lust, cruelty, laziness, etc. However, everyone has their weakness for one or two sins in particular.
Also, every Christian experiences different levels of help along their Pilgrimage: different levels of faith throughout their lifetimes, certain worldly and spiritual blessings, experiences, and the like. Though the paths are different, the destination is the same for those with whom the Lord is pleased.
6. Saints Inspire Other Pilgrims
Christian’s tale inspired many, as Bunyan writes through the lament of Christiana, “And thou dost for the Friends as my good Christian did for me when he left me: he mourned for that I would not heed nor regard him; but his Lord and ours did gather up his Tears, and put them into his Bottle; and how both I, and thou, and these my sweet Babes, are reaping the Fruit and benefit of them.” This quote makes clear that it was Christian’s successful pilgrimage that enabled Christiana, Mercy, and the Children to take up their own journey to the Celestial City.
Mr. Honest provides probably the best indication that Christian’s courageous journey to sainthood inspired many: “I have heard much of [Christiana’s] husband, and of his travels and wars which he underwent in his days. Be it spoken to your comfort, the name of your husband rings all over these parts of the world: his faith, his courage, his enduring, and his sincerity under all, had made his name famous.”
Just like Christian, the saints (Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example) have inspired many more Christians, and her devotion to Jesus has caused ripples throughout history.
7. A Pilgrim’s Tools Ought to Be Used
Scattered throughout the Pilgrim’s Progress are various tools, objects of great utility to those pilgrims blessed with them. For instance, Christiana was gifted a Bottle of Spirits by the Interpreter, which was a handy remedy for one of the Children suffering the effects of eating from the Devil’s garden.
Also, there was Great-Heart light, which guided him and his party through the Enchanted Grounds once a strange darkness had fallen around them. The light, in my analysis, represented the Word of God, which is the primary tool (the only tool for such Protestants as John Bunyan) for guiding us through the chaos and confusion of this world. In the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, there is also Tradition passed down from the original apostles that serves for clarifying what is true in today’s relativist world.
Another great tool was Christian’s armor (which is a common analogy to the defenses and weapons of the Christian against Satan), which helped him prevail against Apollyon (a servant of Satan or Satan himself).
Today, we have many great tools at our disposal: the Bible, the writings of the early Church fathers (e.g. St. Ignatius, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), history itself, the natural law, tradition, the examples of the saints, and the support of our fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
8. Evil Can Be Defeated
Another point that is implicit in Bunyan’s work is that Evil and Sin can be defeated, or at least overcome through the help of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, we cannot, as humans, overcome all evil, but we can very well route out evil both in our own lives and in the world.
In the book, Bunyan exemplifies this through Christian’s defeat of Apollyon, the demise of the three giants (Grim, Maul, and Despair), and toppling of Doubting Castle, and the wounding of the Monster (one that resembled the Beast in Revelations) that terrorized Vanity Fair.
In our lives, we can overcome, through the grace of God, the sins we struggle with every day. In the world, we can have a real impact on ending evils such as abortion, euthanasia, socialism, poverty, slavery, terrorism, and dangerous ideologies. At times in history, we also opposed the evils caused by powerful, evil men, such as Hitler and Stalin. WWII was a great example of a real but difficult defeat of evil that man, through the will of God, completed.
9. The Lord Helps Us in Our Journey
Lastly, Bunyan highlights that the Lord aids us when we are in need, and especially when we pray. When Christian was on the brink of defeat against Apollyon, Evangelist turned the tides of battle and rescued Christian.
Furthermore, when Christiana and her company, even by their own missteps, were captured by Flatterer, a “Shining One” (either Christ or an angel) cut them down to free them. The Children’s prayers helped to lift the darkness from their company whenever they could not see the way.
Likewise, Christ answers our prayers, though not always in the ways we expect. Further, he physically established his Church here on Earth to guide us. We are never alone in our pilgrimage.
Bunyan’s work the Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the greatest works of all times, especially within Christian literature. While reading it, I felt a great kick-in-the-pants (particularly when Bunyan emphasized the narrowness of the path) to make sure I’m doing my best to follow Christ. God bless.