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Full Title: Pilgrim’s missionary progress: Contemporary evangelistic adaptations of John Bunyan’s lingering spiritual classic for a post-secular West

Formal Abstract: 

This article notes that the way in which John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has been used in Christian missionary endeavors since its original publication in 1678 lingers in contemporary reception. Two evangelistic adaptation artifacts are examined. These are evangelist J. John’s UK book adaptation and Revelation Media’s CGI movie. Interpretation is offered of how these fit within contemporary missiological emphases on the holistic gospel of the Kingdom of God, rather than a modern individualist orientation. Focusing on each artifact’s treatment of the book’s “Vanity Fair” episode I observe that greater awareness is needed. I argue that post-secular literary developments in the post-Christian West could open the doors of cultural imagination to receive The Pilgrim’s Progress and its message again.

Keywords John BunyanPilgrim’s ProgressVanity Fairpost-secularmissionsevangelismadaptation

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Contemporary evangelistic adaptations of John Bunyan’s lingering spiritual classic for a post-secular West

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Missiology: An International Review, First published online July 27, 2020, Full Reference Forthcoming.



This article examines two instances of evangelistic use of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress (Bunyan, (1678) 1960).  If this lingering trickle of advocates were to become a stream, or even a river of Pilgrim’s Progress proselytizers flowing through missions work, what would the result be?  The judgement of this article, based on the two contemporary cases studies, is that adaptation to missionary use today must make greater strides to accommodate the gains made by contemporary missiology and missional practice in regard to the holistic gospel of the Kingdom of God. By holistic gospel, I mean to indicate an assumption that the good news of Jesus Christ is now, and eternally, a news embedded in the kingdom fulfilment of historical promise to the people of Israel. It is a socially determined reality. The gospel, and thus mission, calls people into the incorporating spiritual body of Christ as found in the human fellowship of local churches. This incorporation encompasses the diversity of embodied experience in all its political, economic, gendered, racialized elements, and is thus a missional call to address present inequities of human sociality as foretastes of a redeemed creation under God (Wright 2006, Samuel and Sugden 1999, Walls and Ross 2008). Preaching, proclamation, or evangelism will call for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ communicating this holistic walk of discipleship. This article thus concerns itself with the question of whether The Pilgrim's Progress ought still have a role in missions in a much-changed context from that of its original publication.  In particular, can it communicate to a post-Christian West? My suggestion is that the developments that recognize a post-secular imagination may enable this possibility.  (While the scope of mission impact is limited by the author’s context, it is hoped that the reader can imagine corresponding issues arising from Pilgrim's Progress’s possible use outside of the West.)

A post-Christian context presupposes societies whose imaginative cultural production is no longer, but once was, shaped predominantly by Christian frameworks of thought. The term post-secular indicates the ways in which, despite the slippage of predominant Christian cultural influence, anticipated secularization has not arisen. The secularist position, that sees all metaphysical or religious claims give way to naturalistic materialism, does not explain the endurance of formal religion and informal spirituality in the West (Clark 2012). The post-secular imagination sees the post-Christian West re-enchanted (Veith, 2020). Religion and spirituality, as communal goods, have not withered on the vine, and literary and creative hope gestures toward the supernatural, the mystical, or fantastical (McClure 2007). The post-secular posture retrieves community traditions and shared imaginations over against the isolated modern individual (Branch and Knight 2018, Taylor 1989). It makes sense to examine literary imagination here as it is the use of a literary text in evangelism that is being canvassed.

