Updated: Apr 13
Editor's Note: This is the second post in a series on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, "Before There Was George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien - There was John Bunyan." Read the first post here.
I remember we used to only have three sources for the evening news: ABC, CBS, or NBC. Contrast that with our present day. There is One News Now, MSNBC, CNN, and a plethora of outlets where one can “catch the latest.” And that is not to mention the multitude of news apps accessible on our digital devices. The news media constantly bombards us by a barrage of bad news consisting of the latest human misery, death, destruction, governmental scandal, or natural disaster. And it all comes at a harried and hurried pace; it is hard to make any sense of it.
The onslaught of images and sounds may be one reason our society is growing more coarse and crass, seemingly exponentially. Our interpersonal encounters have become uncivil at best and dangerous at worst. It has come to the point that the foundations of our Republic are presently experiencing seismic shifts that America has never encountered. No doubt, there are many causes, reasons, and effects for where we find ourselves; and the sociologists, philosophers, and liberal churches have offered no lasting solutions.
I have little doubt that American angst will ramp up to a heightened zenith not seen or experienced since World War II. Dr. Richard Land, former President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for The Southern Baptist Convention, once observed concerning the 1960s, “the United States has had a collective nervous breakdown.” Dr. Land articulated this in the wake of the Vietnam War with its protests and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Bobby Kennedy.
This protracted decade of unrest tore America apart—to the point we have not completely recovered. This decade is only one progenitor of many of our contemporary predicaments. But where we find ourselves now seems even worse. People all around us live in disappointment, disillusionment, and despair.
Contrast our country’s angst with Christian’s (Pilgrim’s) (end note 1) crisis when we left him last. He “open[ed] 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?’”
This was not just a “nervous breakdown.” No! Christian is mourning. He is sobbing uncontrollably with his entire body quaking. Notice some of the differences between our present national calamities and Pilgrim’s personal predicament.
Pilgrim’s angst is not based on any external circumstances such as politics, and war or economic downturn does not frighten him. He had experienced those external challenges, since he is a reflection of Bunyan’s experience—Pilgrim’s struggle is internal.
Pilgrim despairs because of his personal sin and its consequences. He confesses to Evangelist, “Sir, I realize by reading the Book [Bible] in my hand that I am condemned to die and after that to come to judgment. I find I’m not wanting to do the first nor am I prepared to do the second” (end note 2). He experiences a fearful dread because he knows one day he’ll meet the eternal God in judgment (end note 3) and have to give an account of his sin with all its consequences.
Fear of Without vs. Fear of Within
So what is the primary difference between Pilgrims’s angst and our contemporary anxiety? While Christian fears what he sees within, our culture fears what it sees without. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the pattern I’ve witnessed. I’m concerned that America fears the wrong thing. Obsessed with what goes on around us, we are woefully ignorant of the void that haunts our inner lives. Augustine’s confession is appropriate for contemporary times: “We are restless until we find our rest in thee.” When we realize this, we may even experience a deeper level of anxiety—a kind that leads to lament that is of utmost concern: our sin and how it separates us from a holy God.
Pilgrim finds himself in a similar place as other biblical individuals. In biblical parlance, his reaction is a lament. A lament is a mournful and emotional outburst. A lament goes well beyond crying or sobbing: the personal outburst crescendos to the point of shrieking and wailing. One is devoid of public shame, or desire to withhold their emotions. Those who would lament in the Old Testament will typically go and sit in the city dump. They would throw ashes into the air so as to let them fall upon their head. They would tear their clothes or wear sackcloth: a rough and itchy fabric. They would wail at the top of their voices, so all would recognize that both garment and soul have been torn.
One example from the Bible was that of Job. He was the wealthiest man in the East. He had much that could be taken away. And in one day, all ten of his children were killed and all of his monetary resources stolen. The next blow was his health. Boils covered him from the top of his head to the sole of his feet. Even his wife plead with him, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” (Job 2:9, KJV). Job mourns his life, confessing that it would have been better had he not ever been born: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘There is a man child conceived!’” (Job 3:3, KJV).
Except for some cultural and historical differences, Pilgrim shares the emotions of our Old Testament friend: so much internal anguish could not be contained.
I too have witnessed visual examples of what it means to lament. These were garnered from my experience planting a church amongst the Black families of rural West Tennessee. In the pastoral tenure, it was my privilege to conduct or help with several funerals. I witnessed how the rural Black Church expressed their mourning and grief. I must say it was close to what the biblical lament might be: shrieking, moaning, guttural grunts and sightings, even to the point of swooning.
To return to Job, he did quarrel with God over his immediate and external circumstances, wondering why God was allowing such calamities (See: Job 3ff.). But Job did not express fear over his soul’s eternal need for God—only why God would allow such terrible external circumstances. This brings us to another biblical example that sheds light on Pilgrim’s brokenness.
Christian’s experience of lament parallels the Prophet Isaiah’s experience and vision of YAHWEY—the covenant name of Israel’s God—as he saw the LORD high and lifted up in the Jewish Temple. God’s glory and Pilgrim’s view of his own sinfulness overcomes him. The vision produces a confession and lament: “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5ff, KJV).
Isaiah is completely smitten by the vision of God’s Glory and the chorus of heavenly beings crying, “HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! Is the LORD of host: the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3, KJV). His confession, “Woe is me,” is a classic example of lament in the Old Testament. Isaiah knows if he dies without being made right with God, he will encounter eternal perdition and separation from God. But God justifies Isaiah and simultaneously sets him aside to minister as a prophet.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian too is overcome by his sin. He shrieks, he cries out, he laments in biblical proportions concerning his condition, “What shall I do?” He knows that to die without being right with God will be utter destruction of his immortal soul. And to him, his soul’s worth was far greater than all of the riches of this life, even his precious family.
While our culture has misplaced their fear and anxiety in the external world, they do have an eternal and internal longing. A longing only God can fulfill—but they seek to fill it with temporal things, a vain exercise indeed. Johnny Lee’s country song captures the ethos: “I’ve Been Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” But America, like Pilgrim, must find their way to the only Light who is Christ—the only one who can relieve this present angst. May we diligently share this Light with our anxious friends and neighbors all around us.
But what about Pilgrim? Shall we leave our hero in his sin, shame, and misery to lament alone? NO! Is there no help for his condition? Tune in for our next episode and see who comes to Christian’s aid.
And don't forget to read episode one!
This article is copyrighted by Roger D. Duke and Duke Consulting Group. They have granted Stage & Story the right to publish it.
Christian and Pilgrim were used somewhat interchangeably in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This will be done in these essays as well.
L. Edward Hazelbaker, The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English, 4
Reader’s Note: Keep in mind that Pilgrim / Christian is somewhat an “alter-ego” for Bunyan. It is on this level of the allegorical story that Bunyan’s walk through the world is paralleled by the hero of Pilgrim’s Progress.
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.