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  • Dr. Roger D. Duke

Part 5: Whatever Happened to Christian’s ‘Friend’ Pliable?

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

--True Grit in the Swamp of Despair--

By Dr. Roger D. Duke

In this postmodern world, story has become the language of our culture. Stories meet us on our phones, tablets, televisions, and in every venue. Many grasps this, but few understand that with every story comes a perspective on the world, one that the storyteller has embedded. We want to help you recognize these perspectives so you can engage them from a Christian point-of-view. We spend a good deal of time reviewing and reflecting on movies because the stories that swirl around us carry great influence on our present culture.

In this vein, I would like to recall one movie starring John Wayne from 1969--“True Grit.” This movie earned him an Academy Award. It was recently remade in 2011 with Jeff Bridges in Wayne’s leading role. The movie featured Bridges as the crude and crusty federal marshal “Rooster” Cogburn. (Some critics claim it was not a remake at all but a new version altogether; possibly more in keeping with Charles Portis’ original novel of the same name. But, let us not to get bogged down in the details.)

The young heroine, Mattie Ross’s father, is gunned down in cold blood by a hired hand he had befriended. The killer high-tails it into the badlands of Oklahoma territory. Motivated by an extreme vengeance, Mattie goes it alone to find her father’s killer and bring him to justice--the frontier justice of being hung. She seeks to hire someone with “True Grit,” capable of bringing Tom Chaney back to face this justice. The movie title works as a double entendre of sorts and serves as an interpretive key to the film’s story. Young Mattie is endued with true grit and motivated by the “blood feud;” Rooster is endued with true grit and motivated by personal greed. It is the interplay of these two contrasting personal dynamics that form the movie’s basis.

Our faithful reader may ask, “What has this to do with Christian’s friend Pliable?” This inquiry sets up a second contrast of characters and their traits worth considering. By now our follower understands the means Bunyan’s allegory employs. The name of each person embodies who and what that player is in character and substance. Pliable is just that; one who is easily persuaded, one prone to change his mind or direction. He lives up to his name to the point of being gullible. One could even refer to him in the biblical-speak of The Book of Proverbs; one unwise, to the point of being a fool. He is opposite of our two heroes of “True Grit.” They exude a “firmness of character; [and an] indomitable spirit” ( Mattie and Rooster live up to their character throughout the narrative. And so does Pliable: He lives up to the name Bunyan assigned him. This sets up a stark contrast between him and Christian.

Pliable continues some time with Christian after Obstinate’s departure. As they journey along Christian discusses with him all the great wonders and blessings that will be theirs when they reach the Celestial City. “There will be crowns of glory to be given us” and “clothing that will make us shine like the sun in the heights of Heaven” (Hazelbaker, p. 11). We can expect even greater; “He who is the owner of the place will wipe all tears away” (Ibid). And “There [we] will be with Seraphim and Cherubim [Angels] --creatures that will dazzle your eyes when you look at them” (Ibid). Pliable was tremendously impressed! He excitedly confessed, “Just hearing this is enough to capture one’s heart; but are these things obtainable? How can we get to be sharers of them?” (Ibid). Christian rehearses for him how the Governor of the country will give all of it to them freely. At this saying, Pliable wants to hurry the pace along and arrive at the Celestial City even sooner.

Like every good bard, Bunyan weaves into the narrative an unexpected turn of events: The two travelers come to the Swamp of Despondency [or “Slough of Despond” in Bunyan’s original]. But as they came to the bog, neither was watching and fell into the muck! Both wallowed for a long while, exerting all their energy to get out. Christian had a more difficult time trying to extract himself because of the burden on his back. It is notable that Pliable did not seek in the least to help his companion. For he was only concerned for his own welfare and misfortune.

Here Pliable became very angry with friend Christian, “If we make such poor progress at the beginning of our travel, what can we expect between here and our journey’s end?” Bunyan relates in his dream how Pliable wants the glories of Heaven now; but is not willing to “fight the good fight of faith” to obtain them in the future. Bunyan describes in some detail how Pliable struggles to get out of the mud and mire of the Swamp. When he finally does get out, he exits on the side closest to his home--the City of Destruction. And “So away he went, and Christian saw him no more.” With not even a hint of help given to Christian. The narrator relates how when Pliable returned home, “some called him Fool for endangering himself with Christian” and “Still others mocked at his cowardice” (Ibid., 13).