The Pilgrim's Progress has never been out of print in the nearly 350 years since its original publication. It has seen thousands of editions in English, as well as translation into more than 200 languages (Hofmeyr 2007:119;  2004:12). The endurance of this story of an individual’s journey from the City of Destruction through the dynamics and trials of Christian salvation until reaching the Celestial City is testimony to its popularity among readers. Its publishing history, however, need not be understood solely as a tale of market demand. The ‘portable Bunyan’ of Pilgrim’s Progress’s global popularity owes a debt to the work of Christian missionaries (Hofmeyr 2004, Dixon 2012, Freeman 2017). Evangelistic use has targeted children in the homes of godly Christians (Murray 2018, MacDonald 1989, Brown 2004, Nord 2004, Greenby 2011) as well as reaching adults through missionary translations on the frontiers of Western Christian outreach (Brown 2018,  Hofmeyr 2004, Dixon 2012)). Stephen Ney reports Robert Scott Oyebode’s auto-biographical account of receiving the text of Pilgrim's Progress in English, along with an English dictionary, in West Africa in the late nineteenth century. Oyebode writes of Pilgrim's Progress that ‘I am glad to say that I went through the book with great benefit to my soul; it first gave me an enlightenment as to what a true Christian life is, and from that time I can date my conversion.’ (Ney 2018: 504) That Oyebode read in English is an instance of the translation of the individual from their native tongue and culture to that of the Anglophone missionary. In this article, I deal with evangelistic uses of The Pilgrim's Progress in English, but translation is never far behind. Noteworthy, but beyond the scope of this article, Isabel Hofmeyr documents subversive ways in which African translations proved culturally adaptable beyond missionary control. ‘Africa changed Bunyan’(Hofmeyr, 2004:6). Chu (2019) and Liu and Li (2013) give details of the variety in the history of the translation for Pilgrim's Progress into Chinese. Early translation into French has recently been documented (Harris 2018) and the book leads the way for other modern Western texts into multiple other languages, such as Armeno-Turkish (Mignon 2014) and Arabic (Hill 2015). In multiple instances the differences between original missionary translation and later literary translation are noted, which may speak back to the missionary uses of Pilgrim's Progress in the contemporary West. That is, just as at its height Western missionary experience in global missions shaped ‘home’ Christian practices (Case, 2012), so Western evangelical theological vision is made aware of holistic corrections to its cultural individualism through global encounter (Tennent, 2007, 2010). This reciprocal gain for a holistic gospel is not yet evident in the uses of a classic of Western Protestant spirituality for evangelical mission examined here, yet the cultural move to the post-secular invites engagement with Pilgrim's Progress’s allegorical, in some ways fantastical, depiction of the Christian life.  Another way of pointing to the prospects of Pilgrim's Progress for contemporary mission is by observing that, just as translation into other languages spurred the vernacular literary developments that, in elite circles, tended toward secularization (Hofmeyr 2004:217-227 , Kim 2019:63-88), so literary developments toward the post-secular, filtering through popular fiction, can find Pilgrim's Progress a renewed place of cultural contact.

Below, two instances of the lingering use of Pilgrim's Progress in evangelism in the early twenty-first century are presented. The reader is invited to consider whether such uses are faithful to the holistic gospel orientation of contemporary missions. That is, I ask whether these uses of Pilgrim's Progress replicate culturally specific post-Christian individualism. If so, missionally attuned evangelist ought ro pause before adopting these as central tools to their proclamation.

Pilgrim's Progress is often read as an early harbinger of modern individualism. Read as the narrative version of the spiritual auto-biography of an anxious, even tortured Puritan, it offers a vision of internal struggle toward faith and epistemic certainty (Stachiniewski 1991). This individualism leads to the proliferation of consumerist capitalism (Branch 2007) and the disenchanted secularism that is engendered by such commodified materialism (Boscaljon 2013, Crawford 2017). The idea is that the individual, who sees the world as open to their own self-creation, is alienated from and thus can commodify and sell everything. We will pay attention to John Bunyan’s oblique commentary on this in his Vanity Fair episode for each of the case studies. For the perspective of missions, the experience of conversion has become a more rapid or instant experience under evolving Protestantism since the seventeenth century, especially the evangelical expression that shapes so much missions practice (Smith 2007, James 2014). Recent theology has been shaped by wider trends in the humanities and the social sciences to take back up its ecclesial belonging as worthy of serious reflection.[i]

[i] Bunyan scholarship also reflects these developments. If earlier scholarship saw little of community in Pilgrim's Progress (White 1988), Galen Johnson (2003) has substantially refuted a reading of Pilgrim's Progress as manifesto for the modern individual – my critique of the handling of Vanity Fair in the case studies leans on this work. The key for Johnson is Bunyan’s debt to Luther whereby salvation is external gift, by grace, and not internally worked up by the individual. Whatever the recognized failings of Protestant ecclesiology, Bunyan has community life decisively in view – for his gathered seventeenth dissenting community, as well as for the larger order of society.