Vermilye has taken this classic tour d’ force of the evils of life, rescued it from literary antiquation and oblivion, and not only made it palatable but enticing for the modern reader. Bunyan’s pedantic dialogue is transformed into a country colloquy between friends and the reader. While one must still allow Bunyan his allegorical form and didactic purpose, the introduction of chapters and a pleasantly quixotic storyline encourage the reader to stroll as a more or less unsullied observer through the moral degradation of Badman’s existence. Many may not be up to this challenging portrayal, but if you are, an unforgettable journey awaits.
[P.S. I would have entitled this review “An Excellent Revision of Badman,” but “excellent” and “Badman” weren’t sufficiently contrasting.]
OVERVIEW AND ASSESSMENT
In reviewing Alan Vermilye’s Readable Modern-Day Version of John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, the three aspects of the work, Bunyan’s original work, Vermilye’s revision, and Vermilye’s Study Guide, each merits a separate overview. My personal assessment provides the coda.
BUNYAN’S ORIGINAL WORK
As with any author, to appreciate Bunyan’s work, you must allow him his premise and his format.
Bunyan states his premise in his introductory letter to the reader: “As I was considering what I wrote about The Pilgrim’s Progress about one man’s journey to heaven, I had an idea. It was to write another book about the life and death of the ungodly and their journey to hell”…by tracing Mr. Badman’s “life from childhood to death so you may see with your own eyes…the steps leading to hell.” He stresses the accuracy of his account: “All these are things either fully known by me, as an eyewitness and earwitness, or that I have received from trusted sources whom I’m bound to believe.”
Indeed, Bunyan leads us methodically from Badman’s lying, thievery, cursing and swearing as a boy, through his apprenticeship addicted to alcohol, sex and stealing, on into his parasitical marriage, persecution of his wife, her Christianity and children, to his bankruptcy, fraud and cheating and extortion in business, only to end with his unrepentant demise, all exacerbated by an undertow of anger, jealousy, self-righteousness, and pride, and total lack of any moral fiber.
His objective: “My undertaking is to bring sinners back from hellish living and to save them from death.” Bunyan is concerned both with you, the reader “as you read about Badman’s death, it will help you discern whether you, too, are treading the same path,” as well as “the badness of the times,” voicing concern that Badman’s relatives and friends are “living and spreading their wickedness”…making “our entire earth reels and staggers back and forth like a drunkard because sin lies so heavily on it.”
In particular, he is concerned that “wolves in sheep’s clothing swarm in England these days, wolves, both as to doctrine and practice. It’s the duty of all who can to cry out against this deadly plague. With God’s help, I feel have written this book and pray they may stop this flood in England.”
The critical question for Bunyan is how many will follow Badman’s course and how many the Pilgrim’s progress? Bunyan concedes: “This, of course, is not for me to determine. That secret lies only with the Lord our God. He alone knows who will receive a blessed ending and who will not.”
Two comments on the residual format of the original work, albeit modernized. Do not let the allegorical element, while much less evident than in Pilgrim, e.g. the name-defining characters, interfere with your enjoyment; I recommend one accept these constituent elements of this genera as a given and allow it to drift into the background through dint of repetition.
Second, one may feel Bunyan over-elaborates and digresses even to the point that he himself seems to realize it and has Attentive himself draw Wise back to the main story. Again, my recommendation is to go with the flow. Bunyan’s points are always at least tangentially on the topic and usually insightful and informative.
As to its efficacy since its original publication, while definitely not as popular as Pilgrim, perhaps more due to its subject matter than its literary value, it has survived the test of time. I will deal with its present applicability in my comments below.
VERMILYE’S READABLE MODERN DAY VERSION
Vermilye, in his revision, made two critical differences from the original, First, while Bunyan presented the original book in the form of a dialogue, Vermilye, in my view, correctly “believes that today’s culture is more conditioned to a storyline format.” I would go so far as to venture that, without such a change, all but the most diehard Bunyan fans, moral historians and philosophers would toss it aside after two pages as an unreadable boring tome.
