A Postmodern Engagement on Eternal Security in The Pilgrim's Progress

From the damp, chilly cell of his prison, John Bunyan (1628-1688) writes The Pilgrim's Progress, which is regarded as one of the most significant English works of religious literature. The work is written while Bunyan is imprisoned for preaching the gospel in an open-air context and without a license from the Church of England to perform religious duties. Though confined within prison walls, his imagination carries him on a journey -- the journey which every follower of Jesus Christ takes -- the journey of the soul toward heaven. According to Bunyan, the destination of the soul is not merely marked out for the believer, but is also guaranteed by the One who created the soul. 

This essay seeks to interact with and apply reader-response, deconstructionist and postmodern theories of interpretation of Christian's assurance of eternal security, or necessary perseverance, in The Pilgrim's Progress. Moreover, how Christian claims to know his eternal state is secure will be examined and weighed in light of those theories. The conclusion will attempt to prove that postmodern criticism -- particularly Jean-François Lyotard's postmodern narratology -- answers best the ultimate question, "Which literary theory offers the reader the most meaningful and the most significant interpretation?" Lyotard's method of interpreting narrative allows for a rich dialogue epistemologically, hermeneutically, and pastorally, which is unmatched either by reader-response or deconstructionist motifs.

For example, Christian claims that his beliefs are based upon what saith Holy writ: "Except the word of God beareth witness in this matter, other testimony is of no value." (The Pilgrim's Progress 137) The reader-response critic claims that there can be no other viable interpretation than that Christian's confidence is based solely on the Bible, not realizing that she has interpreted and equated "the word of God" with "the Bible," which is not always the case either biblically or culturally. The deconstructionist vies for what strategies various finite, interpretive communities create for an interpretation of Christian's claim, which is neither necessarily objective nor subjective, but provides an indeterminacy of meaning. Hence, for Christian, "the word of God" may be a metaphor for other mediums through which Christian derives assurance or comfort of his eternal security, unrelated to, strictly, "the Bible."

Lyotard's postmodern theory, however, views Christian's claim through the lens of one's own particular or personal reality, which may not always traverse cultural norms universally. In other words, "the word of God" may not refer to "the Bible" in all cultures, for each culture will have its own meaning for what signifies a "word." A postmodern critic, then, may well conclude that "the word of God" may indeed be "the Bible" -- perhaps even for Christian and/or Bunyan -- but such does not have to be one's universally-accepted interpretation. Contemporary theory, therefore, offers readers of The Pilgrim's Progress their own cultural-contextual interpretations of the many metaphors and symbols inherent therein -- a notion relegating both reader-response and deconstructionist methods as hindrances as proper, hermeneutical modes.

Reader-response theory is the concept that a piece of literature is what a reader experiences while being guided by and sensing the relevance of a text. The various experiences -- trials and errors -- of the character Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress allows readers not only to witness this conception unfold, but they also learn that Bunyan's work presupposes a reader already actively involved with a text, which can perplex those seeking to emphasize the "objectivity" of their interpretations. This interpretive theory becomes evident as Bunyan guides the reader, and she experiences first-hand the relevance of Christian's options and choices, joys and pitfalls, failures and successes. But the theory proves less helpful when the various uses of metaphor and symbols are not so universally accepted, making such an "objective" interpretation appear very subjective.

Deconstruction theory refers not to a disassembling of the anatomy of a text, but an exhibition that it has already disassembled itself. Its seemingly firm foundation is not solid rock but actually thin air. Using the method of binary opposition, Bunyan's use of certain terms can be deconstructed so as to erase any ambiguities in the text with regard to the assurance of attaining eternal life. But when he uses a symbol which does not necessarily maintain such an "obvious" binary opposition, the deconstructionist must scramble to interpret the meaning and signification of the symbol by other interpretive means, as will be demonstrated below.

