in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Pilgrim’s Progress: Christian Life Comedy

From Chapter 19, “Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination,

pp.  301-303, 312-320.


In the Gospels, the life of Christ is presented as fully patterned comedy. The destined life of that comedy is not merely temporal; it is eternal. And that life is premised on a single condition, faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Anointed One dying to take away the sins of the world.

Christ Himself is seen as the perfect embodiment of that faith. The sympathetic characters around Him do not possess that faith perfectly. But they have grasped it, and through their faith they have started to become conformed to the image of Christ, with the hope of a resurrection, and eternal life, also in His image.

While we do see such sympathetic figures in Gospel comedy, the full development of the themes of conversion and Christian life are left to the Epistles. In the present chapter, I will consider these two comedies and their presentation, respectively, in Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress, and will be particularly concerned with the critical errors caused by a failure to recognize the comedic form of these literary works. In the case of Pilgrim’s Progress and Everyman, the import of the works is so clear allegorically that even without recognizing the comedic form, one is hard pressed to miss the message. Rather, the critical problem for both Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress resides in oddities of patterning that can be explained by these works’ strenuous attempts to be true to their biblical sources. Critics trained in secular literature alone are easily thrown off by these oddities and convinced that somehow Everyman is not “true drama” and Pilgrim’s Progress is not “true narration.” Such criticism spends its time vainly trying to define what separates these works from other works of literature rather than recognizing how the oddities themselves relate these works to all other comedy. In the process, Everyman is reduced to a mere “precursor” of Elizabethan drama and Pilgrim’s Progress to a “forerunner of the novel.” Such contentions eliminate some of the most successful of all literary works from the realm of true literature.

If we are to understand the oddities in the patterning of Pilgrim’s Progress, we must first have a solid understanding of the biblical comedy of individual conversion, or salvation, on which it is based. As defined in the Epistles, the comedy of individual conversion presupposes that human beings are spiritual creatures, capable of an eternal life. All life is dependent on the active sustenance of God “in Whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, King James Version). Real success for the human race in the present life and all hope for eternal life is predicated on the condition of faith in Jesus as the Anointed One of God. This faith asserts that his death has paid the price for human sin and that His resurrection is God’s pledge for the eternal, resurrected life of the believer. The Epistles emphasize that this new life into which the believer is born—not at death but at conversion—necessitates putting to death the “old self,” which claims independence from God.

The comedy of individual salvation, so conceived, fits quickly into a first-the-bad-then-the-good-news formula, not unlike the gag formula made popular on the television series Laugh-In. Such a formula depends upon both incongruity and sudden reversal. Incongruity and sudden reversal are central to the comedy of conversion.

The bad news of the conversion pattern can be variously stated. As Paul puts it in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23b). James puts it, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Or John: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

What such statements of the bad news do for the pattern is to exclude any middle ground between the good and the evil.  There aren’t any possibilities, with such statements, for man being “part way to heaven” or “working toward heaven.” In the comedy of conversion, there can be no sympathy for those who are striving diligently toward meeting God’s standards or for those who depend on their own merit to square them with God. However earned, such merit leaves them still sinners, still infinitely below God’s standard and still without hope of eternal life.

So the bad news is that merit, even sincere piety or faith, if misdirected is not enough to get one right with God. The Epistles, however, are fond of the sudden reversal from the bad news to the good news which is possible through a properly directed faith: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

All this has shocking implications for an audience used to the standards of “proper” society. Characters who display faith in Jesus Christ are the automatic good guys of conversion comedy. Those who do not, no matter what their social rank or worthy occupations, are automatically bad guys. And the distinction is as clearly drawn as that between the guys in the while hats and those in the black in melodramatic Westerns. There isn’t any in-between. It may then seem strange to us to find a former harlot like Mary Magdalene given such a high place in the early church, strange to find such a braggart and often incompetent as Peter feeding and shepherding Christ’s flock. It may seem equally strange to find that the bad guys include the pillars of society, whose social merit is manifest and who seem never to have done anything wrong.

Similarly, those things that society normally honors—wealth, station, respectability, even family ties and friendship—are, for the comedy of individual salvation, delusions that keep human beings from recognizing their spiritual poverty. Faith in these socially recognized values is ridiculed while the “foolishness” of faith in a salvation in this world and the next provided by a God existing outside the temporal order is praised as the only true sanity. . . .


