As mentioned in the post below on Bloggers Block, I have been having the hardest time getting motivated to post my reviews. The danger becomes particularly acute the longer the distance between when you finished the book and when you post your review. Having sold my soul to publicists by accepting their filthy lucre in the form of free books to review, I feel a particular pressure to write glowing reviews of said books. I kid, I kid. Actually, I am just lazy and have a hard time organizing my thoughts. Anyhoo, I hope you enjoy the review that follows no matter how truncated and/or lacking in insights.
The good folks at Paraclete Press have outdone themselves in producing a long and rather awkward title. The Most Difficult Journey You’ll Ever Make: The Pilgrim’s Progress: a Modernized Christian Classic by John Bunyan, Robert J. Edmonson, and Tony Jones doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But it really isn’t their fault. There are necessarily three components in the book, as evidenced by the authors listed, and communicating all of that is not easy. You have the original work written by John Bunyan in 1660. You have a modernization of that work by Robert J. Edmonson. And you have the overall editor, Tony Jones, who also wrote the introduction and supplies reader notes. Below please find my thoughts and reactions on all three of these aspects.
The first part is the work itself. I have to admit I was underwhelmed. The Pilgrims Progress is certainly a classic work and an influential one. As Jones points out, it is arguably the most-read book in the English language after the Bible. In reading it one is reminded of how the book’s symbolism and perspective influenced Christians, and writers, down through the ages. The book changed the English speaking world viewed Christianity and language.
That history and impact, however, doesn’t mean that the work retains its impact today. There is a difference between an important and influential work and a work that is still relevant or entertaining today. For the most part, I found Pilgrims Progress rather flat. In large part this is because the allegorical nature of the work has lost some of its bite given its familiarity and its simplicity. I knew enough about the book and its history growing up that it lacked a certain mystery. It also lacks sophistication or depth. Perhaps this is a flaw on my part, (the inability to relate to anachronistic literature) but I didn’t find much of the story insightful or inspirational. Part of the problem could be that Bunyan’s dogmatic Calvinistic approach doesn’t appeal to me. For whatever the reason, I found the reading slow going. It wasn’t a book I was excited about reading. Nor did I find it a challenging but ultimately rewarding one.
Which brings us to the modernized language component. I didn’t do any side by side comparisons, but Edmonson’s modern translation worked for me. The language was smooth but not so contemporary as to seem weird given the story and the history. Readers who might get bogged down or discouraged with heavy and anachronistic language will appreciate the modern version.
Last by not least, is Tony Snow. I don’t know much about Snow except that he is involved in the “emergent church” movement and that he is working on a four part series of classics updated for Paraclete. Neither his introduction nor his notes really clarified for me why he chose this work or how it relates to his faith. The point that was stressed was the book’s historical importance.
Part of the aim of the series, as I understand it, is to introduce young people to classic works of Christian literature in a way that allows them to engage and learn without being put off by the difficult language and challenging subjects. With this, and readability, in mind the notes are placed within the text rather than as footnotes at the bottom of the page or back of the book. They function as a kind of reader guide. It is hard for me to judge how teens might read the book, but if the choice was between a basic edition in the original language and a version that has been modernized and included notes along the way, I can certainly see choosing the latter.
As an adult, however, and as someone familiar with the work and its history, I didn’t find the notes particularly helpful or insightful. On a couple of occasions they seemed arguable. Jones labels Bunyan’s negative view of the Old Testament system of living under “the law” as anti-semitic, which struck me as odd. He also went our of his way to point out that Bunyan held views that we would consider sexist today. This too had a PC ring to it. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the work or intimidated by it might find these notes useful guides and pointers. (see here for an excerpt and to get a feel for the layout of these notes)
On reflection, I think perhaps this book just wasn’t for me. I applaud the effort to make classic works available and accessible to younger readers; and to reclaim some of these works for modern Christians. But the style and theological tone of The Pilgrims Progress didn’t resonate with me. Others will have to judge based on their interests and experiences. Students reading the book for class, however, might do well to consider this version simply for its readability and the notes included within the text.
For more on this important work and the role of allegory in literature, see this lecture available online.