Philippians 3:4-16 “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I continue our theme of letters from prison with, not a letter, but a prose epic written in prison, which you might say was his “letter” to a nation in distress.
John Bunyan wrote, during a 12 year prison sentence in England, The Pilgrim’s Progress which was published in 1678. Bunyon was John Eliot’s approximate contemporary, 20 years younger. When Eliot was here in Roxbury, Bunyan was in England during decades of religious violence there. He was in prison for preaching without a license, an act strictly prohibited by the Church of England, but he was an evangelical dissenter who would not be deterred. Bunyan had no formal education and his family were artisans with no standing in society of that time. But Bunyan was a brilliant speaker and writer--with a great imagination.
The Pilgrim’s Progress, written as an allegory, was conceived and presented as a dream he had of a man on a journey. The man’s destination was a reunion with God. The moral was to “keep your eyes on the prize” (Philippians 5). Now, today's journey is a cliche, when the journey amounts to going from job to job, from relationship to relationship, from city to city--like an accidental tourist. What Bunyan had in mind was the life journey that is chosen intentionally, a pilgrim not to a geographical destination but to a state of being.
Bunyan reports that his dream began with the sight of a man, in rags, stooped under the burden of a very heavy sack and reading a book. The book, not named, was the Bible, and the burden on his back was his sins. He is desperate to get relief from his sins, which Bunyan portrays as more grievous than any other kind of adversity like natural disasters, pandemics, disease or poverty. He can’t persuade his wife and three children to escape with him from the “City of Destruction,” so he leaves without them. Alone and lost, he encounters “Evangelist” who advises him to seek “The Celestial City” where he will find God and the forgiveness of sins. What follows is an extraordinary account, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, of a harrowing journey beset with all kinds of trials (the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair, the Valley of Humiliation). Christian, as he is named, was hampered by well-wishing but useless companions along the way (Pliable, Obstinate, Simple, Sloth, Wanton, Faithful, Ignorance). But the moral was, to keep his eyes on the prize throughout.
Bunyan’s purpose was to encourage the beleaguered Non-Conformists. In a religious world where religion was taken mortally seriously, Bunyan sought to provide a path other than the intellectual controversies and the ritual formalities facing people of that time. He proposed a path of the heart, not of the head or the prayer book. It was a strict Calvinism, shared by Eliot too, teaching the hopeful message that God will relieve the burden of your sins. We are descendants of Bunyan and Eliot, without the asceticism and self-mortification, but believing in the forgiveness of sins.