When we turn from Everyman to Pilgrim’s Progress, we move from the vision of the European religious mainstream to that of a small, often persecuted sect of the English church. The book itself is a prison book, the first part written in 1673 while Bunyan was serving a six-month imprisonment subsequent to the cancellation of the Declaration of Indulgence. Six years later, after the book had received a tremendous international reception Bunyan published a second part. The first part portrays Christian undertaking a pilgrimage from his native City of Destruction; the second portrays Christiana, his wife, following in the way of her husband.

The most famous image from Pilgrim’s Progress in modern times has been the Muckraker from Part II, but generally, it is the images of the first installment that are remembered as Pilgrim’s Progress. Thus, the second part may seem a strangely inferior attempt to capitalize on an earlier success by sending a second pilgrim down the same road. But this view fails to see why Bunyan felt compelled to write a second part and the additional comedic message that the second part holds.

We can make little progress in understanding the comedic structure of either part without first remembering their Scriptural basis, the basis of the comedy of the Christian life. While the comedy of conversion represented in Everyman is that of a battle already won, the comedy of the Christian life is a battle and a journey in progress. St. Paul specifically recognizes this in saying of his own life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7).

The Christian life as journey is a symbol of faith progressing from seeing “in a glass darkly” to “then face to face.” Along that path there are innumerable possibilities for going astray, for failing to keep one’s eyes on the goal, for confusing the by-paths of the world with the straight and narrow path to eternal life.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, Part I, Pilgrim becomes convinced that he will face doom in the City of Destruction unless he sets out on a journey of faith. He is urged on in this resole by the Bible that he carries under his arm, and by Evangelist, who tells him that his journey begins at a small gate far across a wide field from the City of Destruction On his way to the gate, Pilgrim is mired in the Slough of Despond with Pliable, who has started on the journey with Pilgrim, but who now turns back. Again, before he reaches the gate, Pilgrim is turned aside and told to go up the hill Legality. Evangelist finds him cringing under the wrath of God poured out from this mountain and turns him back to the narrow gate. Reaching the gate, Pilgrim is admitted to the Straight and Narrow Way, given the new name of Christian, and admonished not to turn aside.

Thus Bunyan has chosen an essentially different subject form that of Everyman. While Everyman is almost exclusively concerned with salvation, Pilgrim’s Progress has finished describing Pilgrim’s conversion by chapter 2 and doesn’t consider death until the final chapters. In between, Christian encounters all the trials of the Christian life seen as a single undeviating course.

There is a good deal of tension in this comedy of journey and battle. Christian confronts giants, like Pope and Pagan, lions, the carnal citizens of Vanity Fair, the dread of the shadow of the Valley of Death. He is tempted to avoid the hill Difficulty, to deviate from the path to arrive at the hill Lucre, and to choose the seemingly easier path. In all these, Pilgrim’s Progress reminds us of Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, for Christian seems always just about lost before he is turned back to the way of life.

As in Everyman and The Skin of Our Teeth, in Pilgrim’s Progress there is a strange passivity in Christian’s victories. Typical of all Christian’s adventures is his encounter with Giant Despair. Toward the end of his journey, Christian has been joined by Hopeful, a convert made at Vanity Fair. Together, they journey through the plain called Ease, a respite that seems a just reward for people who have matured in the faith through so many trials. But, as Bunyan notes with his characteristic insight, “The ease that pilgrims have is but little in this life.”[i] At the hill Lucre, they meet Demas, who seeks to lure them away from their path with promises of riches. Hopeful is willing to be enticed, but Christian reminds him to stay on the narrow way. Hopeful is guided by his older brother in Christ, but this seemingly important victory leads soon to sore trial. As Bunyan, says, “One temptation does make way for another” (101). “Strong Christians may lead weak ones out of the way” (102). Immediately, they come to Bypath Meadow, and Christian urges Hopeful to cross over with him to an easier path. Hopeful protests, but having recently been correctly advised by Christian, he does not stoutly object and is soon convinced to go.

Climbing over the stile that leads to By-path Meadow, the pilgrims see ahead of them Vain- Confidence, who shouts that they are indeed on the road to the celestial gate. Night comes quickly, and Vain-Confidence falls into a deep pit. Christian and Hopeful realize their error and would be only too willing to get back to the straight and difficult way, but it is raining and too dark to see. Lost, the pilgrims have no idea which way to turn. A voice comes to them saying, “Let thine heart be toward the highway, even the way that thou wentest; turn again” (103). With such encouragement, they are able to get almost back to the stile, but finally they are overcome by sleep. When they awake, they are captured by Giant Despair, who charges them with trespassing and takes them prisoner to Doubting Castle. There, with the aid of his wife, Diffidence, Despair tortures them until Christian is ready commit suicide. Hopeful restrains him with biblical arguments.

