The Imprisoned Imagination: A Reflection on John Bunyan’s Soaring Creativity
By Dr. Roger D. Duke
Today, I would like to offer some reflections on John Bunyan, particularly on who he was, the incident that led to his timeless creative work, and some applications for us who value the imagination. I’ve adapted the material from a talk I gave at a recent Stage & Story gathering. But before I begin with the story of John Bunyan, I’d like to provide some context for my involvement with Stage & Story and how it led to this reflection.
My Time with Stage & Story
A couple of years back I was invited by Stage and Story’s (S&S) President and Co-Founder, Dane Bundy, to become their Scholar-in-Residence. It has become one of the delights of my life! For those of you who are not familiar with S&S, the subtitle on the home page banner sums up the reason it exists: Cultivating the Christian Imagination. Further, “We are storytellers, educators and professionals called to cultivate the Christian Imagination in artists of all ages.” I have a working knowledge of John Bunyan’s writings, with a particular attraction to his magnum opus Pilgrims’ Progress, so I accepted Dane’s invitation with a great deal of interest. (If you’re interested in a primer on Bunyan that I helped edit, see Venture All For God: The Piety of John Bunyan.)
After joining S&S, we determined to do a serial based on Pilgrim’s Progress’ protagonist—Christian. Each episode would be published jointly in S&S and my web page—InvertedChristian.com. The serial was titled: “Before There Was George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien—There Was John Bunyan.” To date, there have been eight episodes in the series written and posted in both venues.
On December 26th, 2020 Dane called the S&S principals together for a Zoom meeting. It was a blast for this old man to be included and to experience the talent amongst “storytellers, educators, and professionals,” especially ones so young and so talented—it gave me a breath of youth! We made new introductions, we renewed old friendships, we rehearsed the enterprise’s purpose. Most of all, we focused on Cultivating the Christian Imagination: the vision that drives S&S. It was an outstanding time—afterwards, Dane asked if we would like to do something similar on a monthly basis. And of course, all agreed.
On December 26th, three of us gave presentations on where our interests and imaginations were leading us. And all testified to God’s active Grace in our lives personally during these dark political, financial, and COVID days.
Listen to the talks on the Stage & Story podcast:
First, Brandon McCulloch spoke, a S&S board member and the Pastor of Calvary Chapel Twin Peaks in Southern California. He also serves as head of the Bible department at Lake Arrowhead Christian School and publishes a regular podcast.
Second, Eric Rutherford, another S&S board member and also the President of Entrusting the Faith Ministries, offered words of encouragement. Eric lives in Murfreesboro, TN, and holds the Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Eric just recently published his book Leading Well at Home: How Husbands and Fathers Can Biblically Lead Their Families.
Finally, there was me— a retired college prof who became a freelance writer and editor a few years back. Below are some highlights that I brought to the group as “food for thought” for these special days. It is our hope they may also cause you to ponder God’s work of imaginative Grace in your life.
John Bunyan: Who He Was and Why He Matters to Those Who Imagine
John Bunyan was arrested in 1660 under an outdated English Law referred to as the Conventicle Act. This was a dire time in English history just after their bloody civil war. Using this law and others, the English government fought to restore civil order. Order, at that time, consisted of the union of state and church. Generally, all the clerics or preachers who would not “conform” paid dearly for not participating in or practicing the Anglican Church’s worship. These “non-conformists;” Baptists, Independents, et al were simply trying to “purify the Anglican church.” Their enemies referred to them as “Puritans”—a name of ridicule and derision. But to the government; they were considered seditious and treasonous. The non-conformists could receive the harshest penalties—up to and including death! But Bunyan continued to preach in outlawed “conventicles,”—homes, barns, or anywhere people would gather to hear God’s Word. At his arrest and arraignment, he refused to post bail and made it plain he would continue to preach! And was promptly remanded to the Bedford “gaol” (jail).
Bunyan’s gaol-time served to conceive and incubate his Pilgrim’s Progress (PP). It is a dream imagined by Bunyan. It is Christian, Bunyan’s protagonist’s journey from The City of Destruction to The Celestial City. The story parallels and becomes a metaphor for every Christian’s life; in it Bunyan depicts all the trials and tribulations one must go through to enter God’s eternal kingdom. I was asked to give a few reflections on Bunyan’s PP at the recent meeting. Here is a short discussion of what I shared.
From my reading of Bunyan, I have not found him to be a dreamer or an artist before his jail time. He was a non-conformist preacher simply persecuted by the government. He found his Christian imagination and formed it while in jail. You could label persecution his Christian formation. It is possible to conclude; had he not been imprisoned; he never would have found his imagination and ability to write. Thus, under pressure of his persecution he discovered the imaginative process.
There may be some parallels for us in these COVID times. Here is a bullet-point list of exhortations to all who have discovered God’s gift of creative imagination:
1. Find a time and place for solitude away from the sirens of this present age, especially those electronic.
2. Embrace quiet.
3. In the silence, learn afresh and anew the Christian discipline of meditation.
4. Read the Scriptures, but not to “get a sermon” or “get a lesson” to teach, but to feed your soul as you “hear from God” from the Scriptures.
5. Think deeply, ponder the issues of your life, and the life of the wider world around you. Be careful not to do this from a temporal worldview but by your eternal worldview. Remember Colossians 3:2—[S]eek the things that are above, where Christ is.”
6. Consider those imaginations and inclinations that “inspire you” during these times of quiet. These may be from the Holy Spirit—and probably are!
7. Let the Holy Spirit move you along in the work God has called and gifted you to do! ACT ON IT NOW! Do not forget, that is God who is working in you both to will and to do of His own good pleasure!
8. Do be obedient and disciplined as you “trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus—But to trust and obey!”
With my apologies to John Piper— “Don’t waste the pandemic!”—and all the seemingly down-time opportunities the COVID has brought to us! Especially when it comes to your imaginative work.
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.invertedchristian.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.