During one of my Christmas breaks in college, I came home with an old paperback version of John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. I was going through a radical spiritual awakening, and was voraciously devouring the Christian classics I missed as a non-reading sports jock in high school. The Pilgrim’s Progress collided with my own moment of “breaking away” from my old life, and embarking on my own journey of discipleship. I was transfixed and transported by the book. I’m thrilled to see The Pilgrim’s Progress is being released as a new animated film this Easter season, making this story accessible to a new generation.
Have you come under the spell of a book or film? Sometimes the trip leaves such an impression that you can never escape the longing to repeat the journey in hopes of feeling again the ecstasy of that first-contact. C. S. Lewis calls this deep and enchanted desire to get back and recapture a euphoric moment “joy.” Unfortunately, you can never quite manage it. If you’re lucky, the best you can do is get a faint whiff of the memory of that elusive feeling of “joy.”
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his own encounter with a book — Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf:
But then…like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drama and read, “I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is died, is dead.” I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, and I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described…and then found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
Lewis is describing my experience in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time as a young adult 18 years ago. Like Lewis and Balder the beautiful, I knew nothing of the characters of Bunyan’s classic — Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Legality, Pliable and Obstinate — but through Bunyan’s story I was suddenly swept up into a Story big enough to give shape to the rest of my life. Years later I am still living out that same plot, common to all Christian pilgrims, of trying to keep on the Narrow Path to the Celestial City, while avoiding all the muddy ruts and sloughs of Despondency that continually haunt the path.
Back then, I discovered a truth that I still find absolutely central to the Christian life. That is, Christianity is about being swept up into a new Story, not merely adopting a new set of religious beliefs. We are “storied” creatures, and the task of the church and preachers should entail ravishing people with a compelling vision of the Grand Narrative of Scripture, and helping them find their unique role in the plot. Warren Goff is right in reminding us that
When it comes to stories we are all children at heart. Whatever our age, we find something deeply satisfying about a tale well told. A “time to come” (the end toward which the story points) anticipates itself in a “once upon a time” (the story’s beginning) and gathers us into the “story time” along the way. If we find ourselves captured by the story, with its suspenseful conflicts and hoped-for resolutions, then story time (kairos) transforms our clock time (chronos). Story time is measured more by significance and intensity of involvement than by seconds ticking away. We all love story time for it binds future, past, and present into a purpose-filled unity. Through the integrating power of story our experience is less fragmentary, less lonely, less a matter of one unrelated occurrence after another. We are all participants in a larger whole.
I’m looking forward to this new movie, and hope many Christians will rediscover John Bunyan’s classic through it. I hope many will find themselves in the shoes of the main character, Christian, “a man on an adventurous journey across rough terrain, over sunlit hills, and through dark valleys, [on a pilgrimage] from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City whose builder and maker is God.” In Bunyan’s apology for his book, he communicates the main purpose and plot of the story in a poem, inviting readers to join Christian on his pilgrimage:
This story it chalketh out before thine eyes;
The man that seeks the everlasting prize;
It shows you whence he comes, whither he goes;
What he leaves undone, also what he does;’
It also shows you how he runs and runs
Till he unto the gate of glory comes.
It shows, too, who set out for life amain,
As if the lasting crown they would obtain;
Here also you may see the reason why;
They lose their labor, and like fools die.
This story will make a traveler of thee.
If by its counsels thou wilt ruled be…”
As I close and before you watch the movie trailer below, let me invite you to once again consider the nature of our story-laden existence. We are living in what has been called a depressingly “disenchanted” time in history. We are being bumped along day by day by the monotonous routines of morning coffee, work commute, 9-5 drudgery, and evenings filled with escapism through Netflix binging. And sadly even the shows we binge aren’t typical epic sagas that assuage our hunger for a more enchanted existence. Our souls grow more and more empty, even as we try to fill our schedules and bank accounts fuller and fuller.
The healing balm for our culture of shallow pursuits and unsatisfying small personal plots, is to find all of reality caught up in a much bigger, more ancient Story capable of singing our souls out of their hibernation and calling forth the heroes and pilgrim’s in each of us. Let me close with a lengthy quote from Robert Roth in his book titled Story and Reality, where he describes the rugged landscape through which all humanity is invited to tread and the crucible in which disciples of Jesus are most powerful formed:
“There is a sickness unto death that runs through all reality, whether it is historical or not, empirical or not. And against this sickness there is a holy warfare which is dedicated through suffering to bring health and wholeness to the entire creature. The nature of reality is therefore dramatic. There are persons in conflict and there is reconciliation in view. There is entrapment and slavery with the quest for freedom. There is the yearning for power and the repeated abuse of it. There is a longing for love and there are the multitudinous expressions this takes for good and evil, pain and pleasure, destruction and edification. There is the quest for holiness and the shock of exposure when the fraudulent masks of self-righteousness are torn from our faces. There is hope and the dream of release, with our pitiful waiting mocked by frustration, defeat, and death. There is the mystery that comes and goes as clouds pass by over the moon. There is irony and humor, simultaneously the tragic and the comic: we find the clown face to be real because it laughs and cries at once. There is the search for meaning in the midst of a rudderless drift.”
Roth vividly captures here so many of the key elements that make for a splendid novel. It is against this ripped and wrangled backdrop that Christians must begin to understand their bittersweet plight and purpose as disciples of Christ in a sin-torn world. It is in this environment of thorns and thistles that Christians must till their personal gardens by the sweat of their brows. Since the nature of reality is inherently dramatic, should not our Christian life of being shaped by the Biblical Story correspond to this dramatic form?
What story are you living in right now? Who’s the author of it? Where is it leading? Is it time to find a bigger Story to give your life to? John Bunyan can help us take our first steps into the Christian Story….IF we’re ready and willing to leave behind the City of Destruction where so many of us currently live. Think about it.