Totally unrelated to this post, two ironic things have happened in the last couple of weeks. First, Ligonier announced their release of a new series by Derek Thomas, published on DVD, which looks great. Second, Justin Taylor wrote a post about this series on his blog, quoting Dr. Thomas, who asks whether this generation will be the one in which The Pilgrim’s Progress disappears.
I’m right in the middle of reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress with my British Lit. class, and I’ve been getting kind of a fresh look at the book this time through. I’ve been meditating a lot on what goes on in this story, and the truths Bunyan is portraying in the allegory. So I appreciated Justin Taylor’s post, and the quotes and clips there from Derek Thomas and J.I. Packer, about the book’s value, especially for the church. Maybe this all means that we’re all thinking about this book, and should be writing and talking about it, in-part so the next generation doesn’t lose an appreciation for it. Maybe. In any case, here I go – not necessarily because I’m fearful of the book’s disappearance, but mostly because I’ve grown to really love it.
For fun I thought I’d do a short series of posts about a few of the characters who are really standing out to me this time through the book. If nothing else, it’ll be helpful and devotional for me to think a little deeper about the people inhabiting this story.
But first of all, though, I wanted to write just a couple thoughts about what kind of story The Pilgrim’s Progress is, and how we should read it. These are things I’ve learned as I’ve taught through the book, while also reading through it each time, for five years now.
An allegory is a story written with an intentional symbolism in the characters, places, and plot. There is a relationship, sometimes a one-to-one relationship, between things in the story and things outside of the story. The best allegory takes invisible, intangible, or inward truths and circumstances, and makes them visible. The Pilgrim’s Progress does this in maybe the purest sense.
There are degrees of allegory. One degree would be when it’s written something like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis buried his allegory a little bit below the surface of this story, more deeply in certain places, so that you might have to think hard to get the symbolism. The Father Christmas scene in this book, if you’re familiar with it, is one of those “thinkers” (for me anyway). Then there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the allegory is right there on the surface of the whole thing. You don’t find yourself reading Bunyan’s story and getting lost in the story quite for its own sake, at least not as much as in something like Lewis’s Narnia books. But these two “kinds” of allegory each have their beauty and purpose.
Here’s the beauty of Bunyan’s allegory: it’s as if he took the whole inward journey and battle of faith for a Christian, and flipped it with the real outward, physical world. All of a sudden, initial awareness and guilt over sin, conversion and new life at the cross, and the ups and downs of a persevering faith in Jesus are here what you would see, if those things were all visible. And so the result is real, tangible pictures of things and people breaking in and giving perspective and light and, hopefully, clarity and encouragement as we process the ups and downs of our faith. We go with Christian as he flees the City of Destruction, and loses his burden in faith and repentance at the cross. We meet characters like Evangelist, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Interpreter, Hypocrisy, Atheist, Ignorance, and Hopeful. We climb the Hill of Difficulty with Christian, experience the horrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nearly meet our demise in Doubting Castle, and even so we persevere with Christian on the road to the Celestial City. And if we are Christians, born again to new life in Christ, we have, or will, do all these things.
To borrow from J.I. Packer’s quote that Justin Taylor shares in his post,
Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.
Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?
“All of summer stretched out before me: a vast, unexplored adventure. In my arms, I held a package my uncle had given me several weeks before. On the brown wrapping, Uncle Frank had written his instructions: ‘Do not open until summer vacation.” My uncle had sent me the greatest of all gifts: three brand-new Hardy Boys books.
I love the writings of C.S. Lewis, Mark Helprin, Norman Maclean, Frederick Buechner, and Howard Frank Mosher. But nothing will ever compare to the supreme luxury of lying in a cool barn on that first day of vacation and reading The Shore Road Mystery, by Franklin W. Dixon.”
This past Monday, Tim Challies wrote a post that hit a little bit of a nerve (if one can judge this by blog comment threads). His post was entitled “I Love a Church That Sings Badly,” and basically made the case that of all the churches he gets to visit, it’s often the ones who sing somewhat “badly” together in corporate worship that stand out in a unique way. He says,
“I found myself reflecting on many of these churches and I realized something that surprised me: I am drawn toward a church that sings poorly and am a little suspicious of a church that sings really well.”
