For a few years now one of my side hobbies has been that of defending and/or explaining The Pilgrim’s Progress. For various reasons, modern Christians have taken it into their heads to feel very superior to it, I can’t really explain why. Our generation has a very cordial dislike of allegory, but the medievals were crazy about it, and maybe we ought to get out more. Bunyan wrote within a standard and accepted form for his day, and his religious genius, combined with his pitch perfect ear for dialog, resulted in quite a compelling work. It is one of a handful of books that I am reading all the time. Whenever I finish it, I just start over again.
One of the criticisms of The Pilgrim’s Progress is that it is an allegory of an individualistic pilgrimage. You get your sorry little self saved, you get out of the City of Destruction, you make every effort to get yourself into the Celestial City, and there is one long road between the two cities with just you on it. Thus we have the genesis of lone ranger Christianity.
There are several things to say about this, but I will save the more important answer for last.
The first is that we have a distressing tendency to evaluate things by “emphasis” or “centrality” or “tendencies” or “omissions.” Done wisely this can be done well, but it is rarely done wisely. Judging a work for its omissions is a tricky business — I once heard John Calvin criticized for his ability to write something as important as the Institutes without any reference to the beauty of the Alps. And he was right there, living in the Alps. Was the man a blind Philistine? A lout? I don’t know — was St. Matthew a lout? Never once did he tell us how blue the Sea of Galilee was, with the sunlight glinting off the tips of the waves.
This is not a safe method of critical analysis. The book of Esther has no reference to God in it. The book of Job has no reference to the church. The book of Philemon is extremely thin on the sacraments, and absolutely no description of the mosaic in the entryway to Philemon’s house.
Moreover, Bunyan wrote multiple books. Perhaps we should look for his expressed doctrine of the church in The Holy City. I wouldn’t want people to pick one of my books, even one of the more successful ones, and judge what was important to me from simply that one title. You can’t say everything every time. If I am preaching through an Old Testament book, this is not the same thing as neglecting the New.
But here is the second response to the concern about “individualism” in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It simply isn’t true. One of the reasons this charge has surface plausibility is because we have been taught to look for that. If a teacher tells a class that The Pilgrim’s Progress doesn’t have any real place for the church, it is easy for many students to just write that down in their notes, thinking they know that now. The claim has surface plausibility because it is quite true there are no steeples, or church bells, or sextons, or stained glass windows. There is no formal worship service, with a designated guy up front. On this score, see above.
But if you understand the church to be a company of saints, at least two or three gathered around the Name, The Pilgrim’s Progress is almost fierce in its ongoing insistence on the need for fellowship, on the need believers have for one another. This book is no manual for the solitary pilgrim. There are no solitary pilgrims in it. Right at the beginning of his pilgrimage, Christian is oriented at Interpreter’s House. Christian then travels with Faithful, and after Faithful is martyred, he is joined by Hopeful. In the Delectable Mountains, they are guided by wise shepherds. They encounter guidance, teaching, and fellowship along their way.
When Christiana follows her husband, she is accompanied by her four sons, and a young woman named Mercy. They stop at the Interpreter’s House also, and Mercy is courted by a certain Mr. Brisk, who gives it up because of her dedication to mercy work — serving others. Later, when they come to Vanity Fair (which was calmer than it was when Faithful died), they promptly searched out the other believers who lived there.
“Wherefore the Pilgrims grew acquainted with many of the good People of the town, and did them what service they could. Mercy, as she was wont, laboured much for the Poor, (wherefore their bellies and backs blessed her,) and she was there an ornament to her profession” (p. 334, emphasis mine).
Christiana’s oldest son marries Mercy, and the others marry Mnason’s daughters–Grace, Phebe, and Martha. Those daughters were rich in good works also, and a blessing to the community. “They were all of a very good nature, and did much good in their places” (p. 334). We now have a company of eleven, counting Great-heart.
In short, there are places of fellowship and encouragement all along the way — for example, House Beautiful, or Mnason’s house. The number of the saints that encourage them along the way is not small–Great-heart, Standfast, Valiant-for-Truth. But it is no superhero comic book, because they also pick up, and gladly bear with, Feeble-mind and Ready-to-Halt. By the time they reach the river, they have quite a small band. And what is the church but a shared pilgrimage (1 Pet. 2:11)?
When we look at what actually happens in this book we can divide it up into two main kinds of activities — resisting or fighting the bad guys, or fellowshipping with the good guys. This is given to us in the form of an allegory, a form that our generation does not understand very well. And they are on the road the entire time. So that fellowship occurs in places and in ways that we are not used to, but it is manifestly there. I dare say there are many modern churches that could learn a great deal about koinonia from Bunyan. Fellowship is more than coffee and donuts, which are not mentioned either.