Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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Pilgrims and Sequels


Craig White



(written for UHCL's Neumann Library blog)

This spring (2011) UHCL granted me a semester leave to research Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a Southern white who as a teenager supported the Civil Rights Movement, what I’ve learned about the March on Washington is inspiring but also humbling. People of my background cannot easily imagine the rich, resilient, but always vulnerable African American culture—centered in the black church, historically black colleges, and northern industries—that gave rise to the Movement.

Professors sharing their research risk Too Much Information, so recreational reading? As one from a liberal Christian background who lacks social inclinations for organized worship, I practice spiritual duties by reading classic religious texts. All my adult life I’ve read the the Puritan poet and revolutionary John Milton (1608-74)—Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and the Bengali mystic, classicist, and revolutionary Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950; e.g., The Life Divine). Other favorites include Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ (1420s), William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), and The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (1614-91).

This year’s readings took a unique turn. In seminars at UHCL’s prison campus I taught the Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and noted the book has a sequel. Part 1—standard reading in many English Literature courses—opens with an everyman named Christian leaving his family and neighbors in the City of Destruction to pass through obstacles like Castle Despair and temptations like Vanity Fair on his way to the Heavenly City. Written by the Puritan lay minister John Bunyan while he was imprisoned by the English state church, in 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress became an immediate bestseller and long remained next to the Bible on everyday readers’ shelves. Its popularity led to imitations, translations, adaptations, and counterfeit sequels by other writers. In 1684 Bunyan wrote his own sequel concerning a subsequent journey by Christian’s wife Christiana with their sons and a neighbor named Mercy.

Given the subject matter, I emailed my sister Janet, a minister’s wife in Buffalo NY, to see about reading together The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part. Janet recruited her 20-something son John, a teacher in Maryland. First they needed to catch up on Part 1. I was enthusiastic because 17th-century English combines plain speech and spiritual aspiration to an unequaled beauty. Pleasure also came from chatting electronically with my far-flung family. Janet, trudging dutifully through Part 1, lamented that the “apologetics and hermeneutics” in Pilgrim’s story reminded her of her husband’s seminary studies and “look[ed] forward to Christiana—Maybe she'll talk about cooking, homemaking and raising children!”

Much of the Second Part’s charm rose from early scenes of neighborhood women talking in Christiana’s home. Bunyan may have modeled Mercy and Christiana on his own wives—Mercy on the wife of his youth (name unknown, who predeceased him in 1658) and Christiana on his second wife Elizabeth, evidently a formidable woman of her time—in 1661 she confronted Bunyan’s judges in court. Abiding love and realistic observation shine from these portraits.

Janet, John, and I discussed both parts’ dreamlike qualities. Sometimes the pilgrimages resembled an evangelical theme park—at the House Beautiful Christiana sees the apple Eve used to tempt Adam and the knife Abraham drew to slay Isaac; Mercy covets a hand-mirror that reflects back “the face of Christ” in peace or suffering.

Since John and Janet were new to the text and read both volumes at once, they compared the two parts. The retracing of Christian’s heroic progress by the two women and four lads led us to discuss “sequelitis”—in John’s words, “every 10 pages Christiana and the boys pass someplace where Christian did something famous, almost like a ‘Tour the Homes of the Stars’ walk . . . . In the movie industry they call this 'fan service,' where you acknowledge something popular just to remind people that you created it.” When Christian visited a house, he quickly moved on to fresh adventures, but Christiana and Mercy stop for months at a time. At length the sons grow up and marry on the way.

Such longueurs slowed our emails. John decamped to an online group reading the Bible in 90 days, but Janet mommed him back, and I’m glad we finished. Part 2’s final pages showed Bunyan’s writing at its best. Christiana arrives at the river before the Heavenly City where many pilgrims—gathered as at an evangelical camp meeting—await a “Summons” for their final crossing. Sharing last words with her children who live on “for the Increase of the Church,” Christiana “enter[s] in at the Gate [of the Heavenly City] with all the Ceremonies of Joy that her Husband Christian had done before her.”

“A beautiful ending,” John wrapped up. “So there ya go. Thanks again for the journey.” On my own, I started another sequel featuring another Pilgrim. Its first installment, The Way of a Pilgrim, is set in 1850s Russia, where an unnamed seeker travails to fulfill Paul’s command in Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray without ceasing." He repeats the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner” (or variations)—until it is a permanent echo in his mind whose rhythm corresponds to his heartbeat. I learned of this book in high school from references in Franny and Zooey (1961) by J.D. Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame. Miraculously, a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim was waiting on the shelves of my hometown’s public library. I treasured this text even more when it helped me to a happy marriage. Doris had read Franny and Zooey but not The Way of a Pilgrim—and she was impressed that I had!

A few years ago I read it again but felt less impressed—had the book done all its good for me? But my edition from Amazon contained a sequel that, now halfway through, seems more likeable and lively. Perpetual prayer grows familiar, and the seeker meets others—monks, Old Believers, peasants, AWOL soldiers—who learn, practice, and inspire each other to persevere. New York Times journalist David Rohde, kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, discovered a Muslim version of this practice. A Taliban commander taught Rohde to repeat “forgive me, God” a thousand times a day. The night of his escape Rohde repeated it 2000 times while waiting for his guards to fall asleep. Back to the book, the seeker’s new traveling companion is a “somewhat shabbily dressed professor” who shows off all he knows but yearns to know more. This professor must close. The sequel’s title: The Pilgrim Continues His Way.



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