New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Pilgrim's Revamp

Simon Parke

It's the seventh bestselling book in English ever - but how many of us have actually read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress? Simon Parke attempted a modern update of the supposedly timeless puritan classic with the help of modern psychology.


Who would Adam and Eve it? The work of an uneducated working- class boy, started while behind bars, went on to become the seventh bestselling book in the English language - and was seminal in creating the art form we now call the novel. Published in 1678, Pilgrim's Progress - or to give it its fuller title, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come has been translated into 200 languages and never been out of print1. That's a classic by anyone's definition. Although instantly popular, with 11 editions printed before his death in 1688, Bunyan's work reached its high water mark of influence in the 19th century when it was a standard volume in nearly every literate household in England and the USA. Most children would read it alongside the Bible and Shakespeare. Have you?

The premise of the story is simple. Christian, an everyman character, sets off from his home in the City of Destruction to travel to the Celestial City where God dwells. It isn't an easy journey. His wife and children don't share his vision for the future which means he sets off alone; and once on the journey, things don't get any easier. On his way to glory, Christian faces fear, temptation, despair, imprisonment, bad advice, ignorance, slander and greed. There's Hill Difficult, the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and the fearsome Doubting Castle as well as more congenial settings such as House Beautiful and the Delectable Mountains. And what a fine cast of characters people this adventure: rogues and heroes, the deluded and the wise: figures such as Giant Despair, Legality, Judge Hate Good, Hopeful, Civility, Ignorance, Faithful, the temptress Lady Wanton and Talkative - who lived in Prating Row. (He loved discussing religion without any very obvious change in his behaviour.)

The book died a little in the 20th century however. Taken out of a supportive culture, where everyman was no longer a Christian, it began to look less like a story for the world and more like a book for Protestants - and in particular, Protestants of a Puritan bent. It was still a classic but one of those classics that people no longer read very much. It is a sobering thought that were the seventh bestselling book of all time to be written today only a niche religious publisher would run with it. So what's happened?

Perhaps I can best answer that by declaring an interest. Recently I was invited by a publisher to give Bunyan's famous work a 21st-century makeover. I was presented with the question: if Bunyan was to write of spiritual journey today, what would be the result? I'm hardly the first to adapt this classic. Enid Blyton wrote a popular children's version called The Land Far Beyond2 while C.S. Lewis used the framework shortly after his conversion to describe his own spiritual journey in the book The Pilgrim's Regress3. It was quite different from the original, with new settings and characters and by Lewis' own admission not his best work. It was true for him but on the page made for a slightly dry intellectual debate lacking the immediacy and lively characters of the original.  

As I contemplated my task, however, it was the difference between these two works which was both revealing and liberating. They were different because Lewis' spiritual path was not Bunyan's; and because his era was not Bunyan's. Bunyan wrote as an ex-soldier in the English Civil War during which he fought for the Roundheads. It was their victory under Cromwell which ushered in the fiercely non-conformist English Republic. But with the death of Cromwell, the Republic collapsed, monarchy returned and the Puritans were fighting for survival. The enemy was now Roman Catholicism and the deep suspicion in which it was held was revealed in political events at the time. The year Pilgrim's Progress was published, 1678, was also the year of the Popish Plot, an entirely fictitious conspiracy invented by the unloveable Titus Oates. He falsely claimed there was a Catholic plot to kill King Charles II and 15 innocent men were duly executed. Pilgrim's Progress has its own anti-Catholic agenda: the Pope appears, cast as a decrepit giant, once a tyrant but now toothless.

Lewis, however, lived in different times with different bogeymen. By the 1940s the secular tide had swamped large areas of academia and it was amid such intellectual scepticism that Lewis, a professor of English at Oxford University, found God.  In Pilgrim's Progress, Christian is obsessed by sin and free only when he leaves his burden in the Place of Deliverance, which is the cross. But Lewis has no such burden. In The Pilgrim's Regress, the everyman figure of John finds deliverance not at the cross but in intellectual answers to his problems. Different person, different times, different spirituality, different story. So what would be the story today? And at what points does Bunyan's Puritan spirituality of the 17th century need some gentle dismantling?

Perhaps one of the major shifts in spirituality since Bunyan wrote is in our attitude towards the world. Jesus may have encouraged us to take note of creation, whether it was flowers, children or the harvest. But in Bunyan's spirituality, the world is the enemy; it is the City of Destruction with nothing to offer but danger. Bunyan is wise to discern the difference between travellers and pilgrims. All the characters Christian meets are travellers but not all are pilgrims; pilgrims are those who learn from their travels. But for Bunyan, they do this through a relationship not with creation but with the Bible. The uneducated Bunyan had learned to read late in life and as a late convert to the cause, its importance is hammered home again and again in his story. Pilgrim's real salvation and happiness lie in understanding the scriptures, it's as simple as that. Those who have not read and do not understand the Bible are disappointed - and by implication disappointing - and will not reach the Celestial City.

