Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan retold in today's English by Cheryl V. Ford



Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Powerful allegory in Christian’s journey
Cons: Christiana’s journey in the second half not as strong
The Bottom Line:
Journey of Christian
Facing trials, struggles of life
Still powerful now




Come Join Christian’s Journey to Celestial City

As a kid, I was exposed to The Pilgrim's Progress early thanks to the record of the children’s musical called Enchanted Journey that was based on this classic book and then the book Little Pilgrim’s Progress.  In fact, I was obsessed with the story for a while and read Little Pilgrim’s Progress back to back to back until I found the Chronicles of Narnia.  But that was years ago.  (Let’s not get into how many years ago, okay?)  So when a small group in my church started doing a book study based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, I jumped at the chance to revisit the story.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, it is a classic of literature.  It was written by John Bunyan and was started while he was in prison for illegally preaching the gospel in England during the late 1600’s.  It is an allegory told in the form of a dream.

As the book progresses, we follow Christian as he journeys from his home in the City of Destruction.  He has read that his city is doomed to be judged and he must undertake a journey to escape before it is too late.  Also bothering him is a huge burden on his back.  After meeting with Evangelist, he sets off on a journey along the straight and narrow path to the Celestial City.  But what might he encounter on the way?

Now, if you haven’t figured it out already, let me be clear right off the bat – Bunyan is not at all subtle in his allegory.  If what I already shared isn’t obvious enough, let me share about an encounter Christian has as he is leaving the City of Destruction.  Two of his friends, Obstinate and Pliable come to try to talk him out of his journey.  Obstinate refuses to listen to anything that Christian shares while Pliable goes along with him – until they encounter their very first obstacle.  At that point, Pliable turns and runs home with his tail between his legs.  So scenes like that are predictable as you read it based solely on character names.

And yet, you don’t read this book for the plot twists and surprises or well developed characters, something I had to rewire my brain for as I was reading.  Instead, the morals that Bunyan is trying to share are the reason to read this book.  Those are powerful, and his object lessons are still valid and sharp all these centuries later.  At times, the book reads more like sermons as the characters discuss things back and forth.  It’s sneaky since I would never pick up a book like that, but those scenes were good and always made me stop and think.

Of course, the allegory breaks down at times and things appear and disappear at times when the plot calls for it.  Yet if you take each chapter by itself, there are lessons to learn and things to think about.

Christian’s journey takes up the first half of the book, and is the best known part of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  However, Bunyan wrote a sequel, which details the journey of Christian’s wife Christiana and their four kids.  It is interesting to read it since, while following the same route, the encounters and difficulties are different.

However, I found I didn’t enjoy this half as much as the first half.  Yes, it suffers from the curse of the sequel – the sequel just isn’t as good as the original.  There were other issues with the second half as well.  For example, while the first half definitely had continuity issues, the second half had more as characters seemed to age very quickly and it seemed like Bunyan was forcing things into the story.  Maybe it was the dream framework of the story at work.  The action seemed a bit more forced and the sermons much less sharp.  The second half is certainly worth reading, but there is a reason the first half is better known – it’s the better story and allegory.

Since Bunyan wrote this so long ago, he wrote it in old English.  I don’t know if I could make it through this book in his original version.  This particular edition was translated into modern English about twenty years ago by Cheryl Ford.  She has done a great job of making the story readable for modern audiences while still maintaining Bunyan’s voice.  The difference in writing style between today and 400 years ago is still obvious, and my issues with the narrative were the result of the differences in storytelling between then and now.  Mrs. Ford has kept in the notes and Scripture references from Bunyan’s original in the margins as well.  Additionally, at the end of the book are indexes - an index of all Scriptures referenced and one of the events and characters in the novel.  There are even a few discussion questions for the chapters that cover Christian’s journey.  The book is also filled with the calligraphy of Timothy Botts.  I found this fun and enjoyed seeing how he interpreted the various places and character names.

There was a reason I loved this story as a kid – The Pilgrim's Progress is an amazing allegory of the Christian life with warnings and encouragement for all.  While the second half isn’t as strong, this is a book still well worth reading today.

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