Why We Need Pilgrim's Progress Today: An Interview with Dr. Roger D. Duke-Part the First
Why We Need Pilgrim's Progress Today: An Interview with Dr. Roger D. Duke
Part the First
(Web Master's Note: The featured graphic is Pilgrim as he talks with the Three Shining Ones after he descend Mt. Calvary where his burden rolled away into the mouth of the tomb.)
Editor's Note: My (Dane Bundy) questions to Dr. Duke are in bold. This interview will be posted in Three Parts. It was originally posted at
You’ve written books on John Bunyan. What first attracted you to study and write about him?
I have co-written one volume on Bunyan. It is titled: Venture All for God: Piety in the Writings of John Bunyan. That is being supplemented with the Blog postings I am presently doing on Pilgrim’s Progress (PP). (These can be viewed at Stage & Story's blog and at InvertedChristian.com) This endeavor hopefully serves as an introduction and primer for the one who is not familiar with Bunyan’s writings, historical milieu, or place in Church History. It was co-written with my pastor Dr. Phil A. Newton.
The story behind how my part of the volume came to be is very interesting (at least to me). I was taking one of my final doctoral seminars at The University of the South’s School of Theology @ Sewanee, TN (lovingly called “The Mountain”). To the best of my remembrance, it was the Summer of 2002. In our assignments, we were given a list of men and women to research. We were to pick one, with the view that we would actually teach one doctoral seminar on the person we had studied. On the list were those leaving some lasting contribution or legacy to Christian history. Those on the list were contextually of the English Civil war and Anglican Church leaders of that time frame. Please know that The University of the South was founded by an Episcopal Priest and remains “High Church” even today. Basically, I was “attracted to Bunyan” as you say, because he was the only Baptist that I recognized on the list. Ironically, I was giving a lecture at an Anglican school on John Bunyan who was persecuted by the Anglican church and government.
You’ve dedicated much thought to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. What is it about this work you think our present culture needs to hear?
Actually I have dedicated much thought to two of Bunyan’s works. Both, taken together, have impacted me in a deep and profound way. Of course, there is the PP. In addition to it is one of his lesser-known volumes, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Grace Abounding is to Bunyan what The Confessions is to St. Augustine. Both are biographical and recount their individual pilgrimages in detail; i.e., their personal spiritual struggles Both books parallel that lost institution that was very much a part of Southern culture and revival-style worship--the “testimony” part of church.
By this, I mean that in each work, Bunyan and Augustine respectively, describe their personal struggles in the faith. The PP is an allegory of the Christian life in general. Anyone who is a seeker of Gospel truth and reads it slowly and thoughtfully can identify with Pilgrim and hopefully come to see his or her own story in the narrative as Christian progresses to the Celestial City. But this must be done by taking the time to ponder life and its issues that we all face.
Grace Abounding and The Confessions, however, are movingly personal. There are some glimpses into the thoughts and feelings of Christian in the PP. And the personal agony over the faith journeys in Grace Abounding and The Confessions might move a secular psychiatrist or psychologist to conclude the two journalers had some form of mental illness.
So, to answer your original question: “What is it about this work you think our present culture needs to hear?” Our culture presently needs the Gospel of Christ. But we are much, much too busy to slow down and meditate on the things that are of greatest importance. They are mostly ephemeral, external, and pop culture. They are all passing away. Neil Postman got it right in his aphorism, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I am reminded of the song Johnny Lee sang years ago: “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”
Is there a scene in Pilgrim’s Progress that best reminds you of our culture -- “a society that is much too busy to slow down and meditate on the things that motivate us”?
Yes, now that you mention it, there is one particular episode that comes to mind. “Chapter 12” in The Pilgrim’s Progress where the two pilgrims bound for the Celestial City enter the town called Vanity Fair. (Please consider, then compare, Bunyan’s description of his allegorical town with the popular magazine of the same name.) By this time Christian (Pilgrim) has happened upon a like-minded traveler by the name of Faithful. It helps to remember that in an allegory the actors are principally known by the character-trait their name exhibits.
Christian (or Pilgrim) and Faithful are bound for the Celestial City. It was necessary that they go through Vanity Fair--there was no way around it--no detour! As they entered the town, their very presence set the place in a hubbub of talk and reaction. First Christian and Faithful were dressed in a type of clothing different from the clothes the townspeople made, sold, or wore. Secondly, they spoke another “tongue” or language; which in itself made it difficult for the travelers to speak to the towns-folk. Third, the voyagers held Vanity Fair’s wares as unimportant.
These three things signify for Bunyan that the truly converted person is different than the person of this world (i.e., Vanity Fair). First, the Christian is dressed in the righteousness of Christ and not in the rags only this world can provide. Secondly, the ones called out from this world to the next speak a “heavenly language.” They talk about eternity, being born again, and things that are opposite to what this world holds dear. Third, the merchandise being sold holds no allure for them.