by Derek Thomas
For John Bunyan, a Puritan to his fingertips, the Christian life was an experience of conflict and tension with this world. Imprisoned for upwards of twelve years, he experienced firsthand the world’s hostility. Cheerful and sanguine by temperament, his portrayal of what believers can expect from this world is both solemn and dark: the path that leads to the Celestial City winds through unavoidable places of considerable, even deadly, danger — places like the town called Vanity with its “lusty Fair.” Here, all the resources of protection and resolution will be needed to prevent contamination and possible destruction.
Christian, in Bunyan’s allegory, is both a pilgrim on a journey (road-trip) to heaven and a warrior in conflict with temptations from within (indwelling sin) and without (the world in its opposition to all things godly). It is a principle that Christian is taught early in the journey that every believer can expect to be both fascinated by and drawn towards the world. He can also expect to be repulsed and attacked when all offers are spurned. “Hell hath no fury…,” in this case, “like the world scorned.”
Vanity Fair, described in various dictionaries as the “vain and frivolous way of life especially in large cities,” and the “place or scene of ostentation or empty, idle amusement and frivolity,” represents for Bunyan the world in all its gaudiness: alluring and seductive, offering merchandise of all kinds — some innocent enough in themselves but designed to misdirect the affections away from our love for God and our love for His kingdom. What is Bunyan teaching us here? Several things.
First and foremost, Vanity Fair represents Bunyan’s attempt to warn every Christian of the reality of temptation and the need to resist it. There is always a “gospel-focus” in Bunyan’s writings, and he is careful to note that believers can resist temptation in the knowledge that their Savior has done so on their behalf: “The prince of Princes himself, when here, went through this Town to his own Country, and that upon a Fair-day too: Yea, and as I think it was Beelzebub, the chief Lord of this Fair, that invited him to buy of his Vanities; yea, would have him made Lord of the Fair, would he but have done him Reverence as he went through the Town.”
Vanity Fair thus signals the need to “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1), with the assurance that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Then again, Vanity Fair establishes the truth that Christians are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and must therefore sit loose to the attractions of this world, however innocent they may appear to be in themselves. Christian and Faithful (Christian’s trusty companion) stood out “like sore thumbs” in Vanity Fair. Not only did they not purchase anything, they refused to be drawn aside and enticed by what it offered, having discovered “solid joys and lasting treasures” elsewhere in communion with Jesus Christ. As citizens of heaven they adopted the viewpoint that they must not conform to this world (Phil. 3:20).
On offer in Vanity Fair are both material things (gold, pearls, precious stones, etc.) as well as honors (titles, preferments — designed to turn one’s head). Additionally, Bunyan mentions “the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in the fair” — an allusion to the beguiling nature of Roman Catholic teaching that had suggested (barely a hundred years in Bunyan’s past) that indulgences could be purchased so as to make a sinner’s journey through purgatory that much quicker. To all of these, Bunyan’s faithful companions say “No!”
Believers are the special targets of the world’s hostility. Though “Beelzebub, Apollyon and their Legions” are involved in the allurement of Vanity Fair, they are not center stage here; that will be later in the journey. Here the focus is upon the first of the evil triumvirate of hostility: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Those who refuse to conform to the pattern of this world can expect to be taunted and ridiculed (Christian and Faithful were bad-mouthed and heckled). As pilgrims who marched to the beat of a different drummer, Christian and Faithful looked (dressed) and spoke differently — something to which the townsfolk took great exception. It is interesting that it was, in particular, their speech that caused such offense. Talk of holy things always offends, but it had been holy conversation of this kind from poor women in Bedford that had been the means to bring young John Bunyan to repentance. Consequently, in Bunyan’s allegory, Christian and Faithful are taken, beaten, and incarcerated (something Bunyan, of course, knew only too well). They are eventually charged with disturbing the peace of the city by their lack of conformity. Bunyan’s choice of names here is deliciously instructive: Mr. Hate-Good as the Judge, and jurors who include such characters as Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. High-mind, Mr. Cruelty, and Mr. Hate-light! If such charges were brought against us, would there be sufficient evidence to convict?
Believers must be prepared to sacrifice everything, including their lives, for the cause of the Gospel. The mockery of the trial that they received is reflective of another: that of their blessed Lord. We must follow in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of martyrdom if necessary. Courage in the midst of trial is a virtue, and Bunyan’s poetry is particularly telling:
Now Faithful play the Man, speak for thy God.
Fear not the wicked’s malice, nor their rod:
Speak boldly man, the Truth is on thy side;
Die for it, and to Life in triumph ride.
The description of Faithful’s end is one of the most moving in the entire book, for having brutally put Faithful to death and abused his body, Bunyan adds: “Now I saw that there stood behind the multitude a Chariot and a couple of Horses, waiting for Faithful who (as soon as his adversaries had dispatched him) was taken up into it, and straightway was carried up through the Clouds, with sound of Trumpet, the nearest way to the Celestial Gate.” As the third-century North African theologian Tertullian wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Thus Faithful’s death kindled a light in Vanity Fair that would not easily be put out, and a certain man named Hopeful, upon seeing it, openly joined with Christian on his journey. And Bunyan adds, “there were many more of the men in the Fair that would take their time and follow after.”
In an age of rampant consumerism, when the deity of fashion demands unswerving allegiance, Bunyan’s radical separation from the world’s ways is both necessary and instructive as a template for discerning the true nature of radical Christianity. If Christians are to be counter-cultural, saying “No!” to this world and “Yes!” to Jesus will demand much energy, cost the same blood, sweat, and tears as Bunyan describes here. Resisting conformity to this world by stubborn other-worldliness is the only sure way of maintaining a Christ-like discipleship that keeps the goal in focus — assurance of finally entering into the Celestial City at the end of the journey. As Christian eventually sings:
Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather;
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.