Bunyan was jailed in 1660 by the Church of England for preaching without a licence after the restoration of the monarchy. He spent 12 years in prison at a time when non-conformism had its back to the wall. With scripture as their defining motif, we should not be surprised at its status in the story. In a changing world, Bunyan was fighting for his own identity. But in different times, it can appear a small spirituality, narrow in its discernment of the divine and limiting of God. It was St Francis of Assisi who in the 13th century greeted a slug with the words, 'Brother Slug, what message do you have from God for me today?' and the same spirit pervades my updated version of Bunyan's classic: Pippa's Progress: A pilgrim's journey to heaven4.

Yes, Pilgrim is now a woman and at one point, we find her hesitating at the entrance to the Garden of Sadness. A disturbed egg-shaped figure called Breathless and Terrified has just run away in fear of this place when Pippa encounters a butterfly.  

At that moment, the butterfly reappeared. It seemed to greet Pilgrim, fluttering around her head in a mad and flappy way before heading through the gate and into the garden. Pilgrim watched but remained stationary, unable to move. The Egg's terror had left its scar.
'Breathless and Terrified has just left in a big sweat of fear,' she noted in her diary. 'He's a bit condescending and ignorant but what he says about control is true - it's important to stay in control of things and how can you be in control when you're sad? So what's a girl to do?'
Pilgrim was erring on the side of caution.
'Perhaps I should just continue along the wall and stay away from the garden itself,' she said to herself.
She'd made her choice when the butterfly reappeared. It had returned to find her and now flapped around Pilgrim's head and feet, causing her to hop and jump as if the creature found her stationary pose offensive.
And so when the butterfly again headed through the gate, Pilgrim followed. On the journey to heaven, you don't argue with a butterfly.

We understand Bunyan's passion for scripture but a bigger truth beckons: creation can speak quite as clearly as scripture and often in a more present way. In this instance, it is fragile creation at work with the weak and transient butterfly becoming a divine guide. For the discerning pilgrim, fragile creation can be more penetrating than a division of tanks; or a discourse on the book of Revelation.

We may also want to consider whether Bunyan's sin-based spirituality is the last word on the subject; or even the first. John Bunyan was a very popular preacher in his day and with the vivid imagery he brought to his work, it's not hard to see why. Such large crowds came to hear him that he was called 'Bishop Bunyan.' He had a strong sense of personal sin however; a severely self-critical spirit. This provided the energy for his search for salvation but also narrowed understanding. He maintained harsh personal standards of fasting and prayer and when he listed past sins they included profane language, dancing and whisper it quietly, 'Ringing the bells of his local church without permission'.

It's not the worst set of crimes you'll come across but for the self-punishing psyche, it's enough. Bunyan, in the psalmist's words, was 'A worm and no man.' Just as St Paul regarded himself as the greatest of sinners, so did Bunyan and so salvation for them both duly focused around deliverance from sin. What else was there?

In the story, Pilgrim is relieved of his burden of guilt at the Place of Deliverance. Fundamental to Bunyan was the truth that this was not something Pilgrim could do for himself but must be done for him by Jesus. This is made explicit in the character of Ignorance who says that he sees Jesus as an example rather than a saviour. For Bunyan, this is the wrong answer and Ignorance is cast into hell.

A 21st-century spirituality cannot leave the story here, however. There will be some who identify strongly with Bunyan's all-consuming struggle with sin; but there will many who don't and for these people 'deliverance' may look very different. This is not to deny the power of guilt in our lives, a terrible and destructive force. But in my experience, most people's guilt is misplaced, put there by others and assumed by us thereafter. Why did Bunyan feel so bad? Because somewhere along the line someone had told him that he was; and in time, that external message became part of his internal perception and experienced as shame.

In Pippa's Progress, therefore, wishing to explore the emotion, I introduce Shame as a character. This figure appears towards the end of the story and there's a sense in which Pilgrim's been running from it all the time.

Fear slid down every bone in Pilgrim's body as she discerned the outline of the figure in the fog.
'I have nothing to say to you,' she said.
'Oh, I'm well aware of that, my dear. But do you know how rejected that makes me feel?'
'We have nothing to talk about.'
'On the contrary, we have everything to talk about! Did you really think you could forget your dear old friend Shame?'
'You're not my friend.'
'Oh, there you go again. Running away, averting your eyes, denying my very existence! How cruel you can be!'
'I want heaven.'
'Of course, Pippa, but does heaven want you?'
Terror now stirred in Pilgrim's gut.
'I believe so, yes.'
'You believe so? How reassuring. But then heaven doesn't know you, Pippa; doesn't know you at all!'
Overwhelmed by inadequacy, Pilgrim's hopes and dreams were fading fast.
'But I know you,' said Shame, 'which is why you've run so hard from me all these years. You always were a little - how shall we put it? - defective? If only people knew you as you really are, Pippa.'

