Thursday, August 20, 2015


TIME AND PLACE: Saturdays, 10 - 11 a.m., meeting room, The Marion E. Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln, Wheaton, IL.

TEXTS:     G. K. Chesterton.  The Man Who Was Thursday.   Penguin
      ______________.  Orthodoxy.  Moody Classics
     George MacDonald.  Phantastes.  Paternoster

DESCRIPTION:  George MacDonald’s Phantastes is the literary myth that Lewis states  “baptized his imagination” and was singularly important in bringing him to Christian conversion.  Written early in his career, it demonstrate the unique ability of Christian fantasy to explore the essential mysteries of the authentic spiritual life.

The writings of the prolific British author G. K. Chesterton were also among those that influenced C.S. Lewis’s conversion.  In Orthodoxy Chesterton presents his own provocative defense for his Christian faith, affirming its indispensable relation to Fairyland, which, he asserts “is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.”  The Man Who Was Thursday, his enduring Christian fantasy that offers a fresh and compelling vision of the presence of God and His working in the world, nicely illustrates his point.


September 12: Introduction and Overview

19: Phantastes, Chapters 1 - 4

26: Phantastes, Chapters 5 - 10

October 3: Phantastes, Chapters 11 - 13.

10: Phantastes, Chapters 14 - 19.

17: Phantastes, Chapters 20 - end.    

24: Orthodoxy, Chapters 1 - 4

31: Orthodoxy, Chapters 5 - 7

November 7: Orthodoxy, Chapters 8, 9.

14: The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapters 1 - 8

21:  The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapters 9 - end.


TIME: Wednesdays 2:00 - 3:00 p.m., from September 9 - November 18.

LOCATION: The Learning Center, Windsor Park, Carol Stream.  For those coming from off-campus, the main entrance is on North Avenue, the first stoplight west of Gary Street.  The Learning Center is directly across the Centrum Lounge from the main entrance.

TEXT: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Dover Thrift Edition.  Constance Garnett, trans.

DESCRIPTION: The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s masterpiece and the quintessential Christian novel.  It is the story of three brothers, Alyosha, Dimitri, and Ivan, sons of a sensual buffoon, who in their various experiences and crises face some of the most basic questions and issues of life, and who consider the Christian responses to them.

A master story-teller and keen-thinking Christian, Dostoevsky imaginatively poses the most devastating objections to Christian thought and offers responses embodied in human experience.  To be conversant with his thought is to have one’s Christian life deepened and strengthened.


Sept. 9: Introduction

16: Books I, II, p. 79

23: Book III. 1 - 11, p. 143

30: Book IV.1 - 4, p. 223

Oct. 7: Book IV.5 - VI.3, p. 296

14: Book VII - VIII.3, p. 359

21: Book VIII.4 - IX.3, p.429

28: Book IX.4 - X.4, p. 499

Nov. 4: Book X.5 - XI.6, p. 568

11: Book XI.7 -XII.5, 644

18: XII.6 - end.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Readings Syllabus: Winter 2015


LOCATION: Saturdays, 10:00 a.m., at the Lecture Room at the Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln Streets, Wheaton, Il.

TEXTS: C. S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms.  Fontana Books
              George MacDonald.  Weighed and Wanting.

DESCRIPTION:  In his “Reflections on the Psalms,” C. S. Lewis addresses the difficult issues that inevitably present themselves to a thoughtful reader who peruses these ancient poems in the heart of the Bible.  In his characteristically disarming way, Lewis not only explains the difficulties but also poignantly emphasizes the relevance of the psalms to contemporary life.

George MacDonald’s novel Weighed and Wanting, published in 1882, has engaging autobiographical significance.  With a large family of several grown daughters, MacDonald imaginatively explores the issues of courtship and the problem of an impending unsuitable marriage.  Interwoven in the novel are some of his most penetrating remarks on character.


January17:  Reflections on the Psalms, Chapters 1 - 3

24:  Chapters 4 -6

31:  Chapters 7 - 9

February 7:  Chapters 10 - 12

21: Weighed and Wanting, Chapters 1 - 6

28: 7 - 16

March 7: 17 - 28

14: 29 - 38

21: 39 - 48

28: 49 - end

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pilgrim's Progress

Class Sessions are summarized consecutively below:  Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics edition of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

March 26 Session:

John Bunyan is sentenced to the local jail in 1661 for preaching in a Baptist conventicle.  Confined for what becomes a  period of 12 years, he gives himself to writing, and is enabled to get several books published. His fourth book is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a moving spiritual autobiography in which he details the steps that led to his conversion and the discovery of his gift for preaching.  Grace Abounding reveals him to be a very sensitive man with a meek and humble bearing with a deep sense of gratitude for the working of the grace of God in his own life, and one with a deep sense of purpose and perseverance.

