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The Tale of Two Allegories
Since Labyrinth of the World inspired Pilgrim’s Progress, as a former post relates. This post will be a literary comparison of the two books. The thinkers behind the two books were entirely different. Yet, it is interesting how these extreme differences led to books with strikingly similar characters and elements. However, what is most telling is the outcome from the views employed in the one book. It has fed religious institutionalism and escapist perspectives among church people for centuries.
Pilgrim’s Progress presents Bunyan’s view of getting to heaven. While Labyrinth is more about the attempt to live a good life. Heaven is almost an afterthought in John Amos Comenius’s handling of it. Both stories expend significant narration in their respective journeys. Yet, each author portrays “the world” in entirely different ways. The tone within the two books is also significantly different.
Pilgrim’s Progress characters are much broader than with the cadre in Labyrinth. Bunyan used a more extensive cast to include an array of larger-than-life evils: Giant of Despair, Apollyon, Beelzebub. Labyrinth features less supernatural imagery. Wisdom, Queen of the world, has a fantasy-type enforcer that is a creature akin to something described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Christ, Himself appears to Pilgrim in Labyrinth, as well as Apostle Paul and King Solomon, who is not allegorized.
Labyrinth allegorizes human existence and the realities of life in contrast to one—Pilgrim—who wants to live a good, fulfilling life that is significant and beneficial—in the most altruistic sense—for his family and acquaintances. Comenius does this by using a sardonic wit and is not afraid to highlight negative realities in contrast to the perceived positives Pilgrim is presented with. This juxtaposition helps us see our own lives in a more realistic sense.
Pilgrim’s Progress allegorizes the perceived journey of a Christian in a world that is set against the truth, with a bevy of characters who are bent upon preventing a pilgrim from reaching the Celestial City. While there is a definite reality to the Slough of Despond, Vanity Faire and the Giant of Despair seem to be something to get away from in favor of the Celestial City. Indeed, we will experience these things, but trying to escape them rather than understand them for what they are and learn seems a misstep. So how does God use those things to shape us and get us to depend on Him in this life? If you read Pilgrim’s Progress, you will be left to wonder.
Labyrinth also allegorizes the author’s—John Amos Comenius’s—own personal real-life experiences. His wife and children, having really died, are depicted as a violent gale that overtook Pilgrim in the story. Fear, horror, and sorrow are illustrated by the billowing waves that rock the boat—Comenius’s life and existence. In his introduction, Comenius states that much of the allegory is based on his personal and first-hand experiences, which is altogether different from Pilgrim’s Progress.
General Commentary Concerning Both
Pilgrim’s Progress illustration of experiences many Christians might encounter is arbitrary: giants, despondency, Apollyon… There is a degree to which our real life can seem “big” and impossible. But to me, this feeds an unhealthy view of reality because God appears only marginally bigger. Still, more importantly, God seems distant and out of touch in Pilgrim’s Progress. Is God not real and personal to us? Or, are our emotions and perceptions more real? How come the allegory does not portray God as victorious in our lives in this life, rather than finally delivering at the last possible moment? Why is not God shown to be eminently connected to the Pilgrim until the very end when he gets to the Celestial City? Pilgrim’s Progress also seems weak in that God’s work is always done through intermediaries—Evangelist, Interpreter, and the Four Shepherds—rather than Christ being personally connected to the reality of our lives.
I am not saying the troubles in life, which Pilgrim’s Progress allegorizes, are not significant or tangible. I am driving at how they are portrayed: evil is overwhelming, and our supernatural enemies are overarching and personal… Yet, God is not represented in such bold terms?
In Labyrinth, Comenius’s Pilgrim finds evil, vanity, violence and destruction under every rock and cranny of the world order and its involvements. I find such to be true. Comenius’s Pilgrim also discovers that he cannot do anything in life that doesn’t automatically contribute to these same dynamics, even as well-intended as his efforts might be. It is depressing to come to the same conclusion, yet it is no less accurate. Comenius does not hyper allegorize the supernatural; other than representing God as God. Sin, evil, vanity, and so forth are kept purely on the plane of humanity and its fundamental propensity to sin.
Bunyan’s Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Comenius’s Mr. Ubiquitous seem like two peas in a pod. The remarkable similarity between them is impressive. They both seem to know everything and have glowingly round explanations that skirt the issue or smooth things over in ever-so-compromising ways. But, in Mr. Ubiquitous’s case, he guilts, shames, and manipulates Pilgrim. I didn’t detect so many of these negatives in Bunyan’s Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
Similarly, both authors told their allegories in two parts:
Comenius – Labyrinth of the World, Pt-1 -and- The Paradise of the Heart, Pt-2.
Bunyan – Pilgrim’s journey, Pt-1.; and Christiana (Pilgrim’s wife) and their sons attempt to join Pilgrim in the Celestial City, Pt-2.
The aspect of Labyrinth that was colossally better for me was the second section is not a less psychological intense version of the first section. Instead, The Paradise of the Heart was about Comenius’s Pilgrim actually meeting Christ personally. This interaction was not just a flash in the pan experience. Instead, it was an extended involvement—17 chapters worth of conviction, repentance, discipleship, equipping, direction and blessing. This interaction was directed at Pilgrim going back into the world to be a light, truth, and reality the world cannot be for itself. These were inspired and guided by Christ Himself.
While there is no attempt here to sully Pilgrim’s Progress or John Bunyan. There is an effort to illustrate that The Labyrinth of the World is much healthier for the followers of Christ. First, the world as a system is irredeemable. However, the followers of Christ have been tasked to be aliens, strangers, sojourners, and most of all, ambassadors of our kingdom to the kingdoms of men. This is not just the job of special people—missionaries—who “go over there, somewhere” to represent truth (because “we” live in an already “Christianized” area where we can be comfortable until we die and go to heaven.) No! Not at all…
Comenius’s allegory contends that even the “Christianized world” is evil beyond words because it is part and parcel of the world system. Secondly, the religious community has helped obscure God and truth. It is only when Jesus is king in our lives, where we live as citizens of heaven while we are still here on earth—that the kingdom of God is brought near or upon the kingdoms of men—that we can then say we are living according to the New Testament. There is no hint of this mindset in Pilgrim’s Progress. Instead, the world is to be escaped from and heaven—and going to be with Jesus someday—seems to be the objective in Pilgrim’s Progress. This attitude is reflected in most Christian practices and thought in operation these days.
We need literary works that help open the New Testament to us whereby we can be closer to the impactful 1st Century Ekklesia than the modern church system tends to be. We need to see how we’ve been co-opted by the thinking behind Pilgrim’s Progress. I’ve found that Labyrinth is more in line with what I read in the New Testament. What do you think about this post?