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Soul as City–Bunyan’s The Holy War

John Bunyan (1638-88) I’ve been listening to a lengthy Podcast that discusses the Anabaptist rebellion in Münster, Germany way back in 1534-35. In following the give and take of Catholic, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and hard-core radical Anabaptist forces during those years, I couldn’t help but think of Bunyan’s second great allegory, The Holy War. In Bunyan’s novel, the protagonist is actually a town, named, with Bunyan’s lack of subtlety, Mansoul. In the course of the book, we learn that Mansoul had been the domain of Shaddai, the great king. Like Münster, Mansoul rebelled against their appointed regent, but unlike Münster, the reconquest of the town was not a bloodbath or an exercise in retribution.

The Holy War has been on my read-it-someday list for several years, but when I saw it listed on Clement Shorter’s list of the 100 best novels of all time, I brought it to the top of my list. Shorter’s list, an intriguing work in its own right, selected only one title per writer and was arranged in chronological order; thus, Bunyan’s appearance near the top (number two to be precise) was not all that remarkable. But why The Holy War rather than Pilgrim’s Progress?

As a good Baptist preacher, John Bunyan cared about only one thing: the eternal souls of his hearers and readers. Pilgrim’s Progress likens the course of an individual human soul to a journey from his home, The City of Destruction, to his preferred destination, The Celestial City. In that novel, the necessity of taking the proper route, the obstacles that lie along the way, and the reward laying at the end dominate the pages. The Holy War creates a different allegory, likening the soul to a town. Essentially Bunyan tells the same story once again using different details, rather like Jesus filling Luke 15 with a trio of parables regarding lost things.

Reading through the rather involved machinations that make up The Holy War, I asked myself what Shorter saw in this book that placed it higher in his estimation than its far more celebrated predecessor. Did he perhaps not see Pilgrim’s Progress as a novel? That seems unlikely, although it does give us a starting point to consider. As powerful as Pilgrim’s Progress is and for all its power in conveying the core of evangelical Christianity, Bunyan the preacher does come too often to the fore, indulging in lengthy doctrinal discussions between, for example, Christian and Hopeful. These digressions violate egregiously the old creative-writing dictum of “show, don’t tell.” Most abridgements of the book condense these asides almost out of existence while most readers skim ahead for the next encounter with a giant or demon.

By the time of his later novel, Bunyan had perhaps sharpened his skills, as the doctrine is well integrated into the narrative. (The idea of inevitable progress breaks down, however, since a book that comes between these two successes, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, is painfully preachy and terribly lacking in narrative drive.)

Happily, The Holy War turns out far more happily than did the Anabaptist revolt in Münster, at least from the point of view of the human leaders. Shorter’s judgment is sufficiently vindicated to draw me into other unknown items on his list.

Posted in English Literature, Restoration.

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