Having a burden for evangelism and pondering how he could fulfill his calling while incarcerated by writing of the Christian life, he discovers the power of imaginative presentation through allegory.  In his "Apology" for Pilgrim's Progress, he writes:  "And thus it was:  I writing of the Way / and Race of Saints in this our Gospel-Day / Fell suddenly into an Allegory / About their Journey, and the way to Glory / In more than twenty things, which I set down; / This done, I twenty more had in my Crown, / And they again began to multiply, / Like sparks that from the coals of Fire do flie . . . "  The result was a book that from that time until the present has had an popularity second only to the Bible in influencing people to the Christian way.    

Being by trade a tinker--one who traveled from house to house mending pots and pans for the peasantry--the metaphor of a journey came quite naturally to his mind.  As he walked across the picturesque English countryside carrying his tools and anvil (which alone weighed some 60 pounds) upon his back, he would meet fellow pedestrians, pass the time of day with them, and, being preoccupied with the Gospel, engage them in discussion of Christian realities.  As all who have done it discover, beginning to talk about the Gospel tends quickly to bring certain attitudes to the surface, and Bunyan skilfully depicts this.

Haply, he came upon a very basic archetypal image:  that of a pilgrim making a journey into the unknown.  It is the journey of Abraham, the life of faith. In addition, it is important to bear in mind that it is an inner journey.  Christians who conscientiously live their lives are on a journey involving them in serious inner struggles, struggles that unbelievers, not on a similar journey, tend to dodge, dismiss, or capitulate to.  For the Christian, finding righteous solutions is essential to the journey's success.  Each of the characters Bunyan's pilgrim meets expresses an inner voice that he himself had felt, and he skilfully makes the careful reader feel them as well.

At the outset, Bunyan's Christian  is depicted as being in great distress because of the weight of his burden of guilt.  Refusing to heed his family and neighbors who misunderstand his concern and would compel him to stay, he flees, wanting to escape the wrath to come. The book in his hand tells him that "it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment." His meeting with Evangelist, which initiates his journey, has especial imaginative power. "Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?  The Man said No."  The reference is to Matt 7:13:  "Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."  The call to the Christian life is a call to righteous living, a difficult and demanding undertaking in a world in which the majority of people either have little concern for or are disdainful of upright living.

Christian does not see the gate; he only discerns dimly "yonder shining light."  The depiction captures the wavering sense of uncertainty, together with the compelling call, that is the life of faith.  "Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate. . . ."  Faithfully undertaking day by day to "follow the light" will unfailingly yield the desired outcome.

Note the three perspectives that are introduced at the beginning and pertain throughout the work.  First, that of the Evangelist, who clearly gives directions and help.  Second, that of family and neighbors, who fail to understand and therefore scoff.  Third, that of the Pilgrim, existing somewhere between, who feels the call to follow the Evangelist's instructions and, in so doing, must face and successfully resist all who would deter him.  The text continually presents these three perspectives.

He Christian meets Obstinate, the voice that declares what he is undertaking is utter folly and should be rejected outright.  Next is Pliable, the voice that is attracted to the glorious outcome promised, but who, when they encounter the Slow of Dispond, quickly retreats.  One thinks of all who turn back when they encounter "the hardness of the Way."
The "Slow of Dispond" metaphor depicts the sense of guilt for sin the Christian feels at the outset of the journey.  Help instructs him that he should "look for the steps," that is, rely on the promises of the Word, such as that contained in Psa. 40:1:  "I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure."

Worldly Wiseman belittles Christian, advising first that he get rid of his burden and second that he go to the house of Mr. Legality.  One is reminded of all contemporary attempts to dismiss the sense of guilt as mental illness, for which, if it persists, one should consult a psychologist.  Living a respectable life is sufficient. Evangelist appears, sternly discounting all advice of Worldly Wiseman and renewing his insistence on Christian's pressing onward to the Gate.

Finally arriving at the Gate, Christian is taken to the house of the Interpreter, who proceeds to instruct him by showing him a series of 7 scenes, the import of each the text makes clear.  Of especial interest is that of the Fire burning against a wall, continually being doused by the Devil, but secretly being nourished and maintained by Christ.  The scene compellingly suggests the dual nature of Christian experience.  On the surface, Christians are beset with the efforts of Satan to defeat them.  This is the level of appearances, the conscious struggle to do the right thing in terms of all the affairs of life.  But covertly--on a level of which Christians are not consciously aware--are the gracious workings of Christ maintaining the "fire," that is, providing grace that enables a triumphant outcome, steadily working to bring appropriate good out of the apparent adversities of life.  

April 2 Session:

Having acquired the knowledge necessary to begin his journey, Christian arrives at the Cross.  "At the sight of the Cross," his burden disappears to his great relief.  Three angels appear, bestowing upon him the peace of sins forgiven, the raiment of righteousness (he is justified), the mark on his forehead (he is sealed by the Holy Spirit), and a roll (he is given all the promises of final salvation).

Of especial interest is Bunyan's refraining from theological explanations as to the efficacy of Christ's death, etc.   Being an adherent of Reformed theology, the temptation must have been strong to explain the substitutionary nature of Christ's death.  But he avoids all abstract expositions, desiring--admirably so--to keep the focus upon Christian's inner experience.  The Christian walk is motivated primarily by the capitulation of the will and the energies of desire that lead to obedience to Biblical precepts, not by intellectual analysis and rumination on Christian doctrine.  Not that the latter is unimportant; later experiences of the journey reveal its proper place.

