A High and Harsh Adventure

What Chesterton Teaches Us about Bunyan

pilgrims-progress-18One reason I can never get enough of G. K. Chesterton is that his writing retains all the power it’s ever had to bestow gifts. Read the best of his works, and it seems like it’s always Christmas. For example, Chesterton has helped me to see things I’d never considered about John Bunyan’s masterwork, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”—things that have enriched my own sojourn.

For centuries, Christians who reflect on their pilgrimage of faith have been drawn to John Bunyan’s classic allegory. Chesterton was drawn to it as well, but some of his reflections bring something new to an old story.

When reading this tale, most see Bunyan’s pilgrim traversing a troubled landscape–feet on solid terra firma. In an essay, Chesterton takes up this storied imagery. Bunyan, he acknowledges, was a man of the soil, a man who had struck deep roots in the land and its ways. In the pages of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Chesterton admitted, there wasn’t “so much as a whisper of the sea.”

And yet, in ways that were subtle, but ways Chesterton could not dismiss, he seemed to hear a whisper over waves in this tale. Bunyan, Chesterton began to see, “was of the sort that might have been a sailor as he was a soldier”—this because “there is in his book a sort of knarled goodness such as sailors know.”

The imagery of the sea, so seemingly foreign to Bunyan’s story, yielded this paragraph from Chesterton’s pen:

Bunyan the Midlander was right. When we send forth our sailors, we do not fear the wide seas, but only the narrow river. Mere distances are not appalling; rather they are pleasing; productive of welcomes and of travellers’ tales. The tenderness felt for sailors, by all that humanity that can be called human, is due to their daily proximity to that dark rivulet which Bunyan found flowing through Bedfordshire, and which flows through every land and sea.

Bunyan wrote of his pilgrim’s search for the celestial land where there was an eternal sunrise of God’s making. Chesterton’s prose is a prism for the many hues of that splendored light. And who might have thought there was a ship to take us to that fair haven? Better still, that God will pilot us over the sea to find it, if only we will let Him? To see these things is to find a blessing we may not have thought to find, and one profoundly welcome. But then, such gifts often follow in Chesterton’s train.

Bunyan wrote 300 years ago, Chesterton 100. One might think them very different people, very different kinds of artists. It’s true: A great gulf of time does separate them. But in things that matter most, they were kindred spirits. Both were pilgrims, and Chesterton took the measure of Bunyan in ways that have much to teach us still. The best writers, and readers, are like that.

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It’s as a reader of Bunyan that our debt to Chesterton is greatest. Perhaps one instance, more than any other, brings the sterling nature of that debt into sharp focus.

We come to a scene where Bunyan takes center stage, but the supporting actors of the piece are nearly as important. The setting is Chesterton’s study of George Bernard Shaw, published in 1909. In its pages, Chesterton took on an urban legend then current in London—the stuff of rumor among the literati, or smart set. A story, said he, “has run round the newspapers that Bernard Shaw offered himself as a better writer than Shakespeare. This is false and quite unjust; Bernard Shaw never said anything of the kind.”

Here Chesterton brought the curtain up on a fascinating scene—Bunyan’s scene:

The writer whom [Shaw] did say was better than Shakespeare was not himself, but Bunyan. And he justified it by attributing to Bunyan a virile acceptance of life as a high and harsh adventure; while in Shakespeare he saw nothing but profligate pessimism, the vanitas vanitatum [vanity of vanities] of a disappointed voluptuary. According to this view Shakespeare was always saying, “Out, out, brief candle,” because his was only a ballroom candle; while Bunyan was seeking to light such a candle as by God’s grace should never be put out.

Life as a high and harsh adventure—not unlike a journey at sea. Has there ever been a better or more concise description of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”? Bunyan’s pilgrim saw the far distant light of the Celestial City, but before he entered its gates, the mettle of his faith was tried. His was at times a solitary path, and he was sore beset. But, as Chesterton tells us, grace flowed from a place where God was, and is, mighty to save. One hundred years on, that is as good a word as we might hope to find.

Kevin Belmonte is the author of several books, most recently "Miraculous: A Fascinating History of Signs, Wonders, and Miracles."

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