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A Pilgrim's Digress
My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City



Years ago I stumbled across a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's classic tale about a guy who trekked across strange lands in search of the Celestial City. I was on break from divinity school, and I was browsing through a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking for a light, entertaining read after a semester spent wrestling Kant. Flipping through the book, I recalled a Sunday school lesson in which the teacher, Miss Stanton, a bony spinster whose heavy perfume and vivid depictions of eternal damnation still haunt me, urged us to see ourselves as Bunyan's main character—a miserable pilgrim named Christian, who lugs his sins around in a backpack, gets attacked by hideous demons, and is almost swallowed by the River of Death before he reaches heaven's gate. Bunyan's story is an allegory of the life of faith, and Miss Stanton's point was that if we kids didn't do some serious business with Jesus, things might not turn out as well for us as they did for old Christian.

I slid Bunyan back on the shelf and grabbed P. J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell instead. But on my way to the register, I doubled back for Pilgrim's Progress. As a div school student, I reasoned, I should probably have more than just a terrified Sunday school student's knowledge about what is widely considered one of the great works of religious imagination. Little did I know I'd one day want to plunder Bunyan's allegory for a book of my own.

What I found in Pilgrim's Progress surprised me. Aside from its stern Puritan message, it's a satire that is still fun to read three hundred years after it's written. On his journey, Christian negotiates his way through a world full of hypocrisy, corruption, and self-deceit. Consider the names of people he meets: Mr. Implacable, Mrs. Inconsiderate, Lord Hate-Good, Feeble-Mind, Mr. Money-Love. There's Ignorance, a fool who does not suffer wise folks gladly, and Talkative, who is “more comely at a distance than at hand.” Whether you are a fundamentalist or an atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, you know these people—you work with them, you live next door to them, you put them up in a spare bedroom over the holidays.

Adding to Bunyan's appeal is his treatment of pilgrimage as a metaphor for Life. His tale isn't simply about a hallucinatory hike to a shining city where those few admitted receive a gold harp at the gate (though Bunyan's belief in such a place was literal, right down to the harps). It's also about our universal need to find the right way in life, to strive for something more—to be better people, to make a difference in the world, to hope no one looks too closely at our tax returns. Our beliefs and goals may differ, and the trials we face may vary, but we can all identify with Christian when, at the outset of his quest, he examines his life and cries, “What shall I do?”

When I am confronted with that question, I stare into the dark abyss (or, more likely, a tumbler of Glenlivet) for a couple of days until the panic subsides. Then I ask myself another question: “Well, what do other people do?” This accomplishes two things. First, it takes the existential heat off me. Second, it forces me off my duff and out into the real world, where I can indulge my favorite pastime—watching other people. Aside from its entertainment value, observing others can tell us something revealing about ourselves, even if only to clarify who or what we are not, or to illuminate a set of beliefs to which, we can then safely say, we do or do not subscribe.

For several years now, I've made exploring what others believe, and writing about how their religious views shape their lives, something of a personal quest. The result is this book. Despite its similarities to Pilgrim's Progress, the differences are much more obvious. For one thing, the people in this book are real. Bunyan created characters that represent types and attitudes, and he used them to advance the Puritan doctrine of conversion. My book does not have a theological agenda per se because, unlike Bunyan, I've yet to find the one true path.

In other words, whereas Bunyan wrote with an all-consuming fire of conviction, I write out of curiosity—the sheer delight of learning what makes other people tick. For example, it was with genuine awe that I went to visit Pete Halvorson, a man who, practicing the ancient art of trepanation, drilled a hole in his skull to make himself permanently happy. Similarly, it was with slack-jawed wonder that I watched Omega and Apocalypse, headliners with the Christian Wrestling Federation, open up a can of whup ass in order to “spread the good news of Jesus Christ.”

In a sense, this book is an inversion of Bunyan's. Whereas Christian hazards a world full of nonbelievers, I encounter people who are nothing if not true believers. Yet, like Christian on his journey to the Celestial City, I'm never sure who awaits me around the next bend, or what I might find in the cities and burgs that lie ahead. When I went, for example, to meet the women who run Dying-to-Get-In, a company specializing in faux funerals, I did not expect to find myself laid out in a pink coffin, cruising down crowded Long Island streets in the back of a flamingo pink hearse.

Indeed, every pilgrimage is fraught with peril. But whereas Christian lamented, “What shall I do to be saved?” I was inclined to wail, during one foolhardy experiment, “How can I pose as a street preacher in Times Square, damning perfect strangers to hell, and still get back home with my hide intact, preferably in time for dinner?”

I've organized my stream of adventures according to the places featured in Pilgrim's Progress—the City of Destruction, Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, et cetera. The rationale behind my groupings is in most cases clear. All the pieces that fall under Vanity Fair, for instance, deal in some way with, well, vanity or the marketplace, whether it's Jerry Falwell hawking videotapes on an infomercial, the Christian Booksellers Association's annual convention, or an itinerant preacher named Whatsyourname, who was ignored by the masses until he made himself look a lot like Jesus.

Also included under Vanity Fair, however, is “The Saint of Sin City,” a story about Charlie Bolin, a salt-of-the-earth guy who happens to be the only full-time chaplain on the payroll of a Las Vegas casino. (Hey, how can you have a Vegas story, complete with topless dancers, and not stick it in Vanity Fair?) As another nod to Bunyan's book, which was written in the form of a dream, I've included a section called A Pilgrim's Dreams, which features parodies and other flights of fancy. For the final chapter, I became an actual pilgrim—or, depending on your perspective, a grimy, panting metaphor—as I walked the ancient, five-hundred-mile pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

But, in a way, it doesn't matter that much how I've ordered this book. The events in Pilgrim's Progress aren't really sequential or geographical; they're psychological. That's why Christian, after traveling a long distance to Vanity Fair, as one scholor says, winds up back at the City of Destruction, where he started, though he doesn't realize it.

I don't know about you, reader, but I personally draw some hope from the thought that one of literature's most devout and determined pilgrims actually walked in circles.