Writers and Their Work, Tamsin Spargo's John Bunyan
Tamsin Spargo (2015) ‘Writers and Their Works’ British Council/ Northcote House Publishers Ltd. 103pp
Spargo’s John Bunyan is really the best succinct survey of Bunyan’s life and writings for a student or scholar of literature. Excellent features are a clear opening timeline, ‘Biographical and Historical Outline,’ and back matter that includes Notes, and a Select Bibliography organized into the following categories:
Writings by John Bunyan
Works Published Posthumously
Monographs and Collections on Bunyan
Cultural, Historical and Social Context
The last categories of secondary scholarship are still pretty representative, apart from the authoritative Oxford Handbook (2018). The material selected for inclusion in these lists is recognized by the guild of Bunyan scholars but also crosses a spectrum of concerns from the literary to the more theological, not excluding scholarship from explicit positions of Christian faith, while not pushing any particular ideological angle.
This is reflected in Spargo’s thoughtful text throughout. She points out in her introduction that an expected relegation of religious texts like Bunyan’s through the forces of secularization gives way in the early twenty-first century to an awareness of a reinvigorated religious world (for good or for ill) and a re-enchanted literary imagination in a ‘post-secular’ moment. Writing from the perspective of the literary scholar, Spargo affirms that the value and significance of a body of work is not reducible to the aims of the writer, while recognizing that Bunyan’s ‘explicitly Christian’ writings cannot be disentangled from his own religious self-understanding. ‘It is hard to imagine many writers with a greater range, and even fewer who could produce such work while enduring the sufferings of poverty, imprisonment, and persecution, not to mention what we might call his ‘day job’ of ministering to an extensive church community.’ (4)
2 Bunyan’s World
3 Bunyan as Preacher: Early Writing and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
4 Bunyan as Writer: The Pilgrim's Progress
5 The Life and Death of Mr Badman
6 The Holy War
7 The Pilgrim's Progress: The Second Part
8 A Book for Boys and Girls
9 Bunyan in the World
Each chapter strives to outline the ‘chief themes and characteristics’ of Bunyan’s writings as well as the ‘social and theological factors’ (4) that shaped their production.
Chapter 2 draws particular attention to double-predestination and justification by faith alone (12), or justification through faith alone (13 –the different preposition makes a theological difference even though used interchangeably) within English Calvinism. Spargo notes that Bunyan nowhere mentions Calvin but instead pays homage to Luther in his autobiography Grace Abounding, but it is Calvinism that matters in her account. This is a pity because it places Bunyan among voices that are far more scholastic in their pursuit of doctrine than his much more Luther-like polemical, homiletic and narrative practice would indicate.
Focusing, my purposes, on the chapter on The Pilgrim's Progress we see Spargo observe: ‘This is a world where dogs bark when you knock at the door and pilgrims’ legs ache on the journey. […] The telling details that convince us that Christian’s experiences were designed to be understood by ‘ordinary’ men and women give the allegory a dramatic immediacy and a realism that anticipates the novel.’ (40) The chapter gives substantial attention to Vanity Fair because it is an episode that allows the historical social interests to gain purchase most strongly for the literary critic. Having considered Bunyan’s conclusion which seeks to encourage readers to discern the spiritual truths behind the text rather than the glittering details of the metaphors themselves, Spargo declares that,
‘[r]eading the text as literature is, of course, if not antithetical, then tangential to Bunyan’s intent. It is an irony that although there are many readers who continue to read The Pilgrim's Progress for its core Christian message, many others are drawn precisely to the ‘out-side’, to the skillful and engaging narrative that brings seventeenth-century social, cultural, and theological worlds so compellingly to life. Yet books have always exceeded their author’s control and readers read differently both from each other, and as their own contexts and priorities change.’(46)
Of course, after Bunyan’s extensive ‘Author’s Apology’ for his artifice in devising his ‘allegory,’ it is clear that he enjoys the ‘out-side’ skill of his own writing, and this enjoyment is very available to his readers, howsoever pious they may understand themselves to be. It doesn’t seem that the Christian reader is barred from reading The Pilgrim's Progress as literature. In fact it could be argued that the core Christian message properly demands a creative and free response that literary devices allow to flourish. Nor, of course, must it be the case that the non-Christian reader, or the reader reading for professional or scholarly goals that expressly do not articulate personal commitments, who is drawn to the ‘out-side’ is barred from appreciating and articulating, if without personal resonance, the force of the religious intent of the author. Spargo, in fact, proves herself to be that careful reader in her literary survey. Her treatment of the Second Part outlines in particular how Bunyan wrote elsewhere about the role of women in marriage, home and church, set alongside the agency of Christiana and Mercy, under the guiding hand of Great-Heart.
The book respects and reports Bunyan’s theological distinctives and goals, I recommend it for readers willing to find out more about his writings beyond The Pilgrim's Progress in a succinct but scholarly treatment.