Aargh, stupid flippin' irking sequels; dumb-ass mindless whatsit film industry. These days 's'nothing but an over-promoted sequin-smattered hamster wheel of money-spinning franchises, sparkle flying off with each deteriorating cycle. And of course the audiences flock, 'cause that's just what you do -- to briefly shush the inner monologue of metaphysical anxiety, and give you all some shallow communal experience with which to fill the silences whilst hovering, disconsolate, by the broken tea urn in the office kitchen. And hype and healthy ticket sales are grist enough to the mill regardless of artistic merit so the wheel turns again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and -- surely not? but yes, indeed, again again, and no-one thinks to stop or ask if anybody actually enjoys or is remotely nourished by a cinematic diet of recycled pap.
OK; enough with the sheepishly-minced oaths and the inadequately-homologous metaphors... Suffice to say that there is typically an inverse correlation between the counter and the quality of the instalment. Not always, mind: most would reckon The Godfather Part II to be on a par with I; the Toy Story trilogy maintains, in my opinion, a steady upward trajectory from an already-elevated start; the initially-insipid Bourne franchise packs an unexpected punch with the Ultimatum. But for every X Men 2 there is a Blockbuster video wall's worth of, well, X Men 3's. And don't even get me started on The Matrix (why????! WHY!!!??! oh dear...but, really, why?....when you get something that right first time, leave it be...)
So I had mixed feelings on discovering that The Pilgrim's Progress has a sequel (and there was me thinking they were a 21st century invention). I wasn't even over-flowing with affection for the first part -- there were moments when it felt a little too much like fear-mongering for my tastes, which in turn prompted in me the worry that 'my tastes' are rather more informed by 'modern worldly sensibilities' than by a 'Kingdom mindset'. What is more, it turns out I'm incapable of logically processing allegory (are they people whose names reflect their attributes? or embodiments of attributes? *confused*). As 'Christian literature' goes, though, it is fairly significant and influential, so I finished the duology out of curiosity and 'for completeness'.
And...whaddya know?...it turned out to be precisely one of those rare sequels which outdoes its predecessor. In my own inconsequential opinion, anyway. Mainly, probably, because it felt like there was 'a place for me' in the book's expanded take on the Christian walk; it was decidedly reassuring after the 'aargh, who'd have thought there could be so many ways of getting it wrong?' impression left by the original.
Part one narrates Christian's largely lonely, scarcely aided, difficult and dangerous journey from The City of Destruction to The Celestial City -- during which he meets many who have fallen by the Way, or who have failed to enter in by the Narrow Gate, or who have blinded themselves to their spiritual plight through Ignorance and love of the World. By God's grace, administered in part via his some-time companions Faithful and Hopeful, he makes it to The World to Come -- crossing the variably-turbulent River (which is death) and gaining admittance through the Heavenly Gate by virtue of the Certificate that he was given on his embarkation. It is heavy stuff; the glimpses of anticipated glory (there were at least four mentions of harps) were obviously supposed to outweigh the impression of hardship and ongoing struggle, as Christians believe is the case in reality. But for me, this did not come through in the narrative anywhere near as much as I would have liked.
Part two tells of the journey of Christian's wife and children with their assembled friends and protectors, who realise after Christian's crossing of The River that his faith was no delusion but a real revelation of grace and that they too can share in the joy that he has entered into. They meet with hardship as well, sure; and they gladly make tough sacrifices for the sake of the King who has personally invited them. But there is something strikingly different from the first book in the sense of communality it evokes -- the mutual encouragement, and diversity, and the provision and protection that they experience on the way. Whilst part one left me feeling like all Christians were uniform in character and experience (and must be if they were to be ultimately 'ok'), part two was far more about the diversity and variety of 'true pilgrims': young, old, male, female, weak, strong, disabled, mentally ill, intellectual or otherwise. And where part one was riddled with unsettling reminders of all the many ways that you might miss out the grace of God without even realising, part two was full of reassurances of God's sustaining grace even in the lives of many who seem to be in a complete and utter mess -- Mr. Fearing, Mr. Feeble-mind, Mr. Ready-to-halt, Mr. Despondency and Much-afraid, to name a few. And Bunyan describes, and charts the journeys of, these weak and troubled characters with gentleness and insight...
Feeble-minded: "Other brunts I also look for; but this I have resolved on—to wit, to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go. As to the principal thing, I thank Him that loves me, I am fixed: my way is before me, my mind is beyond the river that has no bridge, though I am, as you see, but of a feeble mind."
Feeble-minded: "Alas! I want a suitable companion. You are all lusty and strong, but I, as you see, am weak; I choose, therefore, rather to come behind, lest, by reason of my many weaknesses, I should be both a burden to myself and to you. I am, as I said, a man of a weak and feeble mind, and shall be injured and made weak at that which others can bear. I shall like no laughing; I shall like no gay attire; I shall like no unprofitable questions. Nay, I am so weak a man as to be harmed with that which others have a liberty to do. I do not yet know all the truth; I am a very ignorant Christian man. Sometimes, if I hear any rejoice in the Lord, it troubles me, because I cannot do so too. It is with me as it is with a weak man among the strong, or as with a sick man among the healthy, or as a lamp despised. "He that is ready to slip with his feet is as a lamp despised in the thought of him that is at ease;" so that I know not what to do."It wasn't difficult to place myself among characters like these -- nor, for that matter, to recognise the evidence of similar grace in my own struggles. Perhaps I haven't always felt the patience and support of fellow Christians that Bunyan paints so appealingly (sometimes, maybe, through my failure to acknowledge it), but it's all there in the New Testament descriptions of what the church should (and, I believe, can) be like...
Great-heart: "But, brother," said Mr. Great-heart, "I have it in my work to comfort the feeble-minded and to support the weak. You must needs go along with us: we will wait for you; we will lend you our help; we will deny ourselves of some things, for your sake; we will not enter into doubtful questions before you! we will be made all things to you, rather than you shall be left behind."
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-18)
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:9-18)
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:1-2)...to pick just a few of many examples.
There is a favourite phrase within the particular 'church crowd' I seem to fall in with most regularly, which is to say that the things of God's Kingdom are now and not yet: as we continue in this broken world, waiting for the hard-to-comprehend "not yet" completion of His redemption plans, there are glimpses -- blessings, joys, transformations, healings even -- amidst the pains and heartaches of the meantime. Reading Bunyan's second Progress -- with its celebration of beauty and enjoyment and relationship along life's (difficult) way, and its moving depictions of fellowship and encouragement -- I wondered if maybe he had woken up to a little bit more of the Kingdom "now" since penning Christian's journey into the "not yet". Funny, really, since that is the reverse of the order in which those things happen, temporally speaking. But then again, I guess the "now" doesn't even begin to make sense until and unless one first dares allow for the possibility of the "not yet"...
[Thumbnail image CC by tpholland on Flickr]