John Bunyan, by Simonetta Carr, Grand Rapids, MI, Reformation Heritage Books, 2020
In the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, Carr’s biography is illustrated by Matt Abraxas, and strikingly so with a picture of the young John Bunyan holding a snake (an adder) by the throat while it is coiled around his arm. While most biographies give us the stately mustachioed Bunyan of his preaching pomp, Bible in hand, there is a certain appeal to giving young readers a representation of the subject of the biography as a youth, even if the incident is hardly one to be celebrated. It is drawn from Bunyan’s autobiography, as necessarily all biographers must, when little else is directly recorded of the subject,
“besides, another time, being in a field, with one of my companions, it chanced that an adder passed over the highway, so I having a stick in my hand, struck her over the back; and having stunned her, I forced open her mouth with my stick, and plucked her sting out with my fingers; by which act had not God been merciful unto me, I might by my desperateness, have brought myself to my end.”(GA,§12)
Carr puts it this way, ‘John had some close calls with death that he saw as warnings from God. Twice he almost drowned. Another time he encountered a poisonous snake but was able to hit it and pluck the fangs out of its mouth. It was a dangerous and foolish action, but he might been trying to show off his bravery to his friends.’ (8) To my childish imagination this sounds like cocky foolishness in self-defense against an attacking viper. Bunyan’s account seems to indicate that the adder (whose venom (not poison) was very unlikely to have been fatal) was merely slithering across his path, and his peril came through his unprovoked torture of the animal. Carr gets at this somewhat by pointing to the showing off, although cruelty rather than bravery would seem nearer the mark.
Still, Bunyan’s foul mouth, and hypocritical religiosity leading to his eventual conversion are not skirted, nor is the potentially scandalous affair of his giving Agnes Beaumont a ride to church behind him on his horse. (Agnes is subsequently locked out of her house by her father. His death a few days later is then maliciously attributed to Agnes as a poisoner, apparently plotted in cohoots with her lover Bunyan- all of which is eventually dismissed out of hand when the accuser is found to be a scorned suitor out for revenge- the last detail not given in this book.)
Bunyan’s prison circumstances are well noted, and the impact of his confinement on his family and his distress at their fortunes. His second wife, Elizabeth’s efforts to secure him a fair hearing are foregrounded to point out the ungodliness of the magistrates in face of Bunyan’s commitment to conscience and gospel preaching.
At 63 pages of generously sized type the book is aimed at readers aged 7-12. Aside from original illustrations the book also has color photographs and maps. The book is a sturdy hardcover that would make a pleasing gift.
There are 5 main chapters:
1- Willful Child, Daring Soldier
2- The Christian’s Progress
3- Prisoner for Christ
4- A Busy Writer
5- New Challenges
These are followed by a timeline of Bunyan’s life, some fun facts, digging into features of seventeenth century life, under the title ‘Did You Know?’, and a closing epigraph of ‘Christian at the Cross from Pilgrim's Progress’.
Biographers do not just write based on popular received knowledge. Even when writing for a young readership, Carr acknowledges correspondence with some leading contemporary Bunyan scholars as part of her research for writing (63). The detail of her research is evident in the simple way but effective way she explains, for example, the multiple stages of Bunyan’s entanglements with the law and his imprisonments. Enough information is given to outline historical circumstances that lead Bunyan to enlistment for Parliament during the civil war, while necessarily much is left out.
A few questions about emphasis emerge. Is the chapter heading of ‘Daring Soldier’ apt, given that there is no evidence Bunyan ventured beyond the garrison in actual combat? It would be a stretch in a world that includes for the contemporary young reader a diversity of neighboring religions to claim that ‘Bunyan stood up for religious freedom’ (5). This invites a curiosity about the series title in which the book takes its place. Is a ‘Christian biography’ a biography of subjects who are Christians, or a biography written in a Christian way. It is certainly the case here that the young reader is expected to know who a pastor is, and to affirm the providential interpretation that Bunyan has of his life experiences: that soldier who took his duty and was killed ‘God had allowed […] to switch places […]for a reason.’ (11) I’m not sure Bunyan would have been so generous to the Book of Common Prayer as Carr is in her explanation of his non-conformity (both Puritan and Nonconformist are simply defined (17)): ‘‘It was meant to be a guide for the Church of England, and not be a substitute for the personal guidance, heartfelt prayers, and well-prepared sermons of a concerned pastor.’ (23)
Carr does a good job mapping Bunyan’s involvement in church ministry that widens with his preaching celebrity, alongside the prominence of his writing. The focus is necessarily on The Pilgrim's Progress Parts I and II. The books closes noting the enduring influence and spread of the book. Carr notes that ‘Even people who are not Christian consider it a masterpiece. But Bunyan would have been mostly glad to know that his writings – nearly sixty titles altogether-have encouraged many readers to turn to Christ, leave their burden at the cross, and continue a journey that can be difficult, dangerous, and discouraging, knowing that Christ will never leave them, and the final destination is more wonderful than anyone can imagine.’(50)
That turning to Christ and leaving their burden is situated for the young reader by the theologically important noting of Bunyan’s impressions overhearing the women of Bedford testifying that ‘their own righteousness, meaning all the good things they could possibly do, was worth nothing’ (16) and that Bunyan’s reading of Luther to the Galatians highlighted (19) justification whereby God’s sees Christ’s righteousness (20) rather than the sin of those who trust in his Son.
All in all, a well-researched and informative read, aimed at sympathetically highlighting Bunyan’s Protestant experiential faith, commending the walk of one who turned ‘his mind to Christ and to the Scriptures, where he could find assurance of God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s comforting work applied to his soul.’(20)