The black man and the atheist

November 5, 2021 0 Comments

I’ve been reading, for the first time, A pilgrim’s progress.  I suspect that’s a rare event these days, at least in this country.  It’s easy to forget that John Bunyan’s book was for several centuries the most widely-read book in English, after the Bible, and the English book most often translated into other languages. 

Calvinists, Puritans and evangelicals have always felt drawn to the book, for obvious reasons.  But it has other features that give it appeal to other readers.  Its plot, a long journey past many obstacles and dangers to a final goal, is universal in literature, from the Sumerians’ Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey onward.  A pilgrim’s progress is often claimed, with justification, to be the first English novel.  Like a good novel, it uses language to keep the reader’s attention and hurry the plot along.  Bunyan’s English, a mix of the King James Bible and the simple language of the common people, is direct and strong.

Bunyan’s heroes, Christian in Part 1 and his wife Christiana in Part 2, journey separately on foot towards the Celestial City.  On the way they have the help of a few companions, like Faithful, Hopeful and Great-heart, but they meet many more villains and weak-hearts, who try to block their passage or dissuade or detain them.  Most are labelled – Worldly-Wiseman, Talkative, By-ends, Ignorance and so on – according to the dictates of allegory.  They aren’t just ciphers, these characters: many of them have rather engaging human personalities – another novelistic feature of the book.  Most opponents are eventually dispatched or avoided, but a few give Christian and Hopeful more trouble.  Giant Despair catches them trespassing on his estate, locks them up in his fortress, Doubting-Castle, and threatens to kill them, in a fairy-tale-like episode worthy of the Brothers Grimm.  We’re often told what the bad fate of these opponents is.  For modern readers these punishments of the damned betray a worrying lack of tolerance for the failings of humanity. 

Towards the end of Part 1 there are two rather more puzzling encounters for the pilgrims. In the first, arriving at a fork in the road ahead, they wonder which route to take. (They’ve forgotten to consult their guidebook, given to them earlier by shepherds on the Delectable Mountains.) A black man appears before them:

And as they were thinking about the way, behold a man, black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe, came to them, and asked them why they stood there.  They answered they were going to the Celestial City, but knew not which of these ways to take.  ‘Follow me’, said the man, ‘it is thither that I am going.’  So they followed him in the way that but now came into the road, which by degrees turned, and turned them so from the city that they desired to go to, that in little time their faces were turned away from it; yet they followed him.  But by and by, before they were aware, he led them both within the compass of a net, in which they were both so entangled that they knew not what to do; and with that, the white robe fell off the black man’s back: then they saw where they were. Wherefore there they lay crying some time, for they could not get themselves out.

Luckily, they spot an angel, a Shining One, ‘coming towards them with a whip of small cord in his hand.’  He asks them what has happened to them:

They told him that they were poor pilgrims going to Sion, but were led out of their way by a black man, clothed in white, ‘who bid us’, said they, ‘follow him, for he was going thither too.’  Then said he with the whip, ‘it is Flatterer, a false apostle, that hath transformed himself into an angel of light.’  So he rent the net, and let the men out.

The Shining One takes a dim view of the failure of Christian and Hopeful to follow instructions, and gives them a sound whipping. They thank him for this punishment, promise to do better in future, and go on their way.

The puzzle, though, is the Flatterer, the ‘man, black of flesh’.  Why is he a black man?  His symbolism is convenient enough. The appearance of the Flatterer – Bunyan seems to use ‘flatterer’ to mean a false guider rather than a fawner – deceives, just as his words and actions deceive.  Under the ‘apostolic’ disguise lies Satan.  White is the colour of the Celestial City and everything it stands for, and so black, naturally, will usually stand in for the opposite.

Even so, the equivalencing of black skin and evil is disturbing.  Did Bunyan believe that black people were different, and inferior?  There’s a passage in Part 2 of The pilgrim’s progress that is relevant. It draws on one of the fables of Aesop.  Again, the evidence is indirect, but not encouraging:

They had them also to a place where they saw one Fool and one Want-wit washing of an Ethiopian with intention to make him white, but the more they washed him the blacker he was. They then asked the shepherds what that should mean. So they told them, saying, ‘Thus shall it be with the vile person. All means used to get such an one a good name shall in conclusion tend but to make him more abominable. Thus it was with the Pharisees, and so shall it be with all hypocrites.’

