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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

Before There was George Lucas or JRR Tolkien—There was John Bunyan

An Introduction to the Characters of Pilgrim’s Progress -

By Dr. Roger D. Duke -

(Please look for my new devotional work Daily Readings taken from the wider writings of John Bunyan. It will be released in the Fall of 2024 from Christian Focus Press.)

There was in the minds of a concerned few the concept of a fresh initiate that would cultivate the Christian Imagination. Through some humble beginnings, over coffee conversations and prayer amongst friends, these shared passions and motivations became the impetus for Stage and Story’s birth. From these seminal events God assembled a cadre of likeminded and motivated storytellers, educators, linguists, rhetors, graphic designers, bloggers, writers, and other varied and sundried professionals. All were convinced that the story evokes, moves, and persuades the audience unlike any other medium had the ability to do. At the same time, concomitant dynamics emerged to energize the idea of story—through the venues of stage and film to increase its power of influence on minds and hearts. The younger generation(s) are moving (or have moved already) to story as their major choice of communication and entertainment, even education. Stage and Story seeks to equip and mentor artists to think and create as image-bearers and imitators of the original dramatist and director—whom we believe to be the God of the Bible. The axle around which all of our motivations spin is story. It is this medium to which we commit ourselves.

But what exactly is this medium of story? Every story has a fine-tuned set of crucial elements, component parts, and dynamics that can be defined or described in some detail. Truly, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Consider the following; hopefully it will provide insights into what these parts look like and how they function when properly assembled. Peter J. Kreeft aids in understanding the inner-workings of story. “Every story, long or short has [at least] five dimensions.”[1] These are (1) plot, (2) characters, (3) setting, (4) style, and (5) theme.[2] He teases-out their meanings and inter-connectedness for us:

A good story must have, first of all, a good plot, a great deed, a good story, something worth doing. . . .
Second, a great story must have great characters or at least one great character (greatly drawn at least) for readers to identify with, to find their identity in. We become the characters—in spirit, in imagination. . . .
Third, a great story also should have a great setting, an interesting world.
What is the fourth dimension, style? . . .
But surely the most valuable of all the gifts a story can give us is it fifth dimension: its wisdom, its philosophy, its world-and-life view, its insight into ourselves and world . . .[3] (italics added).[4]

This fifth dynamic Kreeft refers to as the story’s “theme.”

The symbiotic twin of story is philosophy. Philosophers tend to argue their case in abstract words, images, even esoteric meanings. “All literature [or story] incarnates some philosophy.”[5] The story makes concrete the abstract of the philosophy. Philosophy makes its case, “Literature argues too—it persuades, it changes the reader—but concretely.”[6] Where “Philosophy says [or speaks] truth, literature shows truth.”[7] There is always a rhetorical effect when one enters the genre of story. For, every author is a philosopher of sorts and writes from a particular life and world view.[8] Sometimes it is seen on the surface—a priori. Sometimes it is realized inadvertently, subliminally, maybe even accidentally. Still other times, it is done more intentionally and below the surface by the craftspeople that develop the project. The brainchild of those who had a hand in the artistry, who caused the story to live after they breathed life into it; they are the ones of import who impart their world-view through the media.

Consider then how these persuasive tactics are used which lie just below the surface: First of all, there is rhetoric. These time-honored Aristotelian dynamics evoke primarily the ethos and pathos of the story. The filmmaker-storyteller wants the audience to “feel” the work and not “think” about it necessarily. Many-is-the time in contemporary media when there is no appeal to a sense of logic at all. The genre calls for the auditor to emote and not to think—or at least not to think critically. Secondly; it is all crafted, assembled, read, or acted to provoke a different mind-set, or new “way of seeing,” the subject matter. This can be achieved when those who view the story surrender their minds, allow the ideas to enter, and embrace the actions and dialogue with their psyche and possibly change their internal experience. This can establish a new “internal truth” or lens or way to view their objective and external world. It can lead a person to think differently and deeply about the issues presented —once experienced and executed artistically—can draw the viewer into the world of the story. From henceforth, possibly to have their moral deliberation, experience, or personal world-view change, maybe forever.

But what have these dynamics of story to do with John Bunyan? Much! Bunyan was a pioneer Baptist preacher of the 1600s in England. He experienced the terrible tragedies of the English Civil War. After which; many Separatists, Dissenters, Puritans, Baptists and other Independents (from the Anglican Church) were persecuted for their faith. For them to be Independent at the time was tantamount to treason. They could be put in prison, have personal property confiscated, be banished to the New World, and in some cases even executed. At this time the Church of England and State were united. If one would not attend “divine service” or “have their child baptized,” it was an affront to the State Church and consequently to the State itself. To intentionally deny full participation in the state church was de facto to commit treason. It was during this time many Baptists sought refuge in the American Colonies to pursue religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

This period in English history was not too long after the invention of the printing press by Guntenberg c.1439. For thousands of years prior the only means of communication were those of oral tradition and / or hand-written manuscripts. But, they cost far too much to produce than the average person could afford. These were times of social and religious turmoil for the European Continent as well as England. Because of (or in spite of) the Lutheran Reforms, the Ana-Baptist movements, King Henry’s love life, the English Civil War et al; a pin-point convergence that included the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, printing press, Industrial Revolution, and Revival of Religion reached a nexus that made all things ripe for a story like Pilgrim’s Progress. This was the last days of the old—the oral tradition was waning. And it was on the beginnings of the new—the technological shift to the printing press. Suddenly the printed page was cheap(er) to buy. Common folk began getting an education to some greater or lesser degree. Literacy became more widespread. And the masses clamored for anything to read. Thus came Bunyan on the scene.

Bunyan became the George Lucas or JRR Tolkien of his era. Very similarly to contemporary times, he met a need for what the people demanded. There was not much entertainment of the day for the common folk. Who could afford to go to the theatre? Only the Lords and Ladies of the upper-crust could relish such a luxury. One of the few things they did have to alleviate a modicum of their drudgery was reading, and the attendant escapism that personal imagination could bring. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrims Progress in his years languishing in the Bedford Gaol. And it all began with a dream—and with Bunyan’s imagination. Thus Pilgrim begins his trek—from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City:

As I was walking through the wilderness of this world, I came to a place where there was a cave. I laid down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I had a dream in which I saw a man dressed in rags, standing in a certain place and facing away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a great burden on his back, As I looked, I saw him open the book and read out of it, and as he read he wept and trembled. Unable to contain himself any longer, he broke out with a sorrowful cry saying, “What shall I do?”[9]

Thus the story begins with Pilgrim’s lament. I invite you to journey with me as I endeavor to be your tour guide and interpreter. We will seek to discover what has caused his consternation and broken-heart. We will journey with Pilgrim on his journey to find the meaning of life and to lay hold of it. I invite you to go with us as Pilgrim meets many different characters in this allegory of a dream—who can change his final outcome for the good or for the ill. Please join us now, I am sure you will never be the same again!



[1] Peter J. Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview of The Lord of the Rings (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 17.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3]Ibid., 17-20.

[4]Reader’s note: All of these will be explored in The Pilgrim’s Progress as this series develops.

[5]Ibid., 23.

[6]Ibid., 21

[7]Ibid., 21.

[8]Worldview is the life and world lens that all of us have either known to us or unknown to us. It

is usually a branch and articulated by the discipline of philosophy. All of the main issues of life such as origin, meaning, morality, and destiny spring from or are seen through our worldview. The author would also emphasize that there is either a philosophical worldview or theological worldview behind all works written.

[9]L. Edward Hazelbaker, ed., The Pilgrims Progress in Modern English (Gainesville: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 3.

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