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Commentary on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

February 11, 2021 Leave a comment

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has retained its popularity down through the ages, and even inspired a few commentary volumes (from Charles Spurgeon and others), illustrations, teaching series for adults and children, and even several movies. I recently read through all of Pilgrim’s Progress (both parts), along with an interesting commentary book, Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress and on the Life and Times of John Bunyan, a 19th century work by George B. Cheever.  I read the full Pilgrim’s Progress once, over 20 years ago as part of a Sunday evening church class series (on the first part), and had listened to Librivox’s free audio recording (again, of part 1) a few times, but this was the first time in many years to read the full book in print — and now, along with a full commentary.  Cheever’s book includes a section, almost half of the book, on John Bunyan’s life, a commentary on Bunyan’s autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  Then Cheever continues with commentary on sections of Pilgrim’s Progress, in chronological sequence through part I, followed by one lecture on part II.

Cheever’s style takes some getting used to, but the content gets interesting after a while, particularly his discourse on each part of the story.  Pilgrim’s Progress is a book that ‘grows on you,’ with its depth of characters and depictions, the ‘layers’ of meaning, that I appreciate far more now than in my early Christian years.  After having been through more life difficulties myself, I appreciated the different characters, particularly identifying with some characters more so than others — a great gift from John Bunyan, why this book retains its popularity down through the ages, that every reader can find some characters they relate to.  For example, in part I Faithful tells Christian of his encounter with Shame [Christian himself met others but had not met Shame], a great passage with instruction on how to respond to shame’s temptations:

Faith. What? why, he [Shame] objected against religion itself. He said it was a pitiful, low, sneaking business for a man to mind religion. He said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing; and that for a man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustom themselves unto, would make him the ridicule of all the people in our time. He objected also, that but a few of the mighty, rich, or wise were ever of my opinion; nor any of them neither, before they were persuaded to be fools, to venture the loss of all for nobody else knows what. He, moreover, objected the base and low estate and condition of those that were chiefly the pilgrims of the times in which they lived; also their ignorance, and want of understanding in all worldly knowledge.  … … . But at last I began to consider that that which is highly esteemed among men is had in abomination with God. And I thought again, This Shame tells me what men are, but it tells me nothing what God, or the Word of God is. And I thought, moreover, that at the day of doom we shall not be doomed to death or life according to the spirits of the world, but according to the wisdom and law of the Highest. Therefore, thought I, what God says is best—is best, though all the men in the world are against it. Seeing, then, that God prefers His religion; seeing God prefers a tender conscience; seeing they that make themselves fools for the kingdom of heaven are wisest, and that the poor man that loves Christ is richer than the greatest man in the world that hates Him; Shame, depart! thou art an enemy to my salvation. Shall I listen to thee against my sovereign Lord? how, then, shall I look Him in the face at His coming? Should I now be ashamed of His way and servants how can I expect the blessing? 

It’s a commentary on many topics, from Christian’s experiences and other characters encountered.  Spiritual growth over time, one lesson brought out in scenes from Part 1, includes this insight from Cheever, about ‘Hill Difficulty’:

We see plainly that as a clear-sighted Christian looks back upon his own experience he sees himself in many aspects, and through the prism of his own nature he sees a thousand others; he sees through and through the motives, thoughts, feelings, veils, and hiding-places of every possible variety of the children of this world, because he has been one of them.  He sees some stopping with their characters in perfection at one stage of his own experience, and some at other stages; some more advanced towards the point where he himself really set out to be a Christian, and some less; but many he sees, through the perfect knowledge he has of his own past refuges of lies, evidently trusting in the same refuges; refuges where he himself would have stopped and died as a pretended Christian had not God had mercy on him.  On the other hand, a man of the world, a wicked man, an unconverted man cannot see beyond the line of his own experience; the things of the Christian are hidden from him, for he has never gone into them; it is a world unknown, a world hidden by a veil that he has never lifted, a region of blessedness, knowledge, and glory, where his feet have never wandered; a region of sweet fields and living streams and vast prospects, of which he knows nothing and can conceive nothing.  It is all like the unseen future to him.

Pilgrim’s Progress Part II is quite different, and tends to be neglected in comparison to the well-known first part.  Cheever’s lecture points out that the second part can be understood as the journey of many ordinary believers, as contrasted with that of the spiritual giants, the famous Christian teachers such as Bunyan himself.  At times, part II seemed harder for me to relate to,  as it portrays the women and children having a relatively easy life, and with good counsel and guidance all through their journey. Christiana’s four boys even grow up and all marry godly Christian women, the characters are doing works of charity, and all is pleasant with no great challenges.  As the commentary points out, this was Bunyan’s interest in affirming God’s positive purpose for marriage (in the Lord) and the local church.  As such, it reflects the experience of those who are given these blessings from God, strong marriages with godly partners, and solid local churches that rightly teach God’s word and have healthy leadership and communication.  Bunyan’s church era instead faced great persecution, which included his 12 years in prison, and possibly the churches of that era, the late 17th century, did not experience, or at least to as great an extent, the problems we are familiar with:  churches where great error is taught, and/or abuse of authority from the leadership. 

In the women and children characters, Pilgrim’s Progress Part II also describes the every-day believers that have been given more common grace including calm temperaments, and personalities and social skills within the normal range.  They are naturally more easy-going and more humble, such that the famous places where Christian had extreme difficulties (the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for instance) are much easier for them.  Here I am reminded also of an observation from Joni Eareckson Tada, in The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus: in her ministry work, she had observed two children who had lost their legs in an accident and would never walk again, yet their attitude was much more accepting and positive, than her own very negative reaction and struggle with God about what had happened to her.

Then again, part two includes many other characters (Cheever likens the variety of pilgrims to that of The Canterbury Tales) and describes other personality types, or parts of our personalities.  One such example is Mr. Fearing, a great contrast from the superficial characters such as Talkative, Ignorance, and Self-Will.  The actual description from Bunyan is quite detailed, and then Cheever spends two full pages of commentary, pointing out the problems taken to excess with Mr. Fearing, as well as his strengths.  In response to the simplistic attitude that would exhort believers, ‘Don’t be a Mr. Fearing’, it is worth noting that Bunyan included this reason, as to why such a believer should go about in the dark all his life:  the wise God will have it so; some must pipe, and some must weep.  The Apostle Paul also described the different types of believers, a verse often referenced in the topic of counseling:   1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

Pilgrim’s Progress and Cheever’s Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress are great works for re-reading and reference, with a lot of observations regarding various trials and temptations, and different aspects of the Christian’s personality and experience.