Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Earthly things when they are with power..."

There was a time, before my time, when just about every household had a copy of Pilgrim's Progress. Barton Swaim reviews a new annotated edition and advocates the book's continuing worthiness:
.... In November 1660, just after the Restoration of Charles II, Bunyan was arrested during a service he was conducting in a barn. He was offered freedom on the condition that he promise not to preach any more, which was a promise he would not make. He remained in jail for the next 12 years, and he supported his family by making shoelaces and writing books and pamphlets.

He was imprisoned again, briefly, in 1676 and 1677. It was during this latter imprisonment that he finished the first part of Pilgrim's Progress. The story's point of departure is the prison cell: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream."

He goes on:
I dreamed, and behold I saw 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. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, "What shall I do?"
Pilgrim's Progress is among the most powerful arguments ever made for the primacy of the individual conscience. The story's villains don't want to kill Christian so much as persuade him to abandon his pursuit. Apollyon himself offers to spare Christian's life, "if now thou wilt turn again, and go back." In that respect, at least, Pilgrim's Progress is as essential to the American character as the Declaration. No book had greater influence over the development of American piety. And the evidence of that influence is all around us: There is no higher virtue in our politics than "staying true to your principles, regardless of the cost." ....

But what really makes Pilgrim's Progress a great book is what makes all great books great: its author's insight into what makes people behave as they do. Bunyan had a marvelous gift for presenting human propensities in the abstract, but doing so in ways that strike one as deeply—indeed uncomfortably—familiar. Everyone has a favorite passage; my own appears in part two when Christiana (Christian's wife, who makes the journey in part two) visits the house of Interpreter.

Interpreter shows Christiana and her fellow pilgrims a room where there was
a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered to give him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, the dust of the floor.
Interpreter...explains that the spectacle "lets thee know that earthly things when they are with power upon men's minds quite carry their hearts away from God." .... [more]
The Good Book

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