Nor does he place the experience of receiving salvation in the Palace Beautiful--i.e., the church.  Bunyan is not suggesting baptismal regeneration.   The receiving of salvation is a private, individual matter of the heart. Between that experience and the reception into the institutional church stands the Hill Difficulty, atop which is the Palace Beautiful; i.e., the Baptist conventicle.  In ascending the hill he encounters several characters representing seriously mistaken understandings of the nature of the Christian journey.  Simple, Sloth, and Presumption see no necessity to walk the Narrow Way; they have no interest in upright living.  Formalist deceives himself by assuming that adherence to outward rituals are all that is necessary; Hypocrisy seeks to deceive others by pretending to be something he is not.  Neither allow their Christianity to effect their inner beings and lead to earnest obedience.    

Entering the Palace Beautiful requires meeting certain standards.  Entering necessitates complete commitment: the lions at the door (probably a reference to British authorities--to worship elsewhere than in an Anglican Church was for several years in Bunyan's time forbidden by law) must be defied.  The genuineness of the pilgrim's intentions must be established by his thoroughly testifying as to his inner experience and commitment.  That the pilgrim must then earnestly open himself to acquiring the basic Christian virtues is depicted by his interactions with Prudence, Piety, and Charity.

Christian's core motivation is movingly given as he responds, in response to Prudence inquiring why he wants to travel to Mount Zion:  "Why, there I hope to see him alive, that did hang dead on the Cross; and there I hope to be rid of all those things, that to this day are in me, an annoyance to me; there they say there is not death, and there I shall dwell with such Company as I like best.  For to tell you the truth, I love him, because I was by him eased of my burden, and I am weary of my inward sickness; I would fain be where I shall die no more, and with the Company that shall continually cry, Holy, Holy, Holy."

Having been outfitted with armor (Eph. 6:14 - 18), Christian leaves, accompanied by Discretion, Piety, Charity, and Prudence, for "it is an hard matter for a man to go down into the valley of Humiliation."  There he enters into serious combat with Apollyon.  Bunyan is underscoring the truth that to move through the world practicing Christian virtues is inevitably an humiliating experience, as sincere Christian behavior is not only counter to the values of the world, but it is also often viewed with disdain and ridicule.  The temptation is strong to capitulate to the ways of the world, as the interchange between Apollyon and Christian shows.  In spite of his astute responses to Apollyon's arguments, Christian is almost defeated in combat.

His victory, however, is occasioned by the intervention of grace.  In the text (p.59) one sees the tide of the combat turn abruptly by the sudden presence of the words:  "But as God would have it."  The reader is reminded of the emblem Christian saw in the House of the Interpreter depicting Satan as trying to douse the flames, while Christ stands covertly by "the backside of the wall" pouring oil on the fire.

That episode of Christian proceeding to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is shaped by Bunyan's own experience, detailed in his spiritual autobiography "Grace Abounding," of extended depression early in his Christian walk.  Later in the text, as Christian and Faithful muse on their past experiences, Faithful states he had "sunshine all the way" through it.

At the end of the Valley Christian comes upon the strewn remains to bodies before the cave wherein Pope and Pagan dwell.  The reference is to the martyrdom of Christians, something that was a real possibility in Bunyan's time.  Some hundred years before, during the reign of "Bloody" Queen Mary, some 300 Christians were burned in the fires of martyrdom as she attempted to restored Roman Catholicism to England, and during the period of the Reformation an untold number of Christians met  with similar experience.

April 9 Session:   

St. Paul writes in II Cor 4:18:  ". . . we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."  One of the strengths of Pilgrim's Progress is the way Bunyan illustrates how these two levels of reality work themselves out in a Christian's life.  As his Christian emerges from the Valley of the Shadow of Death (65), he remarks he is glad for three reasons.  The second is:  "For that he perceived, God was with them, though in that dark and dismal state; and why not, thought he, with me, though by reason of the impediment that attends this place, I cannot perceive it." Note the play on the word "perceive" with which the passage begins and ends: he perceives what he cannot perceive.  So it is with a Christian's experiences in life.  One's faith perceives what one's senses cannot, that is, that God is constantly caring for his own in all the affairs of one's life.

Christian sees the sun rising as he proceeds on his journey (66).  The sun/Son pun is apparent.  One may recall the Evangelist's instruction to Christian back when he began his journey to the Gate (11):  "Do you see yonder shining light . . . . Keep that light in your eye. . . ."  Christian is proceeding with a strengthened sense of that light.