Challies’ argument in summary is basically this: that often (not always), churches who sound great singing together do so because they don’t have a steady influx of new or spiritually young believers, who don’t know the ins and outs of the songs, the vocal parts, etc. And Challies argues the converse as well, that a church that does have a steady influx of new and untaught, and unpolished, believers tends to sound a little unpolished in their singing too, and that this is potentially a good thing.
I won’t quote any of the comments on Challies’ post. You can go read them for yourself if you want to get a sense of the controversy a post like this stirs up. I’ve brought these kinds of arguments on myself more frequently than you might think. As a church worship leader, or if you serve at all with the music of a local church, you’ll potentially hear comments like this anytime you say the outward product or polish of the worship service isn’t the most important thing. Like Challies argues here, a degree of roughness in a church’s singing is often (but not always) a sign of healthy discipleship in that church family. And what do you read in the resulting comments on his post? Arguments for good singing being more pleasing to God – that we want to sing well and have our church’s music sound good because anything less isn’t giving God our best.
This is tricky stuff, because this argument is, ultimately, true. We do want to always strive to give God our best at anything we do, agreed? Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to this exact thing. It’s biblical. But where this goes wrong when applied to singing is when we do the simple thing and equate the outward appearance (or sound) with what’s most pleasing to God and say things like, “How dare you imply we shouldn’t sound as good as possible?” or, “So you’re advocating laziness and poor quality?”
Which, again, isn’t what Tim Challies does. His point is effectively NOT that singing off-key, or not knowing the words to our worship songs is the way to go. His point is that there are important, glorious things happening in healthy churches that often connect to the quality of our singing, and make a roughness and tension in our singing OK. Here are a few reasons why I think Challies’ post should resonate in a good way with church folks:
1. Discipleship and evangelism will always cause us to hold “quality” in tension.
I’ll just basically restate Challies here, because he really said this so well. He uses the example of an unnamed church he visited “in the not-so-distant past,” saying,
“[T]he reason they sing so poorly is that there are so few among them who are mature in the faith; there are so few among them who have been raised to hear those songs week by week from their youngest days. This is a church where the gospel is being preached in the worship services and where the people are taking that gospel to those who live nearby. The gospel is doing its work, many are being saved, and they are coming to those Sunday services to pour out their praises to God. This church sings so poorly because they evangelize so well.”
We should always try for our best in whatever we do in our worship services, but I think I can argue biblically that producing external quality and doing our best don’t always look the same. And that’s often OK.
2. Avoiding “Heaven On Earth” syndrome.
I think what we often expect from our churches in gathered worship is an ideal, heavenly kind of worship, especially through singing, that might be unrealistic in our particular eschatological moment. We’re pilgrim people, looking forward to worship in the heavenly city, in a “better country” than this one. So we should resist the temptation to want a perfection in our church families that we just won’t have yet. Our churches should be made up of imperfect people, who are all being sanctified at different stages by the Holy Spirit, and who together make up a glorious, imperfect, already-but-not-yet redeemed family. Which, again, doesn’t absolve us from always doing our best with what we have. Which brings us to the next point…
3. Considering The Widow’s Two Mites.
In Luke 21:1-4 we see Jesus point out a widow, placing her only two coins in the temple’s offering box. We know that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3), and that if we’ve seen Christ, we’ve seen the Father too. Here, we see God value the heart that gives everything it has in worship, which isn’t much for this woman, but is everything she has at that time. And it’s valued over and above what the rich can give, because even though their giving looks better, the widow’s worship runs deeper.
Again, this isn’t to be an extremist on this side of the whole argument about visible or audible quality. A rich person can give with just as much of a worshipful heart as the poor widow. But the point of Luke 21, and an underlying point of Tim Challies’ post, is that God looks at the heart. He always looks at the heart. And it’s often much easier to get the externals all polished up in a worship service, and miss the heart of the whole thing – the loving discipleship that marks a healthy church family. If having external quality in our church’s singing means a compromise of true discipleship, or a compromise of love for one another or love for unbelievers, or means that we look down on anyone who can’t sing as well as others, then we’ve missed the point of church. Jesus might as well have told the widow, “Don’t bother unless you can give a little more next time.”
