Thursday, 15 November 2007

Another Christmas book—Pilgrim's Progress I

Sitting next to me on the desk here in the office is John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.

Whenever I read retellings of Pilgrim's Progress it reminds me how much I love the original. The main character, Christian, is a deeply attractive person who struggles with all the normal doubts and fears of a Christian life. He is sometimes easily led astray by shortcuts and apparently wise companions—although with names like Obstinate, Pliable, Mr Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Talkative, or indeed

"Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-both-ways, Mr. Any-thing; and the parson of our parish, Mr. Two-tongues"

you occasionally think that maybe Christian could've picked up a few more clues (Is anyone else thinking "My name's Smoke-too-much, Mr I-smoke too-much" from Monty Python?)

One of the best parts of the book is where Christian and his friend Hopeful come to a river of deep waters that all must pass through before they attain the Heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Peter Jensen read from this passage at Bruce Smith's funeral a few years ago:

Hopeful therefore here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful did also endeavor to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us; but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; for you have been hopeful ever since I knew you. And so have you, said he to Christian. Ah, brother, (said he,) surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he hath brought me into the snare, and hath left me. Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text where it is said of the wicked, “There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm; they are not troubled as other men, neither are they plagued like other men.” Psa. 73:4,5. These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters, are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a muse a while. To whom also Hopeful added these words, Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole. And with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” Isa. 43:2. Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian, therefore, presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.

Now, upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the two shining men again, who there waited for them. Wherefore, being come out of the river, they saluted them, saying, We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those that shall be the heirs of salvation. Thus they went along towards the gate.

Now you must note, that the city stood upon a mighty hill; but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead them up by the arms: they had likewise left their mortal garments behind them in the river; for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They therefore went up here with much agility and speed, though the foundation upon which the city was framed was higher than the clouds; they therefore went up through the region of the air, sweetly talking as they went, being comforted because they safely got over the river, and had such glorious companions to attend them.

John Bunyan writes with insight and sympathy about the fear of death, and because he does this so well, the comforts he offers about the glories and joys of heaven are all the more reassuring. I find it hard to read this passage without tears in my eyes.

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