He next encounters Faithful.  Their initial meeting conveys an important spiritual principle.  When he first sees Faithful, he cries:  "'Stay, stay, till I come up to you:'  but Faithful answered, 'No, I am upon my life, and the Avenger of Blood is behind me.'  At this, Christian was somewhat moved, and putting to all his strength, he quickly got up with Faithful, and did also over-run him, so that the last was first.  Then did Christian vain-gloriously smile, because he had gotten the start of his Brother:  but not taking good heed to his feet, he suddenly stumbled and fell, and could not rise again, until Faithful came up to help him" (67).  Thus Christian, prompted by the low motive of competition, stumbles spiritually, and though on the physical level he thought he was "first," Faithful--who was "last"--is first in terms of true reality, that is, the spiritual.   One may muse on the book's title, and perceive that a "pilgrim's progress" is to be measured in spiritual terms.

The lengthy account which Faithful gives to Christian on the events of his past journey shows that God works with each person according to that person's particular personality and spiritual needs.  Faithful is apparently of a more sensual nature that Christian, and the temptations, and their deliverances, that have beset him are peculiar to his needs.  He has struggled with "Adam the first" together with Adam's three daughters, "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life."  When Faithful sees that he is about to become their slave, he fights an intense fight with Adam the first, and is almost overcome until "one came by, and bid him forbear" (71).  Thus the Spirit of Christ has intervened at a crucial and given Faithful the victory.  One may recall I Cor 10:13: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to men.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

Other than that, Faithful says he "had sunshine all the way," as opposed to the "deep ditch, dangerous quagg, and fires of hell" that beset Christian through his nightmarish journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

As the two proceed together, they meet Talkative, who is greatly curious about the Christian life and loves to discuss it.  Christian, however, warns "he is a very sorry fellow. . . Religion has no place in his heart," and advises Faithful how to be rid of him:  ask him about the quality of his everyday life.  The amount of space Bunyan gives to this episode underscores that he saw such people as Talkative doing great disservice to the Church and the cause of Christ.  Being Christian is a matter of obedience from the heart to Christ's precepts in ones everyday relationships.

They are overtaken by Evangelist who warns them concerning Vanity Fair, the city they inevitably must enter: ". . . the way to the Celestial City lyes just thorow this Town, where this lusty Fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go thorow this Town, must needs go out of the World" (86).  ". . . In every City, bonds and afflictions abide in you," he forewarns (85).  The problem lies in the inner struggle they feel as they face the various attractions and trials of the town.  Every sincere Christian has inner struggles the unbeliever knows little if anything about.

The episode--perhaps the most well-known of all Christian's adventures--is heavy with satire, concerning which Bunyan intends his reader to both laugh and cry.  (See Bunyan's own commentary that he gives in the poetic preface to Part II, p. 163:  "But some there be that say he laughs too loud / . . . .Some things are of that Nature as to make / Ones fancie Checkle while his Heart doth ake.")  The problem the pilgrims face is one of value:  in Vanity Fair all things are sold, that is, they are valued exclusively in materialist terms.

When Christian and Faithful speak "the Language of Canaan" and affirm they want to "buy the Truth," they cause such disruption among the populace--most oppose and jeer, but some are sympathetic and interested--that the authorities arrest, exam, and put them to trial.  The result is that Faithful is burned at the stake.  The trial is a travesty of justice, both hilarious and poignantly tragic:  the judge condemns Faithful in vilest terms before the case goes to the jury, and the members of the jury are of such immense prejudice that their verdict is inevitable.

"But he that over-rules all things, having the power of their rage in his own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them, and went his way" (95).  It is God, however, that is in full control, and it is his will that Christian, after he witnesses Faithful's triumphant reception into Glory, continue on his journey.

April 16 Session

As Christian continues his journey, he is joined by Hopeful.  Why does Hope join him now?  Perhaps because of his experience in Vanity Fair.  He now is thoroughly convinced, in the words of an old country hymn:  "This world is not my home / I'm merely passing through / My treasures are laid up / Way up beyond the blue / The angels beckon me / From heaven's open door / And I can't feel at home in this world anymore."

There are, however, many from Vanity Fair who are sufficiently attracted to follow after them.  So they are joined by By-ends from the near-by town of Fair-Speech, together with a great host of his friends, among them Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-bothways,  and even the parson of the local Parish.  Bunyan is giving his assessment of the Church of England.  Mr. By-ends explains:  "Tis true, we somewhat differ in Religion from those of the stricter sort, yet but in two small points:  First, we never strive against Wind and Tide. Secondly, we are always most zealous when Religion goes in his Silver Slippers; we love most to walk with him in the Street, if the Sun shines, and the people applaud it" (98).  The rationalizing speeches of Mr. Hold-the-world and Mr. Money-love build their case for having all the riches of earth and heaven too.  Their core problem is that they lack any sense of sin.  Christian firmly gives the lie to their thinking with strong reasoning derived from Biblical examples (103).  That Christian is now buttressing his thinking with an abundance of Biblical references suggests the "progress" that our pilgrim is making in his own spiritual journey.  

