After a full year of writing about 20th century Catholic theology, I’m excited to say that we’ll be moving on to writing about the Orthodox church in 2022. We’re staying with 20th century authors, as that’s our focus for this larger cycle, but we’ll be settling in with the Orthodox instead of the Catholics. After that we’ll move on to 20th century Protestant writers, and after that – well, wait and see. We’ve got one more Catholic text that we’re going to look at in December, but until then, I want to go off track for a moment. Let’s take a brief detour to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Written in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a buddy-cop road trip story about two blokes trying to get to the Celestial City. They literally just wander along and yak, with episodic encounters along the way – for instance, the famous Vanity Fair, or my personal favourite, the bit where they get locked in Doubting Castle by the Giant Despair. It’s the sort of thing that could be considered didactic, although that just wasn’t my experience reading it – I found it really personable and entertaining. I liked reading about these guys just wandering down the road and trading ideas. I think – like, sometimes when people object to this sort of allegorical writing, they complain that it’s all really obvious – that if you understand the underlying system of Christian thought, you don’t need to read the book, because it’s just doctrine wrapped up in a thin fictional veneer. Personally I don’t think that’s true – or at least it’s not what I got out of it. It’s a reading that misses some of the fun of the story.
Maybe this is the fault of decades of bad evangelical fiction trying to make people convert, but – you know, just to say explicitly, in the first place it’s bad history to read Pilgrim’s Progress as preachy. That’s pretty clearly superimposing our 21st century context onto Bunyan’s motivations as a writer. Secondly, I don’t think you can reduce Pilgrim’s Progress to ‘just Christianity’. Knowing the system of Christian belief doesn’t really obviate the need to read the book. There are plenty of texts that are built around particular ideas or systems of thought, and they don’t get these charges levelled at them. You wouldn’t say that if you understand Buddhism you can skip watching The Matrix. That’s obviously reductive. What about the sick dojo fight with Lawrence Fishburne? That’s not in the Platform Sutra. Even when texts are built around specific systems of belief, what’s interesting is not necessarily the system in and of itself, but watching to see how that system is worked through in practice. You don’t engage with a text just to learn about its abstract conceptual underpinnings – you engage just as much for the material moment-to-moment experience. That’s the case for many texts, including just about all genre fiction. Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, for instance – we talked about that earlier this week. You know all the basic Spiderman stuff. You know the villains, the characters – the tropes and frameworks of Spiderman are so well-established that you can make a whole movie out of different versions of that overarching framework coming together. The specific material manifestations of the Spiderman concept serve as a source of joy purely by the variations and specificities present in each particular manifestation.
With Pilgrim’s Progress, then, it’s similarly not just about Christianity as a concept. The fun of it is in watching these characters try and figure out how they’re supposed to use that system to navigate the life that’s put in front of them. The characters in Progress are always wandering off the path and getting into trouble – because as much as they can theoretically understand the systems and beliefs of Christianity, that doesn’t mean they apply those beliefs consistently or correctly. The capture in Doubting Castle, for instance, happens because Christian (the main character) leads his companion Hopeful off the path.
“Christian: Who could have thought that this path should have led us out of the way?
Hopeful: I was afraid on’t at the very first, and therefore gave you that gentle caution. I would have spoken plainer, but you are older than I.
Christian: Good brother be not offended, I am sorry I have brought thee out of the way, and that I have put thee into such eminent danger; pray my brother forgive me, I did not do it of an evil intent.”
Try as they might, they’re a couple of dumbasses who keep making stupid mistakes. The gap between what they’re supposed to be doing and what they actually do serves as the emotional heart of the text. It’s where all of the tension and interest lies – not in the straightforward explication of Christian doctrine, but in the gap between what it’s supposed to be and how these characters actually behave. Similarly, for the reader, getting bored because you know how Christianity works, because you know what the characters are supposed to be doing is almost refusing to engage in the human drama of the piece.
There’s an interesting little episode that illustrates this idea more clearly: the encounter with Talkative. As the characters walk along the road, they often cross paths with different individuals, who maybe walk with them for a bit, or who go off at cross-purposes. When Talkative turns up, he at first seems to be a pretty decent character. He’s very keen to join in their conversations:
“Faithful: Let us spend our time in discoursing of things that are profitable.
Talkative: To talk of things that are good to me is very acceptable; with you, or with any other; and I am glad that I have met with those that incline to so good a work.”
The discourse is a big part of Pilgrim’s Progress – there are parts which are essentially just the lads talking about different parts of the faith. They chat about their interpretations and understandings, and they correct each other and disagree with each other. So Talkative settles in to have a yak, and he’s really excited to talk about how interesting Christianity is: “Where shall he find things recorded so delightful, and so sweetly penned as in the holy Scriptures?” Faithful cautions him, saying that it’s not just about being delighted by sweet things: “to be profited by such things in our talk should be our chief design.” And Talkative kinda agrees, but counters that talking is an inherently valuable act that gives knowledge, which is profitable. And so they discourse for a bit, they have some theology banter, and then Christian pulls Faithful aside. He knows Talkative, and he knows what his problem is:
“Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith.”
So Faithful returns to chatting with Talkative, but this time starts pushing him about whether or not he puts his knowledge into action. He describes “a life answerable to [Christian] confession,” and asks directly whether Talkative lives such a life, or whether “standeth your religion in word or tongue, and not in deed and truth.” Talkative gets offended and departs, and Faithful and Christian carry on alone.
With this exchange, what we see is again the idea of Christianity in the abstract or conceptual sense as opposed to Christianity as lived experience. To reduce the book to its overarching religious framework is to be like Talkative – to prefer the idea over its practice and application to the individual life. The point of entry into the drama of Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t the structure of Christianity; it’s the very human attempt to work through its implications. It’s the journey, not the destination.