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Is there no balm in Gilead? Reading reflections on race

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

The reformed tradition shapes English Puritanism that in turn informs Bunyan and The Pilgrim's Progress. It also throws up Apartheid-era South Africa. Others more expert than I have reflected hard on PP's place in African reception (Isabel Hofmeyr, David Dixon). Curtis Freeman, whose 'Pilgrim Letters' I'm blogging on at the moment, addresses an emancipationist and abolitionist reception of PP in his Undomesticated Dissent (2017). Harriet Beecher Stowe's imaginative debt to PP and explicit appeals to Bunyan in Uncle Tom's Cabin are often noted.

Literarily, Marilyn Robinson, greatly appreciative of Calvin and Reformed Christianity, has been alluding to and circling the issues of race that burst out into her fourth Gilead novel, Jack (2020). Willie Jennings (The Christian Imagination, 2011) has shown that the racialized way of seeing each other according to a scale from white to black is a product of theological failings at the birth of European colonial expansion and 'discoveries'. Former evangelical Anthea Butler chastises American Evangelicals as the inheritors of a tradition in which racism is ingrained (White Evangelical Racism, 2021).

As a still-Evangelical, I have been working on Bunyan's problematically racialized imagination that crops up in PP with the Flatterer, and in Part II with the anecdote of washing the Ethiopians, as well as a black Diabolus in The Holy War, through to rhymes in A Book for Boys and Girls. He is an author of his time, breathing in the imagination of others about how to imagine others. If an author can be excused historically, what does that mean for his readers centuries later? Repentance? Redaction? Removal? Reparation?

If steps towards racial inclusivity might be part of PP's reception today, is including others into the influence of a 'white' classic desirable (who gets to include whom?)? Might inclusivity end up fostering paternalistic tokenism? Must the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant canon necessarily collapse under the weight of its own prejudice, taking PP with it? Or must it be refined or transformed? Is anything short of an all or nothing rejection or embrace a spiritual failure?

These questions come inevitably to the fore in illustrated and graphic novel adaptations of PP, and I'll blog more on these in time.

Can PP be taught in a way that is not only not racist, but anti-racist? These questions, if not yet attended with perfect answers, need to feature in teaching PP to (at least) American and British evangelicals for whom Bunyan's core gospel of justification by faith in Jesus Christ might seem a detachable deposit that can be lifted out of historical contingency.

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