Next, the giant tries to strangle his victims but is restrained by a fit. Finally, half-starved and beaten almost beyond endurance, the pilgrims remember to pray. In a few hours, Christian looks up, amazed at himself for neglecting his own escape:


What a fool, quoth he, am I to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. [106-7]


With the key, the pilgrims unlock every door up to the main gate. And though the main gate in “damnable hard,” it too opens. On opening, it squeaks, awakening Giant Despair, who would have pursued except that “hastily rising to pursue his prisoners, [he] felt his limbs to fail; for his fits took him again so that he could by no means go after them” (107).

Thus, Christian and Hopeful are allowed to return by the stile through which they entered By-Path Meadow. Safely on the main road, they stop to post a memorial lest any others, passing that way, should be similarly misled.

Just as in Everyman, the crucial moments in Pilgrim’s Progress are so passive as to be easily missed. The crucial point in the Giant Despair episode is not finding the key; that happens naturally, almost accidentally as a consequence of the pilgrims remembering to pray, the true turning point. While the technique is the same as the passive turning point in Everyman, when Everyman cries out to God for help, the message is somewhat different, though analogous.

Everyman asserts that conversion is an essentially passive act of throwing oneself on God’s mercy. Pilgrim’s Progress asserts that the Christian life is not dependent on the protagonists for its victory. In fact, effort leads only to despair. The Christian life is instead made victorious by God and is thus dependent only on God’s efforts on behalf of those who call upon him. God can and will provide a way of escape from every danger. The key to survival is to remember that God has provided an escape and to ask Him to make it evident. On that basis, rather than on the basis of personal effort, Paul says and the structure of Pilgrim’s Progress reiterates, “In all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37), King James Version).

The comedy of Pilgrim’s Progress—that is, the assertion of humanity’s destined survival—is independent of the protagonists except in their acceptance of the life they are offered. The comedy and all its symbolism assert that there is only one way to successful living. That way leads through all the dangers life can present. In fact, it leads past all sorts of dangers that the inhabitants of the City of Destruction never see. (And thus, the path seems particularly foolish to those who do not see by faith the destination towards which it leads.) None of these dangers can effectively threaten the person who stays on the road of faith. The lions, for example, are chained so that a pilgrim walking down the center of the road cannot be touched by them.

Bunyan is realistic enough to recognize how impossible it is to keep to the path simply through resolution. The repeated narrow, but passive escapes are the comedy’s assertion that, even when off the path, those who have come in at the gate (that is those who have believed in Jesus Christ) will always be called back to the way; they will always escape, if only narrowly, from their unbelief. Finally, passing through the dark river of death in faith, they will be received into an eternal life in which there will be no more dangers to pass or tests of faith. There is only a joyous presence with God and with Savior, whose Cross Christian has passed so long ago.

When Bunyan published the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress six years after the first, he could honestly claim, “My Pilgrim’s book has traveled sea and land” (284). Despite its great reception, which turned a sectarian prisoner into a universal Christian spokesman, some were not pleased with the allegory, most notably those who were, like Bunyan himself, sectarians. There was enough dissent that a certain T. S. published a corrected edition.

Notable among the criticisms of the first part was that Bunyan had not adequately shown the comfort of the Christian life. Christian was a hero, but if only heroic pilgrims like Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful could inherit the kingdom, there was little hope in Christianity for most human beings. Moreover, Bunyan had presented the Christian battle as one long struggle without relief, with dangers on every hand, and with little comfort beyond Christian’s losing the burden of sin, which he had carried on his back until it was miraculously cut loose at the foot of the Cross. The very fellow sectarians with whom Bunyan most agreed would be the first to see the shortcomings of Bunyan’s portrayal of the Christian life compared to the biblical picture. There, the trials are balanced with the comforts of the Christian life: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. . . . My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matt. 11:28, 30).

In short, Bunyan, desiring to be true to the full biblical account which he so respected, found it necessary to present another facet of the comedy of the Christian life and for that reason set to work on a sequel. In Part II, Christian’s wife, Christiana, and their four sons set out on a pilgrimage after Christian’s death. This choice of subject itself rectifies some of the pattern of Part I. Christian won no converts in Part I except Hopeful, who was equally influenced by Faithful’s martyrdom. But the Christian life is supposed to yield “fruit,” primarily a symbol for other lives turned back to God. By choosing to show Christiana’s life in Part II, Bunyan amended the picture of Part I and asserted that the Christian life does indeed bear fruit in this life—Christian’s fruits include not only Christiana but also her children and her friend Mercy.

