Before There was George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien—There was John Bunyan
Updated: Apr 13
Editor's Note: This is the first post in a series on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
In a time when few could afford to go to the theatre, except the Lords and Ladies of the upper-crust, John Bunyan sat languishing in Bedford Gaol. It was 1678. He was about to pen one of the greatest stories ever told. And it all began with a dream—and with Bunyan’s imagination. His story opens with a Pilgrim named Christian who is on a journey—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?” (3)
Bunyan became the George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien of his era. While Lucas had Skywalker and Tolkien had Frodo, Bunyan created one of Christendom’s most beloved heroes: Christian Pilgrim.
While it seems fewer and fewer generations are familiar with Christian’s journey, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress still remains one of the best selling books of all time, and it has never gone out of print. This allegory powerfully illustrates the joys and dangers of the Christian journey from our earthly home to our heavenly one. Far more potent than writing an essay on the Christian life, Bunyan illustrated his ideas through story.
Peter Kreeft, a Catholic apologist and gifted storyteller, in The Philosophy of Tolkien, explains that “Every story, long or short has [at least] five dimensions” (17). It has plot, characters, setting, style, and theme. “But surely,” Kreeft writes, “the most valuable of all the gifts a story can give us is its fifth dimension: its wisdom, its philosophy, its world-and-life view, its insight into ourselves and world . . .” (20). A story offers a view of the world and application to its readers.
The symbiotic twin of story is philosophy. One key difference is that while philosophers tend to argue their case in the abstract (e.g. propositions), storytellers make their case through the concrete (e.g. imagery). With that said, we might speak of storytellers as philosophers too, for “All literature [or story],” Kreeft explains, “incarnates some philosophy” (23). Where “Philosophy says [or speaks] truth, literature shows truth” (21).
On Rhetoric in Story
When an author draws you into a story, there is always a rhetorical effect. Sometimes an author tries to persuade us on the surface—prima facie. Sometimes he does it inadvertently, subliminally, maybe even accidentally. Still other times, it is done more intentionally and below the surface.
Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to lay out the principles of rhetoric. For our purposes, we can connect rhetoric to the idea of persuasion. Aristotle spoke of three persuasive appeals that a communicator uses to persuade an audience: ethos (credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (logic). While a philosopher may rely more on logos, a storyteller primarily evokes the ethos and pathos of the story. The storyteller wants the audience to “experience” the work and not “think” about it as one would a series of arguments.
Additionally, an author crafts his story to provoke within his audience a different mindset, or new “way of seeing” the subject matter. The author wants his audience to travel alongside his hero and learn from him. An author calls his audience to enter the world of the story and “suspend disbelief,” opening themselves up to let the story change them. In today’s culture, the storyteller such as George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien is the master rhetorician, drawing his audience through the promise of intrigue, excitement, and delight.
On Bunyan’s Time
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 the war, the Anglican Church persecuted the Separatists, Dissenters, Puritans, Baptists, and other Independents. 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 the nation-state of England 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 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 Gutenberg c.1439. For thousands of years prior the oral tradition and/or handwritten manuscripts were the only means of communication, but the average person could not afford the high cost. 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 Anabaptist movements, King Henry’s love life, the English Civil War, and others (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.
The oral tradition was waning and the world was shifting 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. Just like our present day and the contemporary storyteller, Bunyan met a need for what the people demanded.
Thus from the cold and damp Bedford gaol cell, 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 Christian 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! This shackled storyteller may free you to never see our Christian journey the same again!
Check back soon for the upcoming installment!
This article is copyrighted by Roger D. Duke and Duke Consulting Group. They have granted Stage & Story the right to publish it.
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an advisory board member and the scholar-in-residence at Stage & Story. Dr. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister and has taught at the college and graduate school levels for over 20 years. Dr. Duke holds graduate degrees from The University of the South’s School of Theology at Sewanee, TN; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Harding University’s Graduate School of Religion. He has written or contributed to more than ten volumes (including works on John Bunyan) with the latest volume scheduled to be released in 2018. Visit his website at www.drrogerdduke.com. His published work can be found on his website and his Amazon Author's Page. He has been happily married to Linda Young Duke for nearly 44 years. They have three adult children and four robust grandsons.