What, I wonder, did Bunyan and his fellow seventeenth-century puritans make of people from different ethnic backgrounds from their own?  Their insistence that goodness alone will ensure entrance to the Celestial City should mean that accidents of gender or race count for nothing.  A woman like Christiana, after all, can make it across the river of death and into the Lord’s domain just like her husband.  But what about black people?  In 1620 the Mayflower had transported another group of English puritan pilgrims across the Atlantic to establish Plymouth Colony.  Did they take with them the seeds of those prejudices that spawned the multifarious racisms so familiar from past (and present) US history?

The second curious episode follows on immediately from the meeting with the Flatterer.  This is how Bunyan tells the story:

Now, after a while, they perceived, afar off, one coming softly and alone all along the highway to meet them. Then said Christian to his fellow, ‘Yonder is a man with his back towards Sion, and he is coming to meet us.’

Hopeful.  I see him; let us take heed to ourselves now, lest he should prove a Flatterer also. So he drew nearer and nearer, and at last came up unto them. His name was Atheist, and he asked them whither they were going.

Christian. We are going to Mount Sion.

Then Atheist fell into a very great laughter.

Christian. What is the meaning of your laughter?

Atheist. I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and you are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains.

Christian. Why, man? Do you think we shall not be received?

Atheist. Received! There is no such place as you dream of in all this world.

Christian. But there is in the world to come.

Atheist. When I was at home in mine own country, I heard as you now affirm, and from that hearing went out to see, and have been seeking this City this twenty years; but find no more of it than I did the first day I set out.

Christian. We have both heard and believe that there is such a place to be found.

Atheist. Had not I, when at home, believed, I had not come thus far to seek; but finding none (and yet I should, had there been such a place to be found, for I have gone to seek it further than you), I am going back again, and will seek to refresh myself with the things that I then cast away, for hopes of that which, I now see, is not.

Christian. Then said Christian to Hopeful his fellow, Is it true which this man hath said?

Hopeful. Take heed, he is one of the Flatterers; remember what it hath cost us once already for our hearkening to such kind of fellows. What! No Mount Sion? Did we not see from the Delectable Mountains the Gate of the City? Also, are we not now to walk by faith? Let us go on, said Hopeful, lest the man with the whip overtake us again.

You should have taught me that lesson, which I will round you in the ears withal: Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge. I say my brother, cease to hear him, and let us believe to the saving of the soul.

Christian. My brother, I did not put the question to thee for that I doubted of the truth of our belief myself. But to prove thee, and to fetch from thee a fruit of the honesty of thy heart. As for this man, I know that he is blinded by the god of this world. Let thee and I go on, knowing that we have belief of the truth, and no lie is of the truth.

Hopeful. Now do I rejoice in hope of the glory of God. So they turned away from the man; and he, laughing at them, went his way.

Commentators have wondered at Bunyan’s lenient treatment of Atheist.  First, he seems to have the better of the argument.  Christian and Hopeful can’t accuse him of not having tried to find God: he’s spent twenty years looking for the promised land – and come to the inevitable conclusion that it does not exist.  All Christian can manage is a counter-assertion, unsupported by justification, that it does exist.  Christian and Hopeful try to reassure each other that they are on the right track, and decide just to ignore Atheist.

The other puzzle is that Atheist is clearly happy and content in his unbelief.  He doesn’t threaten them or even try to convince them to drop their illusions.  All he does is make fun of them.  Even more curious, he escapes punishment, or even the prospect of it, for his turning his back on the Lord.  Instead, he heads off down the road, whistling his merry way.

Atheist is not the only unbeliever in Bunyan’s works.  In Grace abounding, his spiritual life-story, he recalls meeting a poor man who seems rather similar.  He would ‘deny that there was a God, angel, or spirit; and would laugh at all exhortations to sobriety.  When I laboured to rebuke this wickedness, he would laugh the more and pretend that he had gone through all religions, and could never light on the right till now.’

And here’s a final puzzle.  Atheist is the most twenty-first century character in The pilgrim’s progress.  It would not be difficult to meet his like on any street corner today.  But what about the streets of seventeenth century England?  Surely, with his jaunty confidence and candour about complete unbelief, Atheist can’t have been at all a common sight?

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