Challies ends his post with this comment:
“There are exceptions, of course. It is not a hard and fast rule. And yet I think there is something to it. We who have been Christians for many years are tempted to judge a church by the quality of its singing…I wonder if we have it all backwards.”
“Each world view will obviously ascribe widely differing functions to artistic activity and experience. The modern mind has severed the symbol, the image, from all metaphysical moorings; for Nietzsche art is a lie, the consequence of the artist’s heroic will to ‘flee from truth’ and to create the ‘illusion’ that alone makes life livable. The Middle Ages perceived beauty as the ‘splendor veritatis,’ the radiance of truth; they perceived the image not as illusion but as revelation. The modern artist is free to create; we demand of him only that he be true to himself. The medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence. Those who looked at his work judged it as an image of that truth…This standard was valid above all for sacred architecture…Everywhere the visible seemed to reflect the invisible.”
Otto Von Simson, from The Gothic Cathedral
My wife and I have had a problem the last couple years with It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve been watching it as a Christmas tradition. We do love the movie – it’s just great – but what keeps bothering us about the story is that Mr. Potter does a pretty heinous thing, for which he receives no justice, in what we see of the story anyway.
Here’s what happens if you recall: Mr. Potter wants to take control of the Building and Loan, run by George Bailey. Potter tries everything, even hiring George with the promise of much higher pay, to acquire George’s family business and control over the banking and real estate of the town of Bedford Falls. Having tried everything else, Potter swipes an envelope of cash meant to be deposited by the building and loan, putting George and his company at great risk, and starting the tragic trajectory of events the movie is famous for. George tries to find the money to no avail, which leads him to lash out uncharacteristically in anger at his family that night, and leads him out to the bridge in the snowstorm where he’s saved from suicide by Clarence the angel, and is given a chance to see what his life and everyone in it would be like without George Bailey. And on and on it goes, but the seemingly terrible thing about it if your paying attention, is that no justice ever befalls Mr. Potter for his terrible crime against George. George hurts his family, and almost kills himself over this whole mess, which is all Potter’s fault. And no admission, no repentance, no final reckoning in the story for him at all.
But I say “if you’re paying attention” for a reason. By the end, when George is given his life back, and he’s realized how good he has it with such friends and family, we’ve all but forgotten about Potter and what he did to George. Potter’s crime becomes overshadowed by the grace and love that come to George in the end.
Here’s what’s so cool about this film. In spite of the weird theology, or what I guess is really angelology, there’s a deep sense of the triumph of true goodness and love over any wrongs ever done to us in this life. The goodness at the end of the story, and the profound, self-forgetful love shown to George matters far more than the injustice done against him. But old Mr. Potter recedes down and away into his self-made loneliness and misery, a recession that’s mirrored in the last scene of Potter in the film. In that scene we see Potter peering miserably out of his window at George searching the snowy street for the lost money, trying to right the wrong he didn’t even commit. Contrast this with how George’s burdens are borne upward by the love and kindness of his friends. In kind of a Pauline sense, death is swallowed up in victory; miserable avarice is swallowed up in great joyousness.
There’s not much of Christ in this story, but we feel some deeply Christian things here even so.
Here’s John Piper’s summary of Jonathan Edwards’ view of the Trinity, that Piper says was revolutionary for him when he first started to read Edwards. It also blew my mind when I read this for the first time a few years back. This quote is taken from Jonathan Edwards On The Good Life, by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney.
“In brief, there is God the Father, the fountain of being, who from all eternity has had a perfectly clear and distinct image and idea of himself; and this image is the eternally begotten Son. Between this Son and Father there flows a stream of infinitely vigorous love and perfectly holy communion; and this is God the Spirit. God’s image of God and God’s Love of God are so full of God that they are fully divine Persons, and not less.”