Bunyan had Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” in mind when he relates Pliable’s character and actions. In Jesus’ story, there are four types of soil representing four types of hearts that receive the seed. “The Sower soweth the [seed of the] Word [of God].” The four heart types are: The “way-side” heart, the “stony-ground” heart,” the “thorny-ground” heart, and the “good” heart. Jesus spoke the parable in a public sermon, leaving his hearers to meditate on its interpretation with an enigmatic exhortation: “He that hath ears, let him hear.” Then there is a dramatic scene change: Jesus’ disciples ask him in private to explain the meaning of the parable recounted in public. (Please keep in mind the Sunday School definition of a parable: “A heavenly story with an earthly meaning.”) He begins to explain in minute detail its meaning. (The reader is encouraged to read the parable in the Gospel of Mark Chapter 4.)

Pliable, in Bunyan’s dream, fulfills the Biblical descriptions of the “thorny-heart.” And when it receives the seed, it springs up but cannot not grow to maturity. For it is choked out before it has an opportunity to grow. Jesus answers the disciple’s question this way: “[T]he cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word [seed], and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). Pliable thought all was going to be easy as he set out on pilgrimage. Not so! He had no idea what it would cost to persevere all the way to the Celestial City. So, at the first sign of trouble he was inclined to give-up and retreat. Bunyan’s allegorical style complements what Jesus taught by parable. Those whose hearts receive the seed at the first have no idea what it will cost them to follow Christ all the way to the Celestial City. There are many warnings, parables, and metaphors in Scripture that make clear the costs of following Christ.

It is most interesting to view the attitudes and actions of contemporary evangelicals. The term “evangelical” refers to one who has been “born again” or “born from above” (See: Gospel of John, Chapter 3). It is someone who has exercised “repentance toward God” and placed personal faith in “our Lord Jesus Christ” (See: Book of Acts, Chapter 20: 20ff). Specifically, it refers to one who has had a crisis of faith; one who desperately wants Christ above all else--even more than the things of this world. Jesus makes it very difficult to follow him; this “[is the] narrow way that leads unto life” (See: Gospel of Matthew 7:14). But many have not signed up for the personal costs that must be paid to follow Christ all the way home!

Further, Jesus employs the most startling metaphor possible to demonstrate what it cost to follow him! This is the Roman means of execution--the cross. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (See: Luke 9:23). Now this does not mean that we have to die literally, physically to become a believer of or follower in Christ. But it does mean that we exercise the “Cross Principle” daily in our lives. We die to our wants and desires in order to serve Christ and others. That dynamic is always at work in us--Christ’s Kingdom first then ourselves last. But Pliable knew nothing of this. And when he found what it cost, he was not willing to pay such a high-price.

So, Pliable is very unlike our two heroes of “True Grit.” They could not be turned back by anything but trudged ahead whatever the cost motivated only by revenge and greed respectively. But at the least bit of trouble, Pliable flees back home to temporary safety. The last account we have of Pliable after returning home was “he’s been held in great contempt by all sorts of people.” Some of the good town-folk of the City of Destruction clamor: “Hang him: he’s a turncoat! He wasn’t true to his profession!” (Ibid., 91). Unlike Pliable, may each of us who has “taken up the Cross to follow Christ” be faithful all the way home!


Sources Consulted

Bunyan Ministries Online. Accessed 29 November. 2018.

Hazelbaker, Edward. The Pilgrim’s Progress: in Modern English. Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2008.

Puls, Ken. Music Blog Online. “A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.” Accessed 29 November. 2018.

Thomas, Derek. “The Pilgrim’s Progress: a Guided Tour.” Ligonier Ministries. Accessed 29 November. 2018.

Whyte, Alexander. Bunyan Characters: First Series Being Lectures Delivered in St. George’s Free Church, Edinburgh. Bibliobazaar, 2015.

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1 Comment

David Emerling
David Emerling
Jan 23, 2019

I've always considered Pilgrim's Progress a manifestly uninteresting and uninspiring piece of literature. It lacks depth as an allegory as the author spoon-feeds the reader with blatantly transparent names assigned to people and places, leaving no room for the reader to unravel underlying meanings, which is the more enlightening way to read any allegory. With unrealistic and painfully transparent character names like Christian, Pliable, Evangelist, Obstinate, etc - and places with equally transparent names like City of Destruction, Village of Morality, Difficulty Hill, Slough of Despond, etc - it's like watching a movie where the characters have names like Bad Guy, Good Guy, and Can't Be Trusted. Silly! It's far more interesting and meaningful to learn that the Good Guy…

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