Postmodernism's dialogic proves helpful when reading Bunyan's Progress because its main character, Christian, is also in dialogue with other characters about ideas, concepts and themes that are relevant to life. The Lyotardian postmodern critic, as she reads Bunyan's work, envisions for herself a new and vivid, relevant journey which is not bound by a melancholy nostalgia of how the world once was or how the world should be, like her modernist critic counterpart. This contemporary critic is delighted with the dynamics of Christian's journey, and is certainly engaged by the apparent potential that he may not, in fact, finish his journey and attain his sought-after goal. Lyotardian critics do not appeal to universal reason to verify a truth claim, but prefer to proclaim truths through narrative. As such, then, this literary criticism better engages and finds a more perfect fit in Bunyan's narrative than either deconstruction or reader-response theories, for neither offers a plethora of possible interpretations.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1988), one of the world's foremost philosophers, examines the influence of postmodernity on epistemology (i.e., how one knows what one claims to know). Attempting to define postmodernism, he describes it as incredulity toward metanarratives. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is a metanarrative of the life of the character Christian. Is Lyotard, then, not an enemy to such literature, such metanarratives? The answer is no, once his use of the word "metanarrative" is correctly understood. James Smith comments, "What is at stake for Lyotard is not the scope of these narratives but the nature of the claims they make." (Who's Afraid of Postmodernism 64). In other words, what matters for Lyotardian critics is the manner in which big stories are told, not the "size" of the stories themselves. 

Lyotard's postmodern interpretation rejects any appeal to universal reason in order to substantiate a claim. Smith, again, explains that for Lyotardian-postmodern dialogic, narrative "knowledge" is "grounded in the custom of a culture and, as such, does not require legitimation." (66) Therefore the character Christian's "knowledge" that his eternal state is secure does not have to be proven scientifically (i.e., through modernist methods) but rather makes a proclamation which requires a response of faith.

Given the fact that Bunyan's Progress is, next to the Bible, according to Anglican theologian J.I. Packer, the "best-selling book of all time" (The Devoted Life 183), the lack of recent criticism of this biographical fiction is disconcerting. Could it be that many literary critics find interpreting Bunyan's work problematic? There appears to be an abundance of reader-response theorists engaging this text, but very few others, such as ecocritics, liberationist, feminist, and most notably historical-critical theorists (which seem like a more perfect match than either reader-response or modernist and deconstructionist). 

Bunyan considers his work an allegory. Do literary theorists today find Bunyan's allegory irrelevant? Are they disinterested in how his fiction may relate to the lives of others? Packer explains, "In the mind of Bunyan the pastor/preacher it [the story] grew as a series of connected cameos illustrating the application of all that he was concerned to teach about the Christian life ... The themes and images in both parts are biblical, and all the ups and downs of real and phony Christianity are presented for the reader's instruction and self-assessment." (184) Certainly Christians are not the only ones concerned about self-assessment, are they? But if the reader is to receive instruction and perform self-assessment from the novel, how she evaluates and interprets those themes and images is imperative. Hence there is a great need for literary critics to engage this "most significant work in English literature outside the Bible."

In a reader-response motif, the literature itself is imagined to bring the reader to self-realization: all one need do for instruction and self-assessment is read the words "objectively." Pure objectivity is absolutely impossible for finite creatures, so even the concept to which reader-response subscribes is untenable at best, utterly laughable and dismissable at worst.

The reader-response theorist may ask, "Given that Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is a realistic biographical-fiction/novel, how much interpretation is actually needed?" Yet, realistic novels, especially in the biographical-fiction category, are sparse in our contemporary era. Professor of British Literature and Narrative Theory Craig Randall suggests that the avoidance of the "realistic novel" causes one to question "how successfully the methods of reader-response criticism can be applied to nineteenth-century realistic fiction, or more generally, to fictional modes in which self-reflexive textual strategies and the concomitant self-conscious reading activity are deemphasized." (Essays in Literature 113) Perhaps Randall's assessment accounts for the lack of modern criticism of Bunyan's best-seller.

How does one know that the themes and images represent what Bunyan himself has intended? Deconstructionists suggest that interpretation is inevitable since there is nothing "outside" the text (or even language) itself. Indeed, everything is interpretation, and people are always interpreting. No text, whether in written or art form, is void of interpretation, which, again, according to contemporary literary critic James Smith, "empowers us to question the interpretations of trigger-happy" braggarts who claim to have the only correct interpretation. (51) David Leigh, an English teacher at Seattle University, notes that modern critics of The Pilgrim's Progress have "questioned for over thirty years whether the allegory is really about a Christian pilgrim and whether the hero makes any progress." (Journal of Narrative Theory 1). Such uncertainty in deconstructionist theory demonstrates the complexity and instability of the science and practice of its interpretation.

