Why We Need Pilgrim's Progress Today: An Interview with Dr. Roger D. Duke
Updated: May 6
Editor's Note: My (Dane Bundy) questions to Dr. Duke are in bold. His responses follow.
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.
It seems that Vanity Fair -- and what it deceptively offers -- is more accessible than ever to the modern Pilgrim. And Bunyan’s three distinctions between a converted person and a resident of Vanity Fair are quite insightful. What are some practical tips for the modern Pilgrim who truly wants to fight against the allure of Vanity Fair?
What practical tips would I recommend to modern Pilgrims (Fully Devoted Followers of Christ) to combat Vanity Fair’s allure? At first blush, it seems easy to offer some practical tips. But, on the other hand, with thoughtful wisdom, it is very difficult to offer insight. As a trained pastor and seasoned professor I could quickly offer many Biblical and theological cliches. But my own pilgrimage so imitates Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress; I understand the question must be reckoned slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. All facets must be considered before giving a hurried answer. I am also not eager to sound “preachy” or condescending to whomever might read these comments.
The best I can do is to give some of those familiar Bible-based theological responses--because I have grown wiser from the experience gained from experiential application.. For Bible answers that are not practical are like so much gossamer or “pie in the sky by and by when I die” responses. The Bible is preeminently practical for godly living and personal ethics.
First is commitment. I would ask the reader; have you started for the “Celestial City” like Bunyan’s hero Christian? He had problems with those of Vanity Fair because they held to one world-view and Pilgrim to another. They thought in a temporal manner. He thought in an eternal one. They set their eyes on the things below, he sought those things above. He looked through the tangible things seen--that will perish; to the things unseen--that are eternal. (For further reading on this line of thinking please see my inaugural article “The Inverted Christian” @ invertedchristian.com).
I would add a further word of explanation; “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” So many, even those who wear the name of “Christ,” have no idea who they are or where they are headed or even why they are here? If you have read (are reading) Pilgrim’s Progress, then you might understand better. Christian has made his choice, he has left the City of Destruction, he has set out for the Celestial City. All done while leaving wife, family, and worldly goods behind. The best way to be empowered to fight against the lure of Vanity Fair is to “set your affections on things above” initially. When this commitment is made, all others allegiances will fall axiomatically in line in order of importance. But even then, this will be a progressive and ongoing endeavor to persevere in the calling Christ has given you.
Secondly is concentration. Jesus made this idea of focus very clear for anyone who would become a Believer. He declared in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 9 Verse 62, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” What the Savior wants, what He demands: is that every follower be single-minded about personal discipleship!
This concept has gripped my soul for years; i.e., “the cost of discipleship” Jesus set. I have mulled it over and over again. To the point that I have made it the center-piece of my web page mentioned above. It may sound strange, even offensive, to our contemporary American psyche. That a call to follow Jesus is a call to exclusivity.
Consider further Jesus' words:
“For whosoever will save his life shall save it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9: 24, KJV). This is a very, very hard saying indeed! And who is able to even consider becoming a Christian? But this is only Jesus' explanation of what he has already told those who wanted to follow him. When the serious inquirer reads the verse previous to Luke 9: 24 many today will walk away. In Luke 9: 23 he says: “. . . If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
Third, is Confession. As a Baptist, I believe that a Christian’s Confession is pictured in his or her baptism. “Confession” or “profession,” is made up of two Greek words that mean “to say the same thing.” When we are baptized we “confess” or say the same thing about our sin and Christ’s work of redemption. In other words, we agree with him. Our sin has condemned us. We deserve Hell for these “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the Sovereign Creator of the universe. And we commit ourselves, in baptism, to a legally binding public declaration that we belong to Christ. It is very similar to Holy Matrimony’s public wedding ceremony. Before witnesses, I leave all others and cleave to this one. A commitment to follow Christ is a commitment to His exclusive right to my life and if needs be to my death.
What advice can you offer to modern Pilgrims?
Advice? I would encourage the modern Pilgrim to slow down: to read the Scripture more, to pray more, to meditate on the Scripture more, to put themselves under the ministry of a good Bible-believing church, to fellowship with God’s people more, to avail themselves of the means of grace, and to seek those things which are above. All of these issues are steps and stages of growth for Jesus’ followers. But, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The 10,000-hour rule of expertise began with forming particular habit(s) of discipline.
Why do you think we keep ourselves so busy, Christians and non-Christians, alike?
Frankly, this may be the easiest answer I can give. There is supposed to be a diametric difference between the world and the Followers of Christ who make up the Church--His Body on earth. The “world, the flesh, and the devil” has such a sway--such a control--on all of us that we are swept away; with the latest fad, with the latest pop-culture icon, with the latest whatever! This will sound way narrow and probably is by today’s standard; but we all are worshipping someone or something. If you don’t think so, just take away, or even threaten to take away someone’s iPhone. See them immediately get defensive and go into withdrawal like an alcoholic or drug addict. But that is an entirely different issue to be discussed at another interview.
How do you find ways to slow down and meditate on what motivates you?
Since you have asked me a personal question, forgive me for waxing personal. About twenty years ago now I decided to make good on a personal commitment to pray for one hour a day. Any disciplined person knows that one does not just start doing an hour of anything a day unless or until there is a level of commitment to do such. So I went back to the fundamentals of the Christian Faith. I started reading my Bible, meditating, reading devotional literature, et al. Probably the main thing that spurred me along was my prayer journaling. It started off slow but has gained in momentum and time ever since. The habit is done 7 days a week nearly without fail. The journaling is usually done for 5 of the 7 days. The process has developed into a personal liturgy that I cannot do without. It is like breathing to me. I must do it in order to have the spiritual strength to get through the day.
But I would submit two warnings for anyone who may want to follow this path. Sometimes I do it only out of rote. And I do not do it out of worship. And other times I do it thinking I am adding to my righteous standing before God. But that is not possible when one considers the grace that comes to the sinner when he repents toward God and places their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
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.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and principal of the Secondary School at Providence Academy, a classical Christian school in Johnson City, TN.