They then come upon a "delicate plain called Ease" from which they see the little Hill called Lucre and listen to the enticements of Demas ("Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me. . ." II Tim. 4:10), who urges them to "richly provide for your selves" by digging is his Silver mine.  Were Bunyan writing today, he may well place the character Joel Osteen at this juncture, for the allurement of the contemporary movement known as the "Prosperity Gospel" is well depicted here.  The prosperity that is the legacy of the Christian is of a spiritual nature, which often is nourished by poverty, and most certainly has nothing to do with material prosperity as such.

All this thinking, nevertheless, has a certain lingering effect upon the pilgrims.  Hopeful remarks, "Let us go see."  The energies of hope by their very nature have a certain tendency to look longingly on earthly satisfactions.  The firm rejection that Christian offers (104) is another indication of the spiritual progress that he is making.  

As they proceed, they come upon a statue of Lot's wife, with the inscription "Remember Lot's wife."  She was disobedient to God's command, looking back upon Sodom with a covetous heart, and becomes warning to all future generations by being turned into a pillar of salt.  Our pilgrim's consider the warning carefully, as well they might, as they are about to follow a similar pattern.

The episode is a pivotal one in the text; Bunyan is emphasizing the role of memory in every Christian life.  It is vitally important. It is with the memory that we recall the promises of God, Scripture passages we have found especially meaningful,  past teachings from spiritual mentors, and our own past experiences--both spiritual victories and spiritual defeats--from which we are to learn.  It is by our memories that we ponder the providential workings of God in our pasts.  In the immediate presence of each new challenge on the Narrow Way it is easy momentarily to forget all this. Bunyan underscores this danger by presenting every failure of Christian to follow the Narrow Way a failure to remember.

After experiencing a time of spiritual triumph as they go on their way--they walk along the river of the water of Life--they come to an especially rough and difficult section of the Way and, seeing to their left By-Path-Meadow with its inviting paths, decide to follow them.  They soon discover that the farther they go on such a path, the more difficult returning to the Narrow Way becomes.  The traumatic result is their being captured by Giant Despair and imprisoned in Doubting Castle, a horrendous and grueling experience for them.  They counsel each other patience, advice which is very wrong in this situation.  Attempting to "wait out" the crisis only prolongs their agony.  After much misery, Christian "remembers" he has a key called Promise in his bosom, by which they quickly unlock all the doors and free themselves.

When does a Christian take such a detour?  Whenever one finds it especially difficult to do the thing one knows to be right and chooses to avoid an issue, to not take a stand, but rather to do the convenient thing at hand, though one knows it to be wrong.  One is quickly beset by guilt that imprisons and generates considerable misery until a person repents and again resumes the narrow way.  The key that releases one is the promise, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness"--I John 1:9.

It is instructive that doubt attends the leaving of the way.  The problem with Little-faith, whose story Christian tells somewhat later (121ff), is that he had fallen asleep upon the way.   The surest antidote to doubt is abandoning self concern in loving service to God and others.  The Christian active in love finds faith re-enforced.

After their release from Doubting-Castle, Christian and Hopeful come to the Delectable Mountains, where they are instructed by Experience, Watchful, and Sincere.  The counterpart to this is some spiritual retreat or period of instruction from Christian mentors--a time of fellowship and communion with saints.  There they are reminded of the various dangers along the way--the Hill Error, the Hill Caution, Doubting Castle.  In short, it is a time of being reminded of that which they already know.  "Then said the Pilgrims one to another, "We had need cry to the Strong for strength.'  'Ay,' the Shepherd responds, 'and you will have need to use it when you have it, too'" (119).

Nevertheless, neglecting the warning from one of the Shepherds, the Pilgrims are lead astray by Flatterer and, caught within his net, they find themselves helpless to get out.  Flattery, with its attendant self-congratulation, can paralyze a person.  A Shining One, who comes to release them, asks if they had not read the Shepherd's note, to which they respond they had forgotten!

April 23 Session

The Shining One has a whip of small cord in his hand and, commanding to lie down, he chastises the "sore," while referring to the passage on discipline found in Heb. 12:3 - 17.  The Lord's disciplining of his own is not, it must be remembered, with a view to punishing as such, but to strengthening the child of God in righteousness.  It is one of the unfortunate aspects of our fallen condition that it tends to be the difficulties and adversities of life, rather than the times of success and unencumbered living that increase our sense of dependence upon God and our responsibilities to Him.  As many as the Lord loves he rebukes and chastens.  
As our pilgrims proceed, the pass through an Enchanted Land where they begin to grown "very dull and heavy of sleep."  Bunyan has in mind any period in the Christian life when a person is threatened with a spirit of complacency and indolence.  Christian and Hopeful decide to fellowship with each other by remembering, this time the working of God in Hopeful's experience.  The material ahead is heavy with theology.  Hopeful's experience rehearses again the process whereby an individual comes into a proper relationship with God.  It is followed by Christian's interaction with Ignorance, in which Bunyan presents through Christian a very precise theological exposition of the doctrine of justification.

