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The Norman Transcript February 05, 2007 12:15 am — For The Transcript The influence of authors and books is often fascinating and unpredictable. A nearly forgotten 17th century author was remarkably successful although poorly trained for his role. One of his books went through 59 editions in the first 100 years after its publication. Before his death it sold some 100,000 copies. And it has been translated into more than 100 languages. In colonial America many homes had a copy, and the vocabulary of the author permeates our language. But ironically enough, now in the 21st century we rarely buy it, scarcely hear it mentioned in conversation, give little attention to it in the schools and only a minority of homes are likely to have a copy. The book in question, John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," has faded into the category of the all but forgotten, unread but sometimes honored classics. Bunyan's talents were a product of inheritance, experience and his religious environment. He was born into a Puritan culture, but its full impact did not really come home until he became convinced divine forgiveness would redeem his sinful nature. For Bunyan and for American and English society the influence of Puritanism was profound. Its stance was Protestant, a position intensified by the conviction that the Church of England needed further "purification" from the practices of Roman Catholicism. A century before Bunyan the English Church had been established with Henry VIII as its head. That reform was gratifying to many enemies of the historic Church and the "Puritan Revolution" also promoted Parliamentary government. Puritan beliefs were truly revolutionary. Posture tended to be stiff, dress simple. Frequently they used Hebrew names showing the influence of the Bible, just as they called upon Scriptural phrases. Many conventional amusements were held sacrilegious. As is frequently the case with those who have acquired "absolute truth," the Puritans flinched at traditional scholarship. Daily attention to Scripture was sufficient, for this revealed the final destiny of humankind and laid out the pathway to salvation. Expressing the arrogance of certainty, they thought prelates, priests and noblemen were misguided. They disdained "Popery" and fell into vices matching barbarian ruthlessness such as burning or drowning "witches." This was "justified" by mythology, theology, terror and paranoia, but it spun a thread of remorseful tragedy for some of us descended from families that lost members to the purifying flames of New England fires. Some men live two lives, one before a religious conversion and a second one after. John Bunyan was such a man. Born in Bedfordshire, about 40 miles north of London, four years before John Locke and Spinoza, he came from a humble background and received very little education. He worked with his father as a tinker -- a craftsman who usually repaired metal products -- lost his mother when he was 15, and then became a member of the Parliamentary New Model Army. This was Cromwell's reorganized and highly disciplined army fighting for the Puritan cause, one that decisively defeated the Cavalier-Royalist forces in several major battles. Bunyan served in the army for more than two years. This experience broadened his view of life and especially influenced his thought through contact with the pro-Parliament anti-Royalist forces. The next few years were critical for Bunyan; he read from his wife's religious books, brought his long-suffering inner religious struggle to a conclusion by conversion, joined the Baptist Church and became a preacher. Bunyan was caught in the trap that politics often poses for independent-minded people -- obey the law even if it is unjust or face imprisonment. The Church of England was the State Church. Two laws in particular restricted the freedom of those not committed to it: one required acceptance by the clergy of the "Book of Common Prayer" -- a requirement imposed by the 1662 Act of Uniformity, and another forbade the gathering of non-conformists -- a prohibition imposed by the 1664 Conventional Act. Bunyan's theological and religious independence ran afoul of these laws so he understandably would up in prison on several occasions. His prison time was not wasted, for Bunyan wrote a number of original and influential discourses. His first
major prison publication was "Grace Abounding...." This was a spiritual history composed with intensity, conviction and sincerity -- characteristics of all his work. Bunyan tells of his limited background, his sinful youth, the stress of military service and the slow emergence of Christian insight. Toward the end of his first imprisonment -- a 12 year term for preaching without a license -- Bunyan wrote his masterpiece, "The Pilgrim's Progress." This is an allegory -- a story intended to teach in which abstractions such as truth, virtue and faith stand for characters. Bunyan is writing an autobiographical dream, one carrying Christian -- the hero of the narrative -from the City of Destruction to Paradise, the Celestial City. So passionate is his drive for heaven, Christian even feels compelled to leave his wife and children. Bunyan saw himself as a terrible sinner, but the Puritan vision contained grace and forgiveness sufficient even for the worst of us. He struggles through the Slough of Despond. This is a mire, a swamp, which arouses fear and anxiety revealing to Bunyan how evil he is and how totally lost. The next threat is Vanity Fair. Here Beelzebub is "the chief lord of the fair." His offerings remind one of ancient Rome or in some ways of modem civilization -- "pleasures and delights of all sorts, whores ... gold, precious stones, cheats, games, plays, fools ... knaves, rogues ... murderers...." But Bunyan's dream-pilgrimage is not over, for he must climb the Hill of Difficulty, cross the Plain of Ease and pass the River of Death. Christian and his companion, Hopeful, finally arrive at the gates of the Celestial City. Over it is written in gold: "Blessed are they that do his commandments ... they may enter...." And just before he wakes from his dream comes an amazing revelation -- not only is there a path from the City of Destruction to Heaven, so also is there a path from the Golden Gates to Hell. One can get close, fail through sin and descend into Perdition. So mysterious and complicated does our existence appear to some imaginative and visionary minds. Bunyan's obstinate determination made his preaching and writing possible. Although untutored, he was a superior storyteller. His style is forthright and clear, distinguished by vivid simplicity and grounded in Christian conviction. Bunyan's characters are ingenuous yet real. We know immediately the deficiencies of "Mr. Worldly Wiseman" and "Talkative" as well as "Mr. Badman." And his reference to "Ignorance" as a "good talker" anticipates George Orwell's imaginative use of language. Bunyan's failure to attract the modem mind is partly explained by the dominant qualities of our civilization -hedonism, materialism and the corruption of institutionalized religion. Hedonism and materialism as values are inevitable results of capitalism and stripping ethical principles from economic thought. Corruption is best explained by continuing efforts -- all too successful -- to politicize institutional religion, and the churches' continuing efforts -- also all too successful -- to acquire power and wealth. Any thoughtful freshman in seminary, or for that matter any reflective citizen, can readily see that the Christian message of love, sharing, forgiveness and relieving the downtrodden has all too often been set aside for material, political and social success. How else can we explain clerical compromise with wealth, fascism and political ambition? We pay a dreadful price for neglecting the wisdom of our cultural forebears. Edmund Burke counseled, when writing on the French Revolution, that politics and the pulpit have little in common and that the church ought to be a place of relief from the "dissensions and animosities of mankind." In final analysis Bunyan instructs and enlightens us. He teaches us among other things that dedication and perseverance are preconditions for success. Bunyan stands in a long line of seminal writers, an honored tradition extending from the Anglo-Saxon poets to the present. All are creative minds whose interpretations of life may very, but who make English literature preeminent. Whatever our personal religious views may be Bunyan made an original and provocative contribution to that tradition. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs monthly in The Transcript. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.
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