The Shack Alternative: The Pilgrim’s Progress

I’m having so much fun discussing The Shack with my very astute readers. I knew I could count on you guys for some very insightful and thought provoking responses!  To continue in that line of discussion, I thought I might provide an excellent alternative to reading The Shack, one that holds up to the truth and light of scripture and has also stood the test of time.  I’m speaking of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is just as good today as it was 300 years ago.

It’s occurred to me that instead of merely trashing The Shack and telling people that their theology is warped, the best response might be to offer them an alternative that you could fully endorse.  Of course, the best source of truth is the Bible, but when it comes to easy chair fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a great substitute for The Shack.  Like The Shack, it deals with the problems of human suffering, it allegorizes elements of the story, and it is a super best seller (in fact, the bestselling book of all time, next to the Bible).

Some of you might be a bit worried about reading a book written in the mid 1600s.  Rest assured, the language is a lot easier to read than Shakespeare’s verse, but it does require a bit of effort.  You’re not going to plow through it at the speed you might read a Danielle Steel novel, but after awhile, you’ll get used to the style.  You can even read it online for free here.  If the language drives you crazy, there are modern language versions of it, as well as children’s versions (for the kids at heart). 

Pilgrim’s Progress is divided into two parts, which were published several years apart.  The first part is the one we most commonly associate with the book.  Few people read the second part these days, and frankly, I think it’s a shame.  I suggest getting a book that includes both parts as well as one that cites the scripture verses in the margins (as Bunyan intended).  Some versions drop the scripture references entirely, and it’s helpful to read them along with the text, to guide you back to the Word if you have any questions.

The plot is very simple.  A man named “Christian” is an everyman who sets out on a journey to the “Celestial City” (heaven).  He encounters trials along the path, including people who are set on hindering his journey, such as “Mr. Worldly Wiseman,” “Mr. Legality,” and the “Giant Despair.” He slogs along in the “Slough of Despond,” walks up the “Hill of Difficulty,” and gets stuck in “Doubting Castle.”  Here, there are real enemies, but Christian himself also is undergoing a process of sanctification throughout the journey.  In the second part, Christian’s wife “Christiana” follows her husband’s example and goes down the path with her children. Personally, I think more women should take an interest in her story (but you have to read Christian’s first for it to make sense).

It’s a very straight forward allegory (some have criticized it as “overly simplistic”), without a lot of a fancy plot devices or emotional manipulation (but I admit that I cry at a couple places in the story), yet there’s truth that speaks to many generations.  You’ll find references to this book in many great works of literature because it’s influenced so many believers across the ages.  It’s woven into the pages of Little Women, Huckleberry Finn, and Jane Eyre.   

So while some might argue that The Shack is the book that speaks to this generation (i.e. Eugene Peterson), I’ll argue that Pilgrim’s Progress is the book that speaks to all generations.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for this further info on Pilgrim’s Progress. Now I will know what to look for when I go to buy it. I’m looking forward to reading it, but it will have to stand in line on my ever-growing shelf of books waiting to be read!

    AL: No problem! Myself, as you can imagine, I have several copies of the book. I have a dog eared paperback with lots of scribbles all over it that I use when I teach it, and I have some hard covered ones that get the pristine treatment, for fresh reading and for loaning out. The advantage of getting this book is that so many used copies are available, in many formats. I’m always coming across a different edition that I have to try hard to resist adding to my collection (it’s tough).

  2. Amy -Thanks for the information on Pilgrim’s Progress.
    You may now delete the message that I left on your answering machine this afternoon. Is the second book- given a different name? And can I find them both printed in one binding?


    AL: Same name, just Part 2. Might mention the name “Christiana” but that’s it. While the first one is Christian’s journey, the second one is Christiana’s journey. Yeah, you’ll frequently find them in one binding. Maybe not so much for the modern language version though. I have the mass market paperback Whitaker House version with both (it’s a white cover). If it’s the old style, it might say “Part the first and Part the second” or something like that. Or “a Journey in two parts.”

  3. Excellent post, Amy. I think Pilgrim’s progress stands as one of the great literary works of the English language. There is something to be said for reading works that have stood the test of time. I read Pilgrim’s Progress part one as a kid and only found out about part two last year when my mother bought a copy for my daughter that included part two. Reading the book with my daughter and discussing the biblical correlations and life lessons was one of the more wonderful experiences of my life.

    AL: Awww, I’m sure that was really special for her too. It’s amazing how much kids really get into the story too. There’s dragons, lions, a giant, and battles, and there are beautiful Godly women even in the first book (Prudence and Charity at the house of rest on the hill). What’s not for a kid to like?

  4. Amy: Thanks for the insightful comparison of The Shack and the Pilgrim’s Progress. I was curious, just a tiny tad bit curious of what The Shack is about… thanks for the review. I’m sure The Pilgrim’s Progress is a much better choice. My other question now is, why would Eugene Peterson endorse it?

    AL: Thanks Arti. Great question. I admit that I did an internet search to see if Peterson has followed up with more comments, explaining his reasons for the endorsement, but I haven’t come up with anything yet.

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