Ignorance's position is that of a great many practicing Christians.  He affirms, "I believe that Christ died for sinners, and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, through his gracious acceptance of my obedience to his Law:  Or thus, Christ makes my Duties that are Religious, acceptable to his Father by virtue of his Merits; and so shall I be justified" (140).  But Bunyan sees such theology as inadequate in that it does not see Christ's righteousness as being imputed to the sinner at the beginning when he comes upon the Way by means of the Gate; i.e., Christ.  This apparently is the Certificate that Christian received at the Cross and that is necessary, the reader soon learns, for admittance into the Celestial City. We were told early on in the text that Ignorance did not enter the Way by means of the Gate.

Ignorance responds to Christian's exposition by objecting:  "What! would you have us trust to what Christ in his own person has done without us?  This conceit would not loosen the reins of our lust, and tollerate us to live as we list."  His objection finds authentication in those who--history shows--assume precisely this attitude: if God declares me to be completely righteous, what need have I to be much concerned about keeping the moral law?   It is the heresy of Antinomianism, a serious misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the working of grace in a Christian's life.

Before coming to Beulah Land, the pilgrims meet Temporary, an individual at first very enthusiastic about his faith, but eventually one who fell back into his former way of living.  The reader may recall that in the parable of the sower some seed had a flourishing start but were choked out by thorns and thistles.

As they proceed through Beulah, their longings for the Celestial City increase.  There they are met by two men "in raiment that shone like Gold, also their faces shone as the light" (147), who tell them there are yet two difficulties before they are in the City.  Before them they see a forbidding River which--there being no bridge in sight--they must cross.  "Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth.  They said no; yet they could not help them in that case; for said they, You shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place (147, 148).

The river is, of course, the experience of dying.  Hopeful has little trouble in crossing, but Christian gasps and flounders in the water, as he remembers his sins and shortcomings.  Hopeful admonishes:  "My Brother. . . these troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you, but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have receive of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses" (148, 149).  Again, Christian has failed to remember the promises of Scripture and the working of the grace of God in his life.

Bunyan's superb description of their sights as they proceed towards the City is followed by their coming to the Gate, where they are admitted after duly presenting their Certificates.  Again, Bunyan is underscoring his view of the doctrine of justification.  As they enter, "they were transfigured" (153).  Glorification in Bunyan's view is instantaneous:  no Purgatory here.

Interestingly, Bunyan proceeds to offer a series of endings.  The first is from the standpoint of the narrator in the dream who looks after the pilgrims as they enter the City and catches a glimpse of the glories of the City, with its shining aspects and the singing of the redeemed.  "And after that, they shut up the Gates:  which when I had seen, I wished my self among them," (153) the dreamer longingly remarks.  This is a poignant dramatic moment, an emotionally appropriate place to conclude the text, but Bunyan is not through.

He turns our attention to the fate of Ignorance who confidently approaches the Gate but, alas, has no Certificate to present.  Thereupon, the attendants take him up and cast him into hell.  Another ending, but Bunyan still is not through.  "So I awoke, and behold it was a Dream," we read, and are positioned now with the man who fell asleep at the very beginning of the story.  Dramatically it is effective, as it puts the reader in a yet further remove from the entire vision.

Finally, Bunyan addresses us as readers directly in a concluding poem, charging us that we be ponder diligently his text and be careful to interpret it correctly.  


No other Christian work, save the King James Bible, has enjoyed such an extensive popularity as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  Yet it conveys a very clear and unambiguous Christian message, and even affirms a more narrow theological position than many Christians are comfortable with.  What accounts for its astoundingly wide readership?

I think the answer in large part is that Bunyan depicts with remarkable imaginative verve the fundamental human condition.  The struggle that consumes Christian's attention as he journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is the basic struggle that exists in everyone and defines their lives.  It is that duality between the higher and lower aspects of the human consciousness.

The higher aspect yearns for the Ideal.  There is in people a longing to realize something higher and beyond, something ill-defined yet which exercises a compelling attraction.  It is for the Real, the Ultimate that is elusive, always beckoning from beyond.  It is the Way on which Christian strives to walk.

The lower aspect of consciousness is the everyday here-and-now reality of people's lives, the consciousness of always falling short.  Involved  in all the exigencies of life, things go amok, our desires are frustrated, we react in ways of which we are ashamed, we are restless and dissatisfied and long to be other than we are. Like Christian, we've missed the Way again.

People have various ways of dealing with this duality and its attendant guilt.  The most frequent is the following of disoriented desires that substitute a myriad of alternatives to the basic longing for purity and goodness.  In a fallen world filled with illusions people consume their lives by pursuing chimeras.

Bunyan graphically depicts many of the essential aspects of the Christian way:  the grueling sense of sin, the relief obtained by coming to the Cross, the ensuing purified desire to live uprightly, the array of temptations a person meets, and the guidance and strength brought by faith and hope.        

It is the compelling imaginative presentation of these basic aspects of life that define the strength and on-going appeal of Bunyan's work.  From a more complete Christian point of view, however, there are some things to be desired.  Bunyan presents a meticulous mastery of the Reformed view of the doctrine of justification by faith, a view that is grounded in Paul's writings, especially in his Letter to the Romans, and insists that such understanding is essential for salvation.  It is, however, not the only way of understanding Paul's thought, and the fact that such rigidity of emphasis is not to be found in the Gospels, nor in the writings of John or Peter, let along James, should give one pause.

