“They, therefore, brought him out, to do with him according to their law; and first they scourged him, then they buffeted him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that they stoned him with stones; then they pricked him with their swords; and last of all they burned him to ashes at the stake. Thus came Faithful to his end.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part I
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As he makes his progress through this world, the Pilgrim finds that most of the real dilemmas, difficulties, and challenges he encounters can be boiled down to a choice between two antithetical options: either he can prevail or he can remain faithful. In most instances the two are mutually exclusive. They represent an unavoidable fork in the road.
The reason is simple: it’s all part of the elemental opposition between kingdom and kosmos. After all, there’s nothing easy about being in the world but not of it. Sometimes it’s no fun at all. If you’re willing to play by the rules, you have a chance of winning the game; if you aren’t, you’re sidelined. Going against the grain creates uncomfortable friction. And when individual conscience comes into conflict with entrenched power, the outcome is rarely in doubt: those who march to the beat of a different drum generally get the worst of it – provided they keep on marching and don’t look back.
Christian, the hero of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and his loyal companion Faithful found this out the hard way. They hadn’t been long on the road together when they came to a town called Vanity where a “lusty fair” – in contemporary speech, a bustling market – was kept all year round. The merchants who plied their trade at this fair had a great deal in common with the advertisers and marketers who crowd the thoroughfares and jam the airwaves of our own modern Babylon, for in it they hawked such attractive commodities as “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.”
It was inevitable that Christian and Faithful would get into trouble at Vanity Fair, and it didn’t take much to precipitate the crisis – nothing so bold as overturning tables or raising a cry in the streets. Their offense was something much simpler and, from the perspective of the locals, far more heinous: they refused to buy. When one of the hucksters asked them, “What’ll you have, boys?” they answered, “We buy the truth.” That was enough to get them locked up, beaten, and exposed to public ridicule.
When the case came to trial, they were convicted of disturbing the peace and causing a ruckus. When Faithful asked to speak a few words in his own defense, he was told, “Sirrah, thou deservest to live no longer, but to be slain immediately upon the place.” In the end, he was cruelly put to death for his crimes. As for his companion, Bunyan tells us that “He that overrules all things, having the power of their rage in His own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them and went his way.”
Like most of Bunyan’s allegorical characters, Faithful was well-named; and in this connection it’s worth mentioning that, in the language of the New Testament, faithfulness and faith are merely two sides of the same coin. Translators use these two English words in different contexts to render a single Greek noun: pistis. Significantly, pistis, at its root, is all about persuasion (Greek peitho). When I place my faith in someone, it’s because the evidence persuades me that he is steady and trustworthy, regardless of circumstances; and when I am faithful, I am behaving in a manner that persuades others to draw the same conclusion about me.
Here’s the point: Faithful remained faithful to the end. He was a Pilgrim of proven character. Unable to prevail against the powers that be, he declined to save his own neck by becoming a cooperative consumer in the market of Vanity Fair. Instead, he stood his ground and suffered for it, thereby making it clear to all concerned exactly who he was and what he stood for. In the words of the song, “He fought the law and the law won.” And in this silent but eloquent testimony to Pilgrim truth lay his victory – a victory the kosmos cannot possibly comprehend.