Who Will Storm Doubting Castle?

Reading Time: 4 mins

Reading includes, on some level, striving. Hearing, on the other hand, remains passive.

John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is the best-selling book—apart from the Bible—in history. What brought this about? What does this say about the church?

My own exposure to The Pilgrim's Progress came early. In third grade, while visiting a church my parents were considering making their church home, a zealous Sunday school teacher presented the story of The Pilgrim's Progress on flannelgraph. For those who are unfamiliar, this involved placing paper cutouts of characters on a piece of black flannel to illustrate a story. Even more compelling were the voices the guy used in telling the story. I got to hear about the main character, Christian, on his journey with friends to the Celestial City and how he overcame obstacles like the Giant Despair along the way. It was a harrowing tale, complete with a lot of severe seventeenth-century doctrine, which hardly matched the usual teaching of the contemporary church I was visiting. Later I read the entire book for a course in English Puritanism in seminary, taught by a professor who had collected the largest collection of Bunyan-related material in the world. There is much to admire in Bunyan.

Some of Bunyan's fame is justly deserved on the grounds of talent alone. C.S. Lewis gave lectures on Bunyan and noted some lines that were so good as to make any famous poet proud. Bunyan used allegory to create unforgettable characters, such as Great-Heart (a nickname of Teddy Roosevelt's father) or Mr. Ready-to-Halt. His writing enriches our way of talking about the Christian faith and our world.

Other parts of the fame can be attributed to American exceptionalism. The American founders of Puritan stock set out to create a highly literate society. When they got to America, this meant a society with a lot of readers, and Bunyan was a favorite author.

My disappointment with Bunyan really typifies my disappointment with American Christianity at large. It is not that there is no gospel in Pilgrim's Progress. For many readers, the gospel moments are the best moments in the entire narrative. Who does not love hearing Christian say when he was sure he would die in captivity under Giant Despair, "What a fool, am I to lie in a foul-smelling dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am sure, open any lock in Doubting Castle." How many Christians have not later found themselves in Doubting Castle and then looked for the key of promise? Yet this is also where the book is weak. What promise? Christian is taught over and over to preach to himself. Christian is for the most part given a life where he is without a preacher. 

Better Christian practice is to expect the gospel to reach us from the outside. If we don't, we are in a religion of self-deliverance. It is interesting that Bunyan does provide a powerful image of the sustenance of faith when Christian visits the Interpreter's House. There he sees a flame that an evil party is trying to extinguish with water, but the flame only burns brighter when it is doused. It turns out someone behind a wall is secretly providing oil to the fire. It is explained, 

This is Christ, who continually, with the oil of his grace, helps the work already begun in the heart; by the means of which notwithstanding what the devil can do, the souls of his people prove gracious still. And in that thou sawest that the man stood behind the wall to keep up the fire; this is to teach thee, that it is hard for the tempted to see how this work of grace is kept alive in the soul.

Now, in one sense, this is a great image. We don't know all that God does to keep us in the faith. Yet in another sense, this is a terrible image. It makes the main work seem like a completely internal and unmediated thing. This is very different from St. Paul's words, "Faith comes by hearing" (Rom. 10:17). We need to hear the word preached. And while Luther was a prolific writer, he also said, "The church is to be a mouth house, not a pen house." He saw that the Christian as solely a reader might search for what he wanted to find. Reading includes, on some level, striving. Hearing, on the other hand, remains passive. We need to hear our pastors preach the forgiveness of sins because we doubt it and forget it. There is something in Bunyan that would find even a preacher to be a bad and unnecessary externality. But for Luther, the internal was the problem. The internal WAS Doubting Castle. It needed to be regularly stormed by a preacher, whether a pastor or a Christian friend.

If The Pilgrim's Progress is the bestselling book, we can take comfort that some other bestsellers may be gaining ground. C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia presents the faith in better terms. Aslan's substitution for Edmund does not make the Gospel internal to Edmund. Narnia was a more formative influence than Bunyan on my own spiritual growth, and even rescued me from the overly internal nature of the faith I had been exposed to early on. Seeing God more like Aslan kept me from fearing that God was disappointed with me for weak faith. (Much talk about the importance of faith does not help in producing faith. It may, in fact, hinder it. Even in the young!) Better yet, Narnia is read by outsiders to the faith as much as insiders. The Pilgrim's Progress is more likely confined to Christian circles.

Imagination allows us to address things holistically that we may be getting wrong through piecemeal principles. What is the overall character of the faith we are involved in? Jesus's parables addressed such matters, correcting misconceptions that no amount of legal argument could have ever cleared away. To enter into such arguments affirmed the idea that what mattered most was legal. I hope that our bestselling Christian works remain works of imagination for this very reason. Not for whimsical reasons. Not because imagination conjures up a world as it isn't. But because it helps present us with a compelling way of seeing the world. Bunyan did this. Dante, Lewis, and Tolkien have done this. I pray that we have better writers do this for us in the future. For Doubting Castle needs to be stormed. I think it will happen, for there are rumors that Aslan is on the move. In the meantime, forgive your friends, knowing that your sins are forgiven.