Christ plainly states that those who would follow him should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow--that is, obey--his precepts.  He defines the first and second commandments as loving God with all one's being and others as oneself. John emphasizes the need to love, and James affirms that faith without works is dead.  The problem lies not with Bunyan's understanding as such, but with his air of exclusivity:  to fail to agree fully with his abstract thought is to suffer the fate of Ignorance, cast down from the very Gate of Heaven into Hell.  Such spirit of exclusivity is the life blood of sectarianism, the bane of the Church through its long, sad history.

Not that a  Biblically based theology is unimportant and uninteresting; it is very necessary.  But it is the practice of love and the surrendered will that defines Christian maturity, not thought as such.  A church father rightly observed:  "By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought never."  Such love issues in lives of self-sacrificing service.  True acts of love are motivated by the love of God and are a working out of the righteousness of Christ, in no sense one's own righteousness.  It is in denying self interest and in living Christ-obeying lives that God is glorified, not by thinking alone, however Biblically correct that thinking may be.

The more one is fascinated by Bunyan's work and moved by its depictions, the more one wishes the emphasis fell more on the primacy of love as that which binds the soul to God the Father,  follows Christ as one's guide and companion, and issues in lives filled with the Holy Spirit.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reading Group Syllabuses

The following Reading Groups are free and open to the public.  Join us.

                          SATURDAY WADE AUTHORS GROUP:  SYLLABUS

LOCATION: Saturday mornings, 10:00 - 11:00, The Lecture Room at the Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln Streets, Wheaton, Il.

TEXTS: C. S. Lewis.  On Stories and Other Essays.  A Harvest Book
               George MacDonald.  What’s Mine’s Mine.  Johannesen.
               Dorothy Sayers.  Four Sacred Plays. The Camelot Press Ltd, London

Note: texts are available at the Wheaton College Bookstore at 20% discount with a certificate from the Wade Center.

DESCRIPTION: Among the many issues that C. S. Lewis discusses in his essays is: What really is the attraction of stories?  Why do people avidly read them?  In this collection he shares his own reasons for liking science fiction and fantasy, and for his favorite authors.  Let us read critically, comparing our own reactions to his upon the issues he raises.

In What’s Mine’s Mine George MacDonald takes us into northern Scotland, where the invasion of English money and privileged attitudes works agonizing hardship upon native Highlanders.  Thematically, the story focuses upon the deleterious effects of love of money, and of a doctrinally askewed Christianity, upon the human spirit.

In The Devil to Pay, Dorothy Sayers retells the Faust legend to make it a relevant exploration of the modern spirit.  Her Faust is the “impulsive reformer, oversensitive to suffering,” a man possessed by an urgent determination to rework reality “regardless of the ineluctable nature of things.”  As always, her thinking is astute and theologically provocative.


January 11: On Stories; The Novels of Charles Williams

18:  Class cancelled

25: On Three Ways of Writing for Children; Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said

 February 1:  Class cancelled.

8:  On Science Fiction; A Reply to Professor Haldane

15:  The Hobbit; Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; A Panegyric for Dorothy Sayers

22: Sayers: The Devil to Pay, Preface; Scene I

March 1: Scenes II, III, and IV

8: What’s Mine’s Mine, Chapters 1 - 9

15: Chapters 10 - 16

22: Chapters 17 - 24

29: Chapters 25 - 32

April 5: Chapters 33 - 42

12: Chapters 43 - end


LOCATION: Wednesday afternoons, 2:00 - 3:00, The Lecture Room at the Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln Streets, Wheaton, Il.

TEXTS: Flannery O’Connor: A Prayer Journal.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“            ”      : Collected Works.  The Library of America.  
 John Bunyan.  The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Oxford World’s Classics.
 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  HarperOne.

Note: texts are available at the Wheaton College Bookstore at 20% discount with a certificate from the Wade Center.

DESCRIPTION: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in her prayer journal.  We will be considering her understanding of those principles from her prayers, selected essays and letters, and how they are embodied in her novella, The Violent Bear It Away.

John Bunyan is also concerned with Christian principles, in terms of how they are to be expressed in a Christian’s daily life and thought.  Deeply grounded in Scriptural precepts, perhaps no text outside the Bible is a more comprehensive, vivid, and helpful companion for the complete journey of life than this one, widely proclaimed as the first novel of English literature.  

25 Books is an introductory anthology of classical Christian writings.


Jan. 8: Thomas a’Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 25 Books

15:  Calvin: Institutes, 25 Books

22:  Class cancelled.

29: Prayer Journal, Introduction; pp. 3 - 9
     “The Fiction Writer and His Country” pp. 801 - 806.
     Letters To A, pp. 942 - 944; To Dr. Spivey, 1102 - 1105.

