Allegorical Interpretation

[For my mum, because I was thinking of her on Mother’s Day]

I don’t know how many times my mother read the Pilgrim’s Progress to me when I was young. It was certainly enough that the story has become part of how I process my experience of the Christian life. And that is precisely what it is meant to do! Because of Bunyan, I think of the Christian life as a particular kind of journey, I have fallen into sloughs, been ensnared by Flattery, imprisoned by Despair.

The ‘normal’ fiction that we regularly read engages our interest by opening a window through which we can indwell another person’s world. That experience is often powerfully transformative: we learn to see our shared world from angles that weren’t previously available. Fiction is our ethical workshop. Between the pages of books (or between advertising breaks) we develop shared views of ‘the good life’, we construct characters who embody our ideas of virtue, and then we watch them try to solve our ethical dilemmas. Without this kind of imagining, we would not have society. People who refuse to read novels or watch TV are free-loaders in the world of communal deliberation.
[Fortunately, they are often good at fixing stuff and paying taxes, otherwise the Philosophers of the Future would be forced to enslave them for their own good]

But an allegory isn’t fiction. At least, not in the ‘normal’ sense. Rather than being a window onto someone else’s world, it is a mirror, a looking-glass, through which we indwell our own experience in a new way. John Bunyan doesn’t tell us someone else’s story and invite us to watch and learn, he tells us our own story with a form and completeness which had previously been hidden. The character ‘Christian’ isn’t a figure who is more or less like myself, engaged in activities that are more or less like my own. If I am a christian, he is me. Actually, he is a ‘hyper-me’. He is more real than I am. Christian is me, viewed from a God’s-eye perspective, viewed with the truthful gaze of an ultimate knower. The narrator knows Christian in a way that I wish I knew myself. As I read, Bunyan expects me to interrogate my own experiences rather than Christian’s, and to consider how I am more or less like Christian, and whether my own activities are more or less like his. In reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, I am learning the narrator’s knowledge of myself.

In a ‘normal’ work of fiction, I observe and judge the characters, that’s how I engage in the ethical workshop. But in an allegory, the characters judge me. They teach me the form in which I am to interpret my story, and the norms by which I am to engage in it.

It’s interesting to note that Bunyan’s allegory only works if there is some sense in which every christian’s story, is Christian’s story. It’s an idea that challenges us right at the heart of our ethical and ontological pluralism. For Bunyan, as for the early Church Fathers who engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Bible, we don’t live fundamentally individual existences, given a superficial commonality by the pressures of convenience or environmental and cultural necessity. We are not solitary knowers, we are the unified known.
There is one basic story, the true truth about each one of us, which is refracted and tinted according to our personal, natural, and social topography. That story is the gospel, its character is Christ.

One of my favourite scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress is the final stage of the journey. Christian and his companion Hopeful are heading up to the Celestial city and are confronted by a final obstacle: a deep and fast flowing river which they must pass through to reach their destination. The image conjures up the Israelites passing through the Red Sea in the Exodus, overlaid with the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. It is the river where Jesus commenced his ministry, walking at the head of his people into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the river where the Negro slaves in America’s deep South stood and prayed that Elijah’s chariot would swing low and carry them home. It is the river of death that leads to life. For them, and probably for us, there is no chariot. We must pass through it.
What I love about this scene, however, is the support which Hopeful gives to Christian as his faith threatens to give way. How many times I have needed a friend like Hopeful! Someone to say to me when I can’t believe, “Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good.” How little did Christian realise that with the hand of a friend, his Father held him tight.

Lord, give us grace to follow.
God, give us the grace to walk home with our friends, rather than ride home with Elijah.

They then addressed themselves to the water and, entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good.

Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death hath compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spake still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words.

Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavour to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.

And so have you, said he to Christian.

Ah! brother! said he, surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he hath brought me into the snare, and hath left me.

Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, “There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. [Ps. 73:4,5] 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 received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was as in a muse a while. To whom also Hopeful added this word, Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole; and with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” [Isa. 43:2] Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian therefore presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow.

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5 thoughts on “Allegorical Interpretation

  1. I am not sure if I understood, it´s quite complicated! Also I never heard of that story… What I think is important is to sharply distinguish fiction in literature from fictitious TV. There are bad books of course, and there is good TV, but I would say that generally books are of way better quality than TV. I really liked "Fiction is our ethical workshop". Also very nice how you explained the weird but inevitable process that a piece of fiction does to/with the reader/listener/viewer. It´s awesome, isn´t it? Just recently read "Extremely loud, incredibly close" by Jonathan Safran Foer (in English!) which is an amazing piece of modern literature. recommended!

    greetings from Leipzig in cold, cloudy spring weather,
    Chris

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  2. Thanks Dan,
    I had pilgrims progress read to me once a year from yr 3-6.
    I guess I have bought into the 'many different stories' thing a bit too much as a reaction to a rigid order of salvation, and forgotten the riches of common christian reflection.
    Thanks bro

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  3. Dan I like this too. I recently acquired CS Lewis's essays on literature and philosophy (no mean feat!) and this slots in nicely (not that I have read many of them yet.).

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  4. I take back all the mean things I have said about John B in the past year. Hearing your love for him, I think he must be good after all.

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