First Steps: John Bunyan’s Model in Pilgrim’s Progress by Deborah DeCiantis
“In media res” – starting “in the middle of things”– is the classic plot opening used in literature from ancient times to today. Bunyan uses both this method plus the biblical model, “in the beginning,” to introduce his protagonist, Christian. Structured as a frame story, the narrative begins with an unnamed narrator walking “through the wilderness of this world,” who comes to a “certain place,” falls asleep, and dreams about a man “clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.”
Neither narrator nor readers have any idea why this man Christian is “clothed with rags” or where his burden came from. Communicating his distress about the coming judgment of God with his family, Christian meets with their disbelief. They consider him mentally unstable and try to dissuade him from believing in the book he is reading.
Christian nevertheless makes the decision to take the first step – or at least he tries to, but he doesn’t know how or where to begin until he meets Evangelist, who directs him to move toward the distant light, where he will find the gate. Evangelist represents God’s “in the beginning,” both the origin and the remedy for the burden of human sin. Yet Bunyan does not take time at this point in his narrative to explain the background. Instead, he continues the essential action as Christian starts on the journey toward eternal life: he “looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.”
Bunyan’s narrator will continue this technique of reminding readers that he is telling a story as he observed it – focusing on the action. To accomplish the necessary exposition – explaining biblical background and facts about sin, salvation, and the pursuit of holiness – he relies instead on showing readers how Christian learns these details through his experiences with people he meets on the way. Christian’s brief conversation with Pliable about “what the things are, and how to be enjoyed, whither we are going” is cut short by their fall into the Slough of Despond. After Pliable frees himself and abandons Christian, Help rescues him and answers Christian’s query why God doesn’t “mend” the bad (swampy) ground and why there aren’t “steps.” Help explains that the Lawgiver has, indeed, provided steps, but that pilgrims usually miss them.
What does this beginning and background narrative technique suggest for a Christian writer?
John urges believers to remember the essential beginning of their faith journey by checking for the signs, characteristics, and requirements of genuine gospel faith. “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God . . . “ (1 Jn 5:1-5, NKJV) points out the necessity of faith that is individual, ongoing, and persistent. So after the initial step of believing God and starting on the path of faith, John calls believers to check ourselves frequently for these signs of authentic faith. Are we loving God and our neighbors (v. 1-2)? Are we unduly influenced by others rather than basing thoughts and actions on God’s Word (v. 3-4)? Do we check our own hearts rather than just assuming we are walking rightly?
These characteristics emerge in Christian despite interruptions and challenges to his faith, showing Bunyan’s fusion of biblical texts with the story line. How might today’s Christian writer employ this model, since few of us are likely to undertake allegory as our genre?
A Christian worldview story may range from biblical retelling, biography, historical fiction, or contemporary imaginative plot to nonfiction. What narrative technique will we use? Creating a frame narrator who will “tell the tale” often works well, but it’s not every writer’s choice. Standard third-person narrative, first-person narrative, and second-person address are other options. Point of view needs to work smoothly with the kind of story, characters, action, and mood the work presents.
Essential to the “first step” action is the character’s motivation. Christian’s motivation, of course, is his fear of dying under God’s judgment (symbolized by the burden which afflicts him until he enters the gate). In biblical terms, his motivation in leaving home, undertaking a journey he doesn’t even understand to a destination he doesn’t know, is hope: at first, the hope against hope that there is a solution to the fear that drives him, then, the hope that leads to assurance and victory, grounded on the word and work of Jesus Christ.
Bunyan’s methods and story offer Christian writers a twofold model: first, for our personal spiritual journey, and second, for the outgrowth of this faith in the works we create.
Ezis, Aaron.“ H.H. Munro,” https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki/bio-books-stories A website presenting “Profiles of important authors, their essays, speeches, documents and literature which helped shape America and provide context for understanding” and includes not only lists, texts, and author bios of a large number of children’s classic authors (not only American), but also teacher resources. The site’s creator, Aaron Ezis, is deceased; the site is currently maintained by his brother. Teachers can create a login and contribute material.
Biblical references, unless otherwise noted, taken from the New King James Bible (Thomas Nelson, 2001).
Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress. (1678) http://cdn.desiringgod.org/website_uploads/documents/books/the-pilgrim-s-progress.pdf?1417090573
I am indebted to Pastor Stacey Peek for ideas on the signs of genuine faith in a sermon delivered at Grace Baptist Fellowship (Greenville, SC) July 23, 2017.