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The Internet and Contemporary Evangelical Reception of The Pilgrim's Progress

December 2020

Introduction, and access to full pre-publication submission, below.

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The Internet and Contemporary Evangelical Reception of The Pilgrim's Progress

Andy Draycott

Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

 

 

Final Journal Submission Copy (Introduction below, full text by attachment)

For quotation in research, please see the copy of record:

Andy Draycott (2020) , The Internet and Contemporary Evangelical Reception of The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan Studies. A Journal of Reformation and Nonconformist Culture, 24, 2020, pp.93-113.

Introduction

In the first detailed scholarly examination of the twentieth century evangelical book trade, Daniel Vaca chooses an apt cartoon illustration demonstrating the way in which mid-twentieth-century American evangelical book publishers used perennial favourites of Protestant orthodoxy to bolster their readership against the assaults of modern liberal Christianity and looming secular atheism. The Bible is, of course, the large book that leads a cohort of Christian publishers’ titles into battle against enemy books with titles such as ‘False Philosophy,’ ‘Science So-Called,’ ‘Cheap Novel’.[i] For my purposes, although Vaca does not remark on it, it is significant that the book title following immediately behind the Bible is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Long since out of copyright and thus a cheap publishing option, we know that The Pilgrim’s Progress is considered a classic, one that had been a ‘steady seller’ throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and well into the twentieth.[ii] The cartoon suggests that Evangelical consumers, perusing their mail order catalogues to counter the godless texts increasingly appearing in their schools, libraries and bookstores, might be comforted by John Bunyan’s familiar orthodoxy. The Pilgrim’s Progress is seen as the foremost product of a Puritan Protestant heritage that flows through to the beliefs and piety of the modern evangelical believer.[iii] Bunyan’s book – in which Christian does battle, always supported by the Bible in quotation, allusion and marginal references – itself becomes a Christian fighter against godless foes seeking to gain an entrance in the Christian home. Jumping forward nearly a century to the 2020s, Vaca indicates that the nearly wholesale closure of once ubiquitous Christian bookstores means that evangelical book publishers now carry out their trade on the internet. With wifi access through multiple hand-held devices, besides the family computer, what does this battle look like today?

Vaca observes that the internet offers even greater opportunities for the kind of sustained market segmentation that was already a marketing strategy of book publishers, creating demand and ever more niche buying publics.[iv] This dovetails with earlier critical awareness shown by Tasmin Spargo in documenting the ‘John Bunyans’ of historical and contemporary reception. Writing during the relative infancy of the internet, she reflects on the possibilities offered specifically for Christian consumers by the World Wide Web for transmission, co-option or distortion.

 

The Christian groups who use the internet might be regarded as, in some senses at least, modern equivalents of the sectaries of the seventeenth century, ranging in doctrinal and political position from mainstream […] to extreme, but all offering members and ‘users’ a potential home (page) in a hostile world. Like the Palace Beautiful in The Pilgrim’s Progress the groups’ Internet sites offer the believer an interactive experience in a community which offers spiritual support. Finding the right site, or community, is however, not an easy process. […] In the age of the Internet, Christian groups reveal the same anxiety to differentiate their message and theological and cultural identity from that of alternative Christian movements as well as from the secular world.[v]

 

Spargo speculates at the close of her study that the re-contextualizing and even subverting work that Isabel Hofmeyr documents in relation the African reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress could also happen in the relatively new world of the internet.[vi]

This essay explores the internet reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress among North American conservative Protestant or evangelical Christians some twenty years after Spargo’s initial suggestion that this is an area worth study. In doing so I seek to offer evidence that will help map whether this internet reception is leading to a narrowing of approach to a ‘classic’ work (to parallel social media’s even more recent echo chambers), or whether there is evidence of an opening up of The Pilgrim’s Progress to diverse groups in a process of fertile cross-communication.[vii] Given that Bunyan’s reception among American evangelicals gives rise to concern that it fuels fundamentalism of a politically apocalyptic character, a more data-driven analysis is worth offering, as well as a tentative counter narrative.[viii]

In what follows I take up the invitation implicit in Vaca’s and Spargo’s assessments of the world of the internet as a key reception site of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a way of exploring Bunyan’s presence among contemporary American conservative Protestant Christians. I am interested in how the presence of The Pilgrim’s Progress among evangelicals can be mapped on the internet, rather than offering detailed analysis of how the text of The Pilgrim’s Progress is presented in these settings. For this reason, my own interaction with the text will be purposely sparse, and only drawn on to illustrate or interrogate the phenomena I describe. The websites represent one possible way of parsing a range, but not by any means all aspects of the range of contemporary conservative Protestant religious expression.