Shame is a devastating force in many lives but is not well served by an obsession with sin, which acts like petrol on flame. Bunyan's spirituality can encourage self-hate rather than helping us towards what Julian of Norwich5 would call our substantial selves, our original selves in whom there is only innocence and light. That's an easy sentence to write but a hard one to receive.

It will be particularly problematic for those of a self-punishing nature, those in whom shame still holds unsettling power. Their first reaction is to dismiss it as impossible or heresy even. But ultimately our substantial self is a better place from which to build our spiritual life. This isn't to say we should never say sorry; every parent, for instance, will need to apologise to their children for specific, named behaviours. But it does mean that we no longer define ourselves by sin or by some perceived deficiency sown in our psyche by others. This change of perception will make us kinder to ourselves and therefore to others.

And are Bunyan's religious solutions adequate? In my telling of the story, I look at the nature of religious solutions in a character called Shaw Thynge, a black-and-white preacher of the old school, whose dogmatic help proves unhelpful to Pilgrim. He encourages her to ask questions but before she can pose any question, he's giving the answer!

'Questions are to be encouraged, of course,' said Shaw Thynge.
Pilgrim was glad to hear this.
'So my first question,' said Pilgrim - but before she could pose it, Shaw Thynge was giving the answer.
'The Shaw Thynge gospel!' he declared.
'Sorry?' said Pilgrim, a little put out.
'I'm just giving you the answer to your question.'
'But I haven't asked it yet.'
'I know, but this way saves time.'
'But how can you answer a question I haven't asked?'
'Because whatever the question, the Shaw Thynge gospel is always the answer.'

With Shaw Thynge, we witness simplistic religion, entirely unaware of the psychological forces at work in the human soul. It's as if some spiritual formula can be used for everyone, same size fits all and everything is sorted. All you need to know is the right formula, an approach not unknown today. Bunyan's formula was for Christian to pray harder or read the Bible more. The 17th century did not consider the possibility that the answer may lie in your self. Jesus clearly said that the Kingdom of God is within you, that it is an inner work. But organised religion, seeking to control the faithful, has made it something done to you by others; and has a history of feeding on people's guilt and fear rather than healing it.

We're wise therefore to give psychology its rightful place in our spiritual journey. And so in my telling, Pilgrim arrives at the Rock of Hidden Self because no spirituality is complete without such a visit. Fresh awareness of how the brain forms in the first few years of life has significantly increased our understanding of how our psychology affects our spirituality. Those who seek the latter without interest in the former follow both a diminished and diminishing vision.

And finally, I don't find anywhere in Bunyan's story permission to be sad, an important aspect of any spirituality. Being sad is not the same as being depressed. Depression is unacknowledged anger, anger turned inwards; it's a refusal to engage with true feelings. Sadness, on the other hand, does engage with true feeling; it's an awareness of something specific that is troubling us and sometimes we need to go to this place for a while. Being aware of what we are feeling and allowing ourselves those feelings is important to both psychological and spiritual health. It stops unacknowledged emotional material lodging and festering within us thus creating clean space through which life can flow more freely.

It's for this reason that in my story, Pilgrim visits the Garden of Sadness. It's not a place she wants to go. Who does? But it is a place she needs to go, just as Jesus did when he wept at the death of Lazarus. And so encouraged by the butterfly, a scene we encountered earlier in this piece, Pippa enters the garden. And strangely, it proves to be a place of deliverance.

John Bunyan has been called 'a working class genius'. The son of a repair man, he went on to write a classic of the English language and one which influenced many others. In 1847, William Makepeace Thackeray famously named his novel Vanity Fair after Bunyan's setting6. The author John Buchan was also an admirer and Pilgrim's Progress features significantly in his book Mr Standfast, another of Bunyan's characters7.

But Bunyan was a man of his times who wrote a book of his times. He was a zealot for a cause who wrote with all the didactic energy and narrow vision which zealots excel at. Emily Dickinson invites us to 'Tell all the truth but tell it slant - success in circuit lies'8. But subtlety was not Bunyan's way. It's a brilliant, brutal and beautiful creation - even if pilgrims might wish to progress differently in the 21st century.

Pippa's Progress is out now, published by DLT.

1  John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, OUP, 2003.
2  Enid Blyton, The Land Far Beyond, Armada, 1977.
3  C.S.Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress, Eerdmans, 1992.
4  Simon Parke, Pippa's Progress: A pilgrim's journey to heaven, DLT, 2012.
5  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, White Crow, 2011.
6  William Makepeace Thackaray, Vanity Fair, Penguin Classics, 2007.
7  John Buchan, Mr Standfast, Polygon, 2010.
8  Emily Dickinson, 'Tell all the truth', written in 1955.