(Christian Encounters Series)
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Who was the man who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, and what shaped him? Those are the questions that Kevin Belmonte seeks to answer in his new biography of John Bunyan. This book is one of many in Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series.
John Bunyan is known as having been an uneducated tinker, or mender of pots, pans, and kettles. But his lack of education was due to lack of opportunity, not lack of interest. He mastered every book that he could get his hands on, and he “lived in the Bible till its words [had] become his own.”
After his conversion, Bunyan preached in and around Bedford, England. His preaching was powerful. When the Puritan theologian John Owen was asked how he, an educated divine, could listen to the preaching of an illiterate tinker, Owen replied: “Could I possess that tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would most gladly relinquish all my learning.”
For all its power, Bunyan’s preaching was also illegal, as he was not commissioned by the Church of England. This crime landed him in prison for twelve years, where he wrote his masterpiece, “a matchless alloy of imagery, plot, and language ‘written cleane and pure'”: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Any book written about Bunyan is bound to be at least interesting due to its subject. Belmonte’s book is well researched and he has apparently read (and quotes from) every Bunyan biography in existence. He has also thoroughly researched the time and place in which Bunyan lived, from the type of games he played when we was a boy to the likely layout of the jail that housed him later in life. And I appreciate Belmonte’s enthusiasm for The Pilgrim’s Progress, for which he provides a seven-page summary.
But overall I was disappointed. Belmonte’s Bunyan is wordy and repetitive. Just when I thought we were moving forward, the author would repeat something from three pages previous. And to slow us down even more, Belmonte goes on numerous narrative excursions, offering a mini biography of everyone who has ever written about, or even mentioned, John Bunyan.
However, my biggest disappointment is the perspective from which the author writes. Belmonte has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and graduate degrees in Church History and American and New England studies. The interest in literature and secular history shine through: What influenced him to write as he did? To which great works of literature can his works be compared? And who in the world of literature or politics was influenced by him? These are the questions that interest Belmont.
But the focus on Bunyan the author comes at the expense of Bunyan the Christian. The spiritual depth of The Pilgrim’s Progress and its author is a side note at best. The author downplays the spiritual side of Bunyan throughout the work.
In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, Bunyan describes his conversion as being marked by fears and dreams of hell. Belmonte claims these were probably due to Bunyan’s overactive imagination, and perhaps from a sermon he heard from an overzealous preacher. Bunyan’s being “cast down and troubled” was most likely a bad case of clinical depression.
Because it is short and easy to read, Belmonte’s John Bunyan may make a good introduction to the life of our worthy Puritan. It may also prove helpful to the undergraduate working on a research paper for their English literature class. But as an inspiring Christian biography, it just doesn’t work.