Pilgrim's Regress

Originally posted, Nov. 2, 2016


John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again: ‘But how do you know there is no Landlord?’

“Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!” exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.

“I beg your pardon,’” said John.

“Eh?” said Mr. Enlightenment.*

My seventh grade class had just finished reading Pilgrim’s Progress, so I thought I would treat them to an excerpt of C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress. I tracked down a copy and began to scan it for an appropriate section. Like Pilgrim’s ProgressPilgrim’s Regress is an allegory of the Christian life, but Lewis changes the theater of action from John Bunyan’s imaginary landscape to his own and changes the main character of “Christian” to “John.” And around about the time John, “committed fornication with [a naked girl] in the wood,” I decided against ever mentioning the book to a group of twelve and thirteen year-olds.*

But I kept reading, watching the story unfold as John journeyed from Puritania to the land of Thrill and on “through darkest Zeitgeistheim” in his search for the Beautiful Island, the place which he had been seeking when the girl distracted him. Along the way, he meets a big man with three chins named Mr. Enlightenment, a poet named Halfways, a postmodern named Glugly, and a friend named Vertue. Like most people, Vertue does not believe in the island, but he and John get along so well that they become traveling companions. 

I won’t go much further into the plot, except to say that Mr. Sensible and even Mr. Wisdom aren’t as trustworthy as you think, but the hermit History is a good guy. And Reason…well, Reason is a beautiful, scary lady, who is much better than Sensible. 

It is a very specific audience who would appreciate this book. This audience does not include seventh graders, high school students, or even many undergraduates. The material would be lost on them: their takeaway would be little more than titillating ideas and a sense of desperation brought on by Lewis’ erudite vocabulary. 

If Pilgrim’s Regress would be wasted on students, who is it for? It’s for me, and the me who struggled through years of grad school where my hope of Christ was assaulted from countless different angles (more on that in another post). It’s for the adult who knows what sin is, knows what church is, and doesn’t see how they’re reconciled. It’s for the educated twenty-something who is living with his girlfriend, and has turned away from Christianity entirely. It’s for that lawyer in your life who knows he is smarter than James Dobson and Max Lucado, but might just tolerate one more C.S. Lewis book. 

“I am indeed very ignorant and have listened to people more ignorant still.”* These are the words of John as he realizes how great his errors have been. They might be our words, who have been torn from our hope by all the trends and philosophies that make Christianity seem impossible. 

Pilgrim’s Regress will remind you of how transcendent, how complex, how beautiful the revelation of Christ is, and how aggressive are the forces that would detract from it. Don’t expect to know everything Lewis is talking about. Not all of his battles are our own. But one of Lewis’s great strengths is that publicly battled internal temptations as well as external threats. Pilgrim’s Regress combines those struggles in a vivid intellectual landscape that educates as well as entertains. If you read it once in high school, go read it again. 

*Book 2, Chapter One

*Book 1, Chapter Four

*Book 8, Chapter Ten