Leigh also comments, "The revisionist readings of Christian have found him to be anything from a self-justifying Calvinist exclusionist (Dutton) to a symbol of the soul plunging into the life stream of the unconscious (Harding)." (1) Deconstruction criticism attempts to demonstrate that a particular text is not a separate component of the whole but can contain discordant and at times contradictory conclusions. Therefore the antonymous nature of this literary theory proves unhelpful for the reader of Bunyan's Progress. Irreconcilable or seemingly contradictory interpretations within a text are not troubling in Lyotard's postmodern criticism, however, since knowledge is "not simply a tool of the authorities," but, more so, it "refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable." (Theory and History of Literature 10. xxv)

For example, Professor of Literature at Stanford University Brenda Machosky, in her evaluation of trope and truth in Bunyan's Progress, takes the liberty of interpreting literally Bunyan's reason for writing, which he claims as something of an accident. She explains: "In 'The Author's Apology for His Book' prefacing The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan confesses that he '[f]ell suddenly into an Allegory' while writing something else. While this 'fall' might be presumed a mere metaphor for an accident, I propose a reading of the work that takes this phrase quite literally, nor am I alone in doing so." (Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 179) She claims that her interpretations of the text come "through right reading." (181) While all one need do in a reader-response motif is merely read the words -- for they, allegedly, ipso facto determine meaning -- in postmodern theory all texts require interpretation. Though texts are not "inserted" between the reader and the world, the world "is a kind of text requiring interpretation." (Smith 39) Thus, in contemporary criticism, Bunyan's sudden "fall" into an allegory is a world of allegory itself requiring interpretation and cannot be interpreted "through right reading" (reader-response) context.

Allegory is an indirect representation in storytelling. Bunyan admits that when he sat down to write about "the way and race of saints," he fell "suddenly into an allegory about their journey and the way to glory." (3) Should a reader-response theorist interpret Bunyan's words literally she would have to conclude a literal "fall" into a literal "story." That interpretation is irrelevant at best and unrealistic at worst, even for fiction. For a deconstructionist to interpret Bunyan's words, she will probably appeal to the binary oppositions of both words "fall" and "story" in order to "rightly" understand his meaning. Thus by "fall" one understands that he did not ascend. But what is the binary opposition of "story"? Deconstructionists, then, must reach a conclusion by other interpretive means than its permissible and instructive methods can permit.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, engages these analogies through dialogue rather than mechanical observation. Conversational engagement with the text allows for an experiential hermeneutic that "speaks" directly to the reader. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, according to Merold Westphal, states that one's means in understanding a text "in no case is an objectifying method, one that turns the subject matter into an object to be observed and the observer into a disinterested, 'objective' spectator, free from presuppositions and perspectives. There are constraints but there are no fixed rules in the sense of being beyond discussion and debate." (Whose Community? Which Interpretation? 115)


Interpreting Bunyan's "fall" into an "allegory" or narrative, then, is "grounded in the custom of a culture and, as such, does not require legitimation." (Smith 66) Everything is an interpretation, and everyone is always interpreting. People interpret according to their own various cultural distinctives, appropriating their understanding of words and concepts and theories. No one exists "outside" of any "particular language game and thus [can] guarantee universal truth." (Smith 67) The postmodern reader interprets Bunyan's sudden "fall into an allegory" as she engages the narrative into which he "fell." Contemporary theories, then, offer readers of Bunyan's Progress the most meaningful and the most significant interpretation(s) with regard to Christian's assurance of eternal security epistemologically, hermeneutically, and pastorally.

The Narrator in Progress informs the reader that the main character Christian has to traverse a valley called the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which, says he, "Christian must needs go through it, because the way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it." (59) Note the language the Narrator uses: Christian "must needs go through it." (emphasis added) The same word and concept is used in Scripture, when king David writes, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me." (Psalm 23:4 NRSV, emphasis added) The word choice in both works is intentional. The one who belongs to the LORD will go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and into His presence.

Epistemology

How one knows what one knows is the study known as epistemology. How is it that Christian knows that he will reach (and can be sure of reaching) his goal (heaven)? Moreover, how can the reader know with certainty that Christian will reach his goal, for along the pilgrim's path are various temptations and diversions? Such a path, riddled as it is with pitfalls and distractions, creates for Christian and the reader a "hermeneutic of suspicion," according to William Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, because the allegorical figures that Christian encounters "frequently seek to dissuade him from his journey and belittle its goal; the goods of this world are not signs of God but burdens to be cast off in favor of the higher good that heaven will provide." (International Journal of Systematic Theology 5)

Furthermore, Christian encounters an individual who set out on his path but does not reach his goal: "Well, at my first setting out, I had hopes of that man; but now I fear he will perish in the overthrow of the city, for it is happened to him according to the true proverb: the dog is turned to his vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." (66) The fact that on Christian's journey he witnesses some people who do not attain their goal has also been witnessed among many Christians throughout Church history. Again, Professor Dyrness writes, "Bunyan's narrative style intentionally employs conflict and struggles that illumine the reader's own life in the world." (17) God informs people in Scripture, "My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back." (Heb. 10:38b) But, epistemologically speaking, how can Christian or the reader know that he will reach his goal? The fact that he has witnessed others become distracted from progressing forward and fell away does not deter him from his own progress. Why? 

