“Christian Overtakes Faithful”: The Allure of Vanity Fair in Children’s Writing (in the Era of the Selfie)


Shortly before they enter Vanity Fair, Evangelist meets the pilgrims to give them a prophetic message about the dangers they will face there. Bunyan’s narrator follows this warning with the reminder that Christian and Faithful cannot avoid this test of faith, for “their way to the [Celestial] city lay through this town”; leaving “the way” was not an option, but biblical instruction, with Evangelist’s parting exhortation, helps fortify them against temptation:

“Let nothing that is on this side the other world get within you, and above all, look well to your own hearts, . . . ‘for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’; set your faces like a flint; you have all power in Heaven and earth on your side.”

Disillusionment with worldly pleasure emerges in Ecclesiastes, with its refrain “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Christian and Faithful encounter Vanity Fair, Bunyan’s embodiment of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Visitors are constantly called to sample the city’s merchandise and recreational activities to gain public approval. The pilgrims’ refusal infuriates the residents, who accuse them of either being mad or deliberately undermining society with their claim that instead of the fair’s wares, they will buy only “the truth.”

Testing in Vanity Fair begins with mocking, which both men answer gently and persistently. When some residents begin to recognize that their townsmen are lodging “baseless” accusations, the enraged majority incite more extreme persecution: imprisonment, torture, and a trial with life at stake.

How can we communicate the concept of vanity to children? What in a child’s world may be examples of vanity? Materialism is one form. Being targeted by advertisers to want the newest game or toy is a concept we can help children understand, analyze, and start applying critical thinking to. On a less superficial level, we might discuss what children value most and what things are really irreplaceable, using the example of a house destroyed by fire or flood. Toys can be replaced, but a special photo, craft, or original comfort item, such as a favorite blanket, may not be.

Sheltering children from bad news is a luxury, but is it the best biblical model? Children in many parts of the world face uncertain and harsh conditions: famine, religious persecution, war, or displacement as refugees. In the U.S., weather-related disasters, shootings, and other high-profile events confront us in news broadcasts, in newspaper headlines, on magazine covers, and in Internet photos. Knowing how much of this reality to share with children of different ages is difficult. Informing them of dangers and losses that children experience in places like Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq may help them resist the Vanity Fair mindset which leads our first-world culture to seek increasingly self-indulgent lifestyles.

This is not to say that an occasional visit to a county fair or theme park is bad. Stories for today’s children need to include scenes of fun activities while building core values of healthy home and family life; interaction with and care for people; acquisition of important skills and knowledge; and especially, knowledge and love of God. Yet in this world, children as well as adults will “have tribulation.” They may experience loss of a home, a family member, a diseased or injured limb, a pet, a friendship, a favorite toy, a neighborhood or school due to family moves. They may face dangers including bullying or cyberbullying, molestation, substance abuse, gender confusion, and depression. Children may be victims or perpetrators. In a perfect world, they would never experience any of these evils, but we do not live in that world.

We think of today’s world as more dangerous and violent than Bunyan’s 17th century, but that’s probably not the case. In a time when public executions existed; when Bunyan himself was jailed multiple times for preaching; when lack of his income endangered his family and his wife begged his judges to release him; when meetings of “dissenting” believers were subject to sudden invasion and arrest by authorities, with trap doors for pastors to avoid their being seen entering or leaving the buildings;* children witnessed firsthand governmental and societal conflict as well as problems like poverty, disease, natural disaster, and crime.

Bunyan’s allegory incorporates elements necessary to form the character and commitment of a follower of Jesus Christ:

  • Clear, effective communication of doctrine—biblical truth attached to each episode of the story
  • Values (attitudes, behavior, responses to temptation or attack) based on the Bible principle
  • Repentance and confession when characters sin, forgetting biblical instruction
  • Encouragement (“edifying”) at key moments to prepare characters for trials to come
  • Coping skills to help characters whose natural response might be fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, or denying faith in order to fit in or avoid persecution

Bunyan leads his characters to understand, define, and demonstrate “HEART-WORK”—the difference between saying and doing, head knowledge versus heart knowledge. Christian and Faithful don’t just “Talk the Talk” of faith (like Talkative, the character they leave behind before Evangelist prepares them for Vanity Fair) but “Walk the Walk,” as they will need to there. Faith, not just a slogan or a proposition, must be lived out, as they do in this climactic chapter. By remembering everything they have learned from the Bible, Holy Spirit interpretation, and previous trials and errors, they not only maintain their integrity during the “testing of [their] faith” but also show the faith so persuasively that some in Vanity Fair become believers.

Do we help children acquire knowledge, coping skills and values, preparing them to respond appropriately to temptations, difficulties, and tragedies? Not every story will treat these hard subjects—but some must.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Similitude of a Dream. 1678. All quotations from the online pdf at the desiringgod.org website © Desiring God 2014.

Piper, John. “To Live Upon God Who Is Invisible: The Life of John Bunyan.” Desiringgod.org. 2014.



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