In Part I, Christian is sometimes refreshed by stops with fellow believers and at places prepared for his refreshment by his Lord. Thus, he stops at the Interpreter’s house and at the house Beautiful, at the Bower at the top of the hill Difficulty and beside the River of God. But these are short stays for Christian, times of instruction and refitting for the dangers to come. He is often tempted by the ease granted to him in these places. For example, his sleeping in the Bower leads to his misplacing his scroll, and his time beside the River of God tempts him to choose the easy path of Doubting Castle.

In Part II, Christiana fares differently. She escapes many trials by remembering what her husband went through or by finding his memorials. She is not mired in the Slough of Despond or tempted to climb the hill Legality. That she is spared these trials can be seen as an additional facet of the fruitfulness Bunyan pictures for Christian’s life.

But more than this, Christiana’s journey is made smooth at every stop. At the wicket Gate, Christ himself lets the pilgrims in, virtually dragging Mercy, who has little assurance of her welcome. Except for the first few hours of their journey, the women are provided with a champion, Great Herat, sent from Christ to be their guide.

All this, of course, is in stark contrast to Christian’s experience. Bunyan explains away the difference by having Great Heart tell Christiana and Mercy that the Master does not send a guide unless asked. Christian never asked for a guide, it is implied, and therefore received none. His road was far more difficult because he tried to travel it on his own. How much simpler, though less dramatic, to let Great Heart (symbolizing either the Holy Spirit or a godly pastor like Bunyan) guide their steps, encounter all the dangers, and slay all the enemies.

But the greatest difference in pattern between Parts I and II is that, while Christian gets minimal refreshment from his various stops, Christiana and Mercy seem only to experience celebrations and parties. Where Christian spent hours being refreshed in spirit and instructed, the women spend weeks and even months. When they do move from one stage of their journey to another, they are accompanied by Great Heart, who clears the path before them and often helps pilgrims like Feeble-mind to become part of the company. Not only are there entertainments at every stop: there is continual romance. Mercy is at first wooed by Mister Brisk and later wed to Christiana’s oldest son, Matthew. In fact, all four of the boys are eventually married, and we are assured that the world will not lack for Christian’s progeny.

Clearly such emendations balance the arduousness of the Christian life as portrayed in Part I. They make subtler theological points about Christian comedy as well. Mercy’s being dragged in at the Gate assets that one need not even be assured of salvation to be saved. One must only have the courage to knock, to ask that Christ’s death cover one’s sins. Thereafter, Christ Himself will come out to rescue the sinner. The continual banqueting recalls the banquet in the presence of enemies from the twenty-third Psalm. The rescue of Feeble-mind asserts that neither intellectual talent nor strength of will are prerequisites to salvation. God is prepared to aid those who cannot make the journey on their own. Throughout, the sum of the emendations serves to reassert that the eternal life of Christianity is not merely afterlife. It begins at conversion and continues through eternity: “I am come that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

The two parts of Pilgrim’s Progress then are a particularly interesting case in point for our definition of comedy. Comedy is a patterned representation of an asserted faith in humanity’s destined survival. As in all Christian comedy, the survival of Pilgrim’s Progress is not social success or temporal survival but eternal life. What is unusual is that two comedies so much alike—written by the same author, using the same set of symbols, even employing the same sequence of events—could differ so much in comedic patterns that one could be used to correct false impression left by the other. If we read only for plot, we miss these great differences in pattern and import.

If we read with the narrow expectation of structure dictated by classical principles and contemporary practice, we also miss import in works like Pilgrim’s Progress and Everyman. Far from being primitive or unliterary writing, they have been enthusiastically read as great literature over the centuries, and rightly so. In fact, Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into most of the major languages of the world. In its English version alone it is the second most widely read book after the Bible. That there is a strangeness in the structures of both Pilgrim’s Progress and Everyman from a secular perspective is undeniable. Neither work possess a geometrical plot or actively resolved complications. But in both cases, the strangeness is essential to the meaning, essential then to the art.

In Everyman, the strangeness itself is emblematic of the import that human salvation does not depend on anything people can do for themselves. Salvation is not the necessary result of some stream of events, says Everyman. It is open to everyone at every point in time. But it is open only to those who will passively accept it with the recognition that they are sinners who have no other hope of salvation.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, the strangeness asserts that human efforts count for nothing in securing ultimate survival. The trials of life are not to be met with an active response, whether of mind, intellect, will, or spirit. Every danger, however, can be overcome simply by relying on God, accepting His promise to guide, to protect, and to grant eternal comedic survival.






[i] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Col, 1971), p. 97. All subsequent references to Pilgrim’s Progress are from this source.




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