Dyrness suggests that the "experiences of Pilgrim in his life before God progressively define his sense of himself -- indeed the meaning of the self, for Christian, is gradually uncovered in the reiterated narratives of his life journey." (17) Therefore, as Christian, who is a Christian, discovers himself, he comes to understand that Christians go to heaven. When Christian and his friend Hopeful are sidetracked toward Doubting Castle, the owner of the Castle, Giant Despair, asks them how they happened onto his territory: "They told him they were pilgrims and that they had lost their way." (108) Soon enough, however, they are back on the right path again, their eternal security still intact by the fact of their identity, i.e., "they were pilgrims" -- they did not belong to this world but to another. The ones who fall away are not called Christian or Pilgrim, nor do they ever discover such about themselves. In light of contemporary theory Christian's experience is not so much defined by the mantra "power is knowledge," but rather that knowledge is power, since knowledge is not "neutrally determined," as Smith emphasizes of Foucault. (85)

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is, simply put, the science, art, or method of interpretation; it is not interpretation itself, but a method of interpretation. Everyone has a hermeneutic, whether or not she is aware of it, and everything is an interpretation. Bunyan spends significant time defending his confidence in eternal security, even when his main character, Christian, is in the midst of fear or doubt; and he does so explicitly, with the use of metaphors and allegorical representations. For example, when "Shepherd" counsels and encourages him toward the "Celestial City," Christian asks if "the path" there is safe or dangerous. Shepherd responds, "Safe for those for whom it is to be safe, but transgressors shall fall therein." (113)

Again sidetracked, both Hopeful and Christian display doubt about reaching the City (116), but then realize that "good providence" is still leading them by His unseen hand. (120) When the character Ignorance cannot have assurance of his eternal security, Christian boldly claims that "it is one thing indeed to have" such, and "another thing only to think so." (137) Christian's faith and religion are not characterized by a "hope so" mentality, for Scripture insists that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1) Is what is offered here a viable interpretation? What method or methods of interpretation must one employ in order to arrive at such conclusions?

Ralph Stewart, Associate Professor of English at Acadia University, underscores Bunyan's defense in using allegory as well as his comments on interpreting his own work: "Bunyan retorts that the Bible also uses analogy and metaphors and that impartial men 'will take my meaning in these lines / Far better than his lies in silver shrines' (145-46)." (Explicator 1) Impartiality, according to Bunyan, is required for determining the right use and correct interpretation of his analogies and metaphors in his narrative. 

However, Gary Chase Johnson, Associate Professor of English at Findlay, rightly notes, "The concept of allegory poses some particularly perplexing problems for the literary critic, not the least of which is definitional. Is it a trope, a mode, or a genre? And/or is it hermeneutic in nature rather than compositional -- a way of reading, in other words?" (Narrative 1) A contemporary theory (postmodern theory) of interpretation, therefore, seeks not to prove its truth claims in a scientific (modernistic) method, whereby notions of universals are assumed, but to proclaim them within the context of a narrative. This is yet another reason why contemporary theories best benefit the reader of Bunyan's Progress: the work is, after all, a narrative.

Pastoral

Bunyan's vivid images of Heaven are a motivating factor for the pilgrim to press on toward his goal. The mountains that belong to the Lord are known as the Delectable Mountains of the Celestial City, Immanuel's Land. (113) Near the mountainous area Christian and Hopeful behold gardens and orchards, vineyards from which they eat, and fountains of water from which they drink and bathe. (113) There they see shepherds feeding their sheep and meet Shepherd. The shepherds show Christian and Hopeful some "wonders" (114), including a hill called Error, and a mountain called Caution. (115) Finally, the shepherds show them a pathway to hell (116), where the hypocrites go. Hopeful comments, "I perceive that these had on them, even everyone [of them], a show of pilgrimage as we have now." (116) Note, however, that such persons only have a "show" of pilgrimage -- they have not the genuine title Pilgrim. True Pilgrims do not take the path of the hypocrites.

