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Book Review: The Pilgrim’s Progress

I’m starting out a program for this year that I am calling the “great book by a dead guy of the month club.”  Every month this year I will pick a different dead guy and read and review one of his books.  Upcoming classics may include The Mortification of Sin by John Owen, Holiness by J. C. Ryle, The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter, The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer, possibly something by Edwards, maybe Fenelon as well.  I’m also open to nominations and suggestions!

To start the year, what better book than what is widely considered the single most significant Christian book in the English language, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.  To recap the backstory, John Bunyan was a seventeenth century English pastor who was jailed for twelve years for preaching without an official license from the state at that time.  While in jail he wrote this book, which has probably been translated into more languages than any other work except the Bible.

I hadn’t read this book in a long time, and when I first started it I thought, “Gee, I’m going to have to like it—how can I publish a negative review of the most famous book in history?”  Fortunately, my fears were indeed unfounded.  Pilgrim’s Progress, despite its age, remains a book that makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you love God more.

The book is an allegory: it tells the imaginary story of a man named Pilgrim, from the time he realizes he is in the city of Destruction, and follows his and his companions’ journeys through good times and bad to the Celestial City which he seeks.  In it are many insights about life as a Christian and life outside of Christ.  One of the beauties of the book is that Bunyan draws on so many different themes—fear, dark times, temptation, despair, hope, friendship, slander, greed, mercy, just to name a few—and then shows us the right & wrong way to respond to each of these through the characters and events of the book.  Therefore everyone will appreciate the lessons of the book in a unique way, according to what he is experiencing in his own walk with God.

I was most impressed with the passion and singlemindedness of Christian–in the first few pages of the book, once he is convicted of his sin, he starts to run away from the city of Destruction, “but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, “Life! Life! Eternal Life!”"  How often I lack the passion to just get up early for prayer, and this man runs, desperately blocking out all else but the one great prize that he knows he must win.

The other theme that most spoke to me was that of the pilgrims’ constant focus on their destination, their hope of heaven, which provided them the strength and courage to face any trial.  More on the preciousness of our hope tomorrow.

What Have I Bought at Vanity Fair?

In the book Pilgrim’s Progress, the two men Christian and Faithful enter a town called Vanity and a “fair” (which in medieval times was both entertainment as we commonly think of fairs and a place to buy all sorts of things).   The fair was filled with “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, titles, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, silver, gold, precious stones, games, plays…of every kind.”

So, how is Vanity Fair like my own life?

 1.  There was no way to get to Heaven except going through this fair—all of us living in this world have to face going through “Vanity Fair”, having the opportunity to look, desire, purchase, and experience things that, in the end, are “vain”—contribute nothing to the kingdom of God or our soul’s health or our journey to heaven.

2.  The maker of the fair is Satan himself—he is behind every booth and stall.

3.  The sole purpose of the fair was to slow down and if possible stop the pilgrims’ progress toward Heaven.  The fair was designed like a mine field is designed for a soldier—a path that appears safe but harbors things deadly beneath the surface.  And so it is with many such things in our lives—they seem to be “innocent” enough pleasures, experiences, and indulgences, but what is their purpose and their effect on our lives?

4.  Jesus Himself passed through the fair, having a nature like our own, and yet, He “left the town, without laying out so much as one farthing upon these Vanities”.  Christ never allowed Himself any divergence, any indulgence, anything that distracted or impeded Him from His Father’s will.

5.  Christian and Faithful did not allow themselves even to look over the merchandise, lest they be tempted to buy, and when the sellers called out to them, “they would put their fingers in their ears, and cry “Turn away mine eyes from beholding Vanity”, and look upwards, signifying, that their trade and traffic was in Heaven.”

6.  Not only were they misunderstood by others in the town, but vilified, imprisoned, and Faithful was even executed for His refusal to participate and agree with their belief and culture.  When was the last time you saw a Christian who had so little interest in the pleasures and possessions of this world that he even stood out from the crowd, not to say stood out so much he was persecuted for it?

After reading the whole passage, the thought that struck me most strongly was, “What have I bought or wanted to buy at Vanity Fair?”  The answer is different for each of us, but each of us should be able to make a list.  A thinner body, a better paying job, new golf clubs or a new electronic gizmo, a “that dress looks great on you” or a “good hustle on the business project”, watching our favorite TV show when we haven’t spent any time with God. And I think that Jesus emptied Himself off every possession and honor to live and die on this earth, and that I keep trying to justify “little things”, a vice here, an indulgence there, as just part of being human, part of living life.  I have no excuse, and I have no recourse except to pray, “God, show me what I have bought at Vanity Fair, and let my hands throw it down and let my eyes be steadfast toward Your kingdom.”