I first read Bunyan's masterpiece The Pilgrim's Progress in college. It was lost on my youth. Being groomed by some thoughtful literature professors who had an allergic reaction to allegory I found the book dull on every level. I thought it was trite, preachy, simplistic, and I didn't connect with it on an emotional level.
I picked up the book again because of a nagging suspicion that it was me, not Bunyan that failed in our first meeting. I'm so glad I did.
As much as any book, Bunyan's story impacts the way one should read The Pilgrim's Progress. Born in 1628, receiving only a simple education and trained in his father's profession as a tinkerer, Bunyan lived a reckless youth as a soldier until he came to faith by hearing what he felt was the voice of God calling him to abandon his life of sin for a life with Christ.
Earnest in his faith, Bunyan became a powerful Puritan preacher who within ten years was imprisoned by the government for the threat he posed to the state-sponsored Anglicanism. It was in a prison cell the Bunyan penned what would become one of the most widely read books ever printed.
Back to the book itself: one of the keys to appreciating this book well is to appreciate what Bunyan is and isn't doing with the allegory. He's not creating complex, multi-layered modern characters. And like his characters, the plot of the book is thin and not something that is going to stir a great amount of interest or attachment.
What Bunyan is doing is creating a cast of allegorical characters who, if you allow them, pull back the layers of your heart and challenge you to consider the work of Christ (at times with surprising and tremendous theological depth and precision), the purpose God has for us in this life, and who we are called to be. Bunyan's plot serves the same purpose. The situations illuminate seasons of life and trials every mature Christian can resonate with.
Take this powerful quote as a taste of Bunyan's poetic abilities to connect with our experience in the Christian life,
“This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.”
I found The Pilgrim's Progress tremendously incisive, convicting, and hopeful. And beyond the style and language, the characters actually feel quite contemporary and timely. I would heartily recommend the book to any Christian-- especially those who have walked with Christ for some length of time. I hope Bunyan is as encouraging to you as he was to me.