These pastoral images prod the pilgrim to stay on the right path which reaches Celestial City. What the pilgrim needs is endurance: "For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised." (cf. Heb. 10:36) Hopeful encourages Christian, "But, however, my brother, let's be patient, and endure awhile." (110) When tempted by ease, faint, or worldly pleasure, they endure -- they persevere. If they stumble, they get back up. Hopeful laments: "I am sorry that I was so foolish, and am made to wonder that I am not now as Lot's wife; for wherein was the difference 'twixt her sin and mine? She only looked back, and I had a desire to go see; let grace be adored, and let me be ashamed that ever such a thing should be in mine heart." (104) He does not wallow in self-pity, and despair, but repents and progresses.

In a very real, pastoral sense, contemporary theory benefits readers of Bunyan's narrative best since it allows (indeed demands) not a relinquishing of faith (as modernist critics suggest) but that "it own up to it -- openly confess its credo." (Smith 72) Bunyan does not disguise his creed throughout the narrative of Christian's progress. Amidst heavy use of allegory, there is still a clear focus, substantive plot and well-developed characters. These three work together "at the literal level to produce a figurative meaning," suggests Gary Johnson. (5) He continues: "That meaning, I submit, can take one of two forms: a concept or an idea (i.e., Pilgrim's Progress is really about the salvation of the human soul); or another narrative (i.e., Christian's story is really meant to be a prescriptive story for everyone)." (5) One is hard-pressed to make multiple conclusions or interpretations like these through reader-response and deconstructionist theories of interpretation.

Christian's confidence in his eternal state lies not with his own strength or abilities, for he often falls and doubts and becomes distracted from his pilgrimage. Even the brief mention of Little-faith was a source of comfort to Christian, for "though it was his lot to have but little faith, [he] was by his little faith kept from such extravagancies" and brought to the right path which leads to the Celestial City. (121) Postmodern criticism offers readers of The Pilgrim's Progress the most meaningful interpretations by its appeal to ground truth and authority in the narrative itself. The theory does not claim to possess the only "correct" interpretation of the text, which is supposedly "self-evident." Such a claim is viewed as not merely arrogant but an effort to control the thought processes of people, solely in the interest of power. (Smith 86)

Contemporary theory also offers readers the most significant interpretation(s) of The Pilgrim's Progress with regard to Christian's assurance of eternal security epistemologically, hermeneutically, and pastorally, for one must understand 1) why he believes what he believes; 2) that he does not interpret any imagined thing apart from his own context; and 3) what motivates one to believe "this" rather than "that" theory. However, contemporary critics must be careful "not to continue to propagate" such theories dogmatically "in modernist ways: by attempting our own rationalist demonstrations of the truth of Christian faith and then imposing such" on a pluralist (or any other) culture or text, as noted by contemporary theorist James Smith. (73)

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WORKS CITED

Bunyan John. The Pilgrim's Progress. Signet Classic. New York: New American Library, 2002.

Craig, Randall. "Reader-Response Criticism and Literary Realism." Essays in Literature 11.1 (Spring 1984): 113-126. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 130. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May. 2011, http://go.galegroup.com/.

Dyrness, William A. "Dante, Bunyan and the Case for a Protestant Aesthetics." International Journal of Systematic Theology; Jul 2008, Vol. 10 Issue 3, p 285-302, 18p. 6 May 2011.

Johnson, Gary Chase. "The Presence of Allegory: The Case of Philip Roth's American Pastoral." Narrative; Oct2004, Vol. 12 Issue 3. Web 10 May 2011.

Leigh, David J. "Narrative, ritual, and irony in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress." Journal of Narrative Theory 39.1 (2009): 1+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May. 2011, http://go.galegroup.com/.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. "The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge." Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Machosky, Brenda. "Trope and Truth in The Pilgrim's Progress." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 47.1 (Winter 2007): 179-198. Rpt. in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 180. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May. 2011, http://go.galegroup.com/.

Packer, J. I. "Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1628-1688)," in The Devoted Life: An Introduction to the Puritan Classics. Editors Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Smith, James K.A. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Stewart, Ralph. "Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, 'The Author's Apology For His Book.'" Explicator; Summer 94, Vol. 52 Issue 4, p 211, 3p. 6 May 2011.

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.