Thursday, August 09, 2012

John Bunyan’s defense of imaginative literature

Guest post by Jeremy Larson

Arguments defending the use of fiction are not new, although every once in a while they need to be trotted out for those who haven’t heard them yet.

Around the year 1579, Sir Philip Sidney’s defense of poetry pointed readers back to the Greeks and Romans, and even used biblical examples to show that the imagination was an important part of touching our hearts and minds.

About 100 years later, in 1678, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published. Inexperienced readers sometimes feel that Bunyan was inartistic with his this-for-that allegory (“Honestly, John, when you name someone Help, I kind of already know what he’s going to do”), but we should remember that Bunyan was one of the first writers to use dialogue in prose. His writing seems cliché because he has had many imitators (though few peers). But it’s not cliché if you’re the first one to do it. Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible, and it has never been out of print.

Like Sidney, Bunyan felt a need to defend the use of allegory, and he wrote an “Apology for his book.” Of course, this does not mean Bunyan was sorry for writing Pilgrim’s Progress. A apology could be an expression of regret, but it could also be a defense, and in this case Bunyan takes it to his critics and tells them to wise up. To borrow a phrase from Doug Wilson’s brilliant little book, A Serrated Edge, we could consider this Bunyan’s apologia for not apologizing.

Some of Bunyan’s critics wanted “solidness” and accused Bunyan of lacking substance in his work (based on the fact that he used metaphors instead of theology-speak). Here is part of Bunyan’s response.

Solidity, indeed, becomes the pen
Of him that writeth things divine to men;
But must I needs want solidness because
By metaphors I speak? Were not God’s laws,
His gospel laws, in olden time held forth
By types, shadows, and metaphors? Yet loath
Will any sober man be to find fault
With them, lest he be found for to assault
The highest wisdom. No, he rather stoops,
And seeks to find out what by pins and loops,
By calves and sheep, by heifers and by rams,
By birds and herbs, and by the blood of lambs.
God speaketh to him; and happy is he
That finds the light and grace that in them be.

[In other words: Sure, theology writers usually write in a straightforward way. But do I necessarily lack substance because I use lots of imagery? Doesn’t the Bible use that kind of stuff? Nobody complains about the Bible’s use of metaphors. People actually bend over backwards to figure out what all those Leviticus symbols stand for, and they’re thankful once they figure it out.]

Be not too forward, therefore, to conclude
That I want solidness, that I am rude:
All things solid in show, not solid be:
All things in parables despise not we;
Lest things most hurtful lightly we receive,
And things that good are of our souls bereave.

[In other words: Don’t be hasty to conclude that I lack substance or am uneducated. Not everything that appears to have substance actually has substance, and parables are useful. In fact, we should pay close attention to parables lest we blindly embrace dangers and miss out on blessings.]

My dark and cloudy words they do but hold
The truth, as cabinets enclose the gold.
The prophets used much by metaphors
To set forth truth; yea, whoso considers
Christ, His apostles too, shall plainly see
That truths to this day in such mantles be.

[In other words: My metaphorical story holds rich theological truths. Prophets, the apostles, and Christ Himself encased their truths in metaphor, and those casings have helped to preserve and display ancient truths for us to see today.]

I’m not sure if Bunyan was gently taunting or not, but I thought it was funny that even after his defense of metaphorical language, he includes parentheses in the first sentence: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den (the gaol) . . .”—as if to say to the solidness-demanding knuckleheads, “Just so we’re clear, I’m not really in a den—I’m in prison. Solid enough for ya?”

1 comment:

Annie Wald said...

Thanks for sharing this great reminder. Pilgrim's Progress is a must-read classic [though I'd recommend a modern English version].