Feb. 5:  Class cancelled

12: Journal, pp. 10 - 21
     “The Church and the Fiction Writer” pp. 807ff.
     “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
     Letters to J. Hawkes, p. 1125; To Mr.___, pp 1148 - 1149

19: Journal, pp. 22 - 29
      The Violent Bear It Away, Chapter I
      Letters: To C. Dawkins and to A., pp 1100 - 1102; to Sister Gable, 1182.

26 : Journal, pp. 30 - 40
      The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters II, III
      Letters: To J Hawkes, pp 1106 - 1110

Mar. 5: The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters IV - VII
       Letter: To Alfred Corn, p. 1170; To J. McKane, pp 1190 - 1191

12:  The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters VIII - end
       Letters: To John Hawkes, pp 1118 - 1119

19: Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, 25 Books

26: Pilgrim’s Progress, to Christian at the cross

Apr 2: Read to Christian's meeting Faithful

9: pp. Read to Christian's joining Hopeful

16: Read to Christian's meeting with Flatterer

23: Read to end of Part I

Thursday, October 11, 2012

At the Back of the North Wind.5th

Just before the conclusion of the story, North Wind identifies herself to Diamond:  "I don't think I am just what you imagine me to be.  I have to shape myself various ways to various people.  But the heart of me is true.  People call me by terrible names and think they know all about me.  But they don't.  Sometimes they call me Bad Fortune, sometimes Evil Chance, sometimes Ruin--and they have another name for me that they think the most terrible of all."  "Another name" is, of course, Death.

Why hasn't MacDonald told the child listener this sooner?  Isn't this the central idea of the the story?  Yes, considered from an abstract point of view.  But there is another understanding that from a spiritual standpoint is much more important:  the understanding of the heart.  It is this MacDonald wants to instill within the child's thinking.  As much as possible, he wants to keep a purely abstract grasp, with all its negative emotional connotations, at bay.

As we have remarked before, he has many Biblical passages in mind, uppermost among them James 1:2:  ". . . whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. . . ." and Romans 5:2: ". . . we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. . . ."  Like Paul, MacDonald is wanted to shape positively the reader/listeners attitudes toward trials and suffering and linking them closely to hope.  The imagination is proving to be a powerful tool for his purposes.

Diamond contrasts with other characters, mainly Nanny and his father, in this regard.  Admirable as both are in many characteristics, neither is thinking in terms of hope.  Nanny is a plucky little materialist who undergoes extreme difficulty and hardship, but she ridicules faith and hope, and therefore must be taught through severe trial:  her illness.  Joseph is an honest, hard working man, doing his best to fulfill his role as husband and father, but because he is a grumbler, lacking an active faith and hope, he also must endure trial.  His trial comes in the form of Ruby, the horse that Mr. Raymond deposits with him in order to discern what type of man he really is.  Raymond's purpose is God-like:  "He had met Diamond's father and liked him, but he had decided to test them all before he did anything as good as he would like to do for them" (Chapter 27).

The above passage in which North wind identifies herself is in the context of an extended conversation on the nature and value of dreams, and their relation to our waking life.  This is a concern that surfaces often in MacDonald's writings.  Diamond's concerns that his dreams have no reality beyond that of his own dreaming  mind echo those MacDonald himself has felt.  But he consistently comes to the conclusion expressed here by North Wind:  "The people who think lies and do lies are very likely to dream lies.  But the people who love what is true will surely now and then dream true things.  But it depends too on whether the dreams are homegrown, or whether the seed of them is blown over somebody else's garden wall" (306).  The validity of one's dreams is directly related to one's spiritual stature before God, and is very much an individual affair.  Because Diamond is what he is, she assures him:  "I don't think you could dream anything that didn't have something real like it somewhere" (300).  But she also reminds him that he couldn't remember the song he heard the angels sing.  The final reality of heaven is quite beyond what eye has seen, ear heard, or has entered into the heart of anyone (I Cor. 2:9).

The narrator muses concerning Diamond:  "It seemed to me, somehow, as though little Diamond held the secret of life, and that he was himself what he was so ready to consider the lowest living thing--an angel of God with something special to say or do" (287).  Clues to the nature of this secret of life lie in the many truths of the heart that are expressed throughout the text.  The poem "Where did you come from, baby dear?" offers one:  every individual life is a gift from God and expresses--in terms of what it has the potential to become--a thought of God (267, 68). Some of the others are: The only true possession is the possession of love (269).  Everyone loves something; life consists in loving rightly (277; shades of Augustine and Dante here!).  The greatest wisdom in life is foolishness to all who do no possess it (279).  Many others from the text could be added.

  The fairy tale is the best vehicle for conveying such truths, truths that are at the same time simple, profound, and so applicable to life at its core.  This is why the Inklings all celebrate such stories.  Chesterton in Orthodoxy expresses the core idea:  "My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. . . . The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now are the things called fairy tales.  They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things.  They are not fantasies:  compared with them other things are fantastic. . . . Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense" ("The Ethics of Elfland")."  At the Back of the North Wind" is by any measure an excellent example of such a story.