The four websites I will examine are deliberately selected to represent a wide spectrum of what might be considered (or would consider themselves to be) ‘evangelical’. I provide survey figures from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 US Religious Landscape Study that offers broad indicators of the size of reception community for each.[ix] I also recognize that broadband internet distribution in America reaches 12% fewer people in rural than in urban areas, and internet usage also varies to a similar degree between these groups.[x] This is worth noting to the extent that rural populations in the US, with broad generalization, lean more towards a conservative stance in politics and religion. I suggest that The Pilgrim’s Progress, as a classic text, functions as an authoritative warrant for other texts, ideas and products available through each website.

Many of those outside of the academic world who would commend Bunyan’s writings and The Pilgrim’s Progress in particular, to a continued readership today do so out of evangelical conviction and even evangelistic zeal. Michael Davies acknowledges as much in ‘Bunyan’s Presence’, his introduction to the Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan. He notes an earlier cultural prominence for Bunyan that is not easily discerned at present. With some reservation about the sweeping nature of claims that The Pilgrim’s Progress is now little read, given notable movies, popular novels, and progressive rock concept albums based on it, Davies argues that even if Bunyan’s presence today hardly extends much ‘beyond the realms of evangelical Christianity and the academy’ these are ‘constituencies that, in themselves, are hardly insignificant’.[xi] The Handbook offers some historical perspective on evangelical enthusiasm for Bunyan in the context of the Evangelical Revival, the Victorian era, American religiosity or the British Empire’s missionary interconnections, but contemporary conservative Protestant interest is not a major focus. Given the well documented breadth or even fissiparous nature of contemporary evangelicalism and its fundamentalist predecessor, I explore here what might be learned from a closer examination of that constituency and its reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

 

[i] Daniel Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and Business of Religion in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 112.

[ii] For contemporary evangelicals claiming The Pilgrim’s Progress as a classic, see for example, Leland Ryken, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: Christian Guides to the Classics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014); Douglas Wilson, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Canon Classics Worldview Guide (Moscow, ID, Canon Press, 2017); John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Read and Reflect with the Classics, ed. by Lore Ferguson Wilbert (Nashville: B & H Publishers, 2017). For ‘steady sellers’, see Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World. Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1180 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 7; also relevant, D. Nord, Faith in Reading, Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); M. O. Greenby, The Child Reader, 1700–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Isabel Rivers, Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England 1720–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[iii] For the continuity or discontinuity between Bunyan and twentieth- and twenty-first-century evangelicals, see for example, Peter Morden, ‘John Bunyan: A Seventeenth Century Evangelical?’, in International Congregational Journal, 15 (2016), 79–102; for Puritanism more broadly, see John Coffey, ‘Puritan Legacies’, in The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. by John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 327–345; and John Coffey, ‘Puritanism, Evangelicalism, and the Evangelical Protestant Tradition’, in The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities, ed. by Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), pp. 252–77.

[iv] ‘If bookstores typified the old evangelical economy, the internet has been the heart of the new economy’; Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated, p. 232.

[v] Tasmin Spargo, The Writing of John Bunyan, (Farnham: Ashgate, 1997), p. 132.

[vi] See Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan. A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[vii] Spargo, Writing of John Bunyan, p. 136.

[viii] Suart Sim, ‘Bunyan and his Fundamentalist Readers’, in Reception, Appropriation, Recollection: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. by W. R. Owens and Stuart Sim (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 227.

[ix] See <https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/> [accessed 24 March 2020].

[x] Andrew Perrin, ‘Digital Gap between Rural and Nonrural America Persists’ (31 May 2019), Pew Research Center, Fact Tank; <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/31/digital-gap-between-rural-and-nonrural-america-persists/> [accessed 21 March 2020]; also Pew Research Center, Internet and Technology, Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet, 12 June 2019; <https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/> [accessed 21 March 2020].

[xi] Michael Davies, ‘Bunyan’s Presence’, in The Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan, ed. Michael Davies and W. R. Owens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 8.