Vermilye rescues this gem from such a fate by dividing Bunyan’s long dialogue into chapters and narrating a winsome storyline which he and I believe helps the overall narrative flow better. To produce a more contemporary style of expression, he updated Bunyan’s antiquated text into simple conversational English without being unfaithful to the original. An example demonstrates the unobtrusive introduction of the storyline and palpable affability of the friendly interlocutors:
Wiseman. Good morrow my good Neighbour, Mr. Attentive; whither are you walking so early this morning? methinks you look as if you were concerned about something more than ordinary….
Attentive. Good Sir, Good morrow to you,…I am, as you say, concerned in my heart, but ’tis because of the badness of the times. And Sir, you, as all our Neighbours know, are a very observing man, pray therefore what do you think of them?
It was a beautiful summer morning. The sun was climbing over the trees as Wise sat in his usual spot, having just finished his quiet time. He loved sitting on his front porch early in the morning while taking stock of the day before him. The whap of a farmhouse screen door closing on squeaky hinges interrupted his train of thought. It was his neighbor Attentive, who lived in a house across the field that lay between their properties.
Despite their age difference, the two men had become good friends, and Wise considered him a thoroughly conscientious young man. It was unusual, though, to see him out so early in the morning. He must have an appointment.
“Good morning, Attentive!” Wise shouted over to him. “You’re up early!”
There was no response. That’s odd, he thought. Attentive was never rude and normally so friendly. Perhaps he just didn’t hear him. He hoped nothing was wrong, although he was wondering since Attentive seemed visibly upset and completely disheveled. Wise stepped off the edge of his porch and called out to him again, this time a little louder, “Attentive! Are you all right? You seem unusually distracted this morning….
[Attentive] and Wise had become good friends over the years. Wise was older and knowledgeable and had experienced much of life already. Not only that, but he was a good listener and always provided sound advice. Attentive decided at that moment to use his friend as a sounding board for the thoughts that were troubling him.
“Hi, Wise,” he said, putting on his best face as his neighbor approached. “…you’re right; I am a little distracted this morning.”
He paused for a moment before his voice took on a more exasperated tone. “To tell you the truth, Wise, I’ve become completely overwhelmed and depressed when I think about how evil the world has become. Everyone knows you’re an observant man. Tell me, do you also share my concern?”
While, as you note, the redactor uses the more conversational last names in the text, altering Wiseman to Wise, no key element is missing, including retaining Bunyan’s marginal scriptural references. As this is part of Bunyan’s trilogy, Vermilye addresses the question of whether I can read this on its own or whether it should follow Pilgrim and Pilgrim’s Progress 2: Christiana’s Story. Having discovered that Bunyan had published this book in 1680, just two years after the Pilgrims Progress and before publishing the sequel with Christiana in 1685, Vermilye is comfortable with being “drawn to first presenting the [contrasting] counterpart to [Bunyan’s] most famous of allegory” which Bunyan actually “mentions as much in his preface.”
Vermilye explains: “Bunyan is clearly presenting a warning to unrepentant sinners of the judgment to come in a much more direct way than His previous attempt with the Pilgrims Progress. Just like Christian in Bunyan story of redemption, God actively pursues Badman too. Unfortunately, he didn’t respond in the same way.” Thus, Vermilye doesn’t suppose that Bunyan would have cared.
In which order we read the books, he would “probably just want you to read them. As with Bunyan, Vermilye urges you “think about the stories and discuss them with your friends.” As he says: “I do too. I sincerely hope that this book challenges you as much as it has me.”
Has Vermilye achieved his objective, to update Bunyan’s classic dialogue while retaining its original impact and fervor? In the opinion of this reader, I believe he not only has captured its essence but enhanced its efficacy in assessing the moral fiber of its and our own day.
MY PERSONAL ASSESSMENT
BUNYAN’S ORIGINAL WORK
One should, I suppose, be filled with fear and trepidation when embarking on a critique of a classic author, particularly one whose spiritual writing has stood the test of time. Yet, opinion is just that. I will discuss four points: (a) moral absolutes; (b) today’s morality; (b) judging; and (d) the final premise.
I concur with Bunyan that moral standards are absolutes and applies to all. As Scripture says: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them.” Rom 2:14-15 or perhaps more to the point of this book: For wickedness, of its nature cowardly, testifies in its own condemnation, and because of a distressed conscience, always magnifies misfortunes. Wis 17:11
The road to moral relativism, where the good or evil of an action is only the opinion of the person or group and not of humanity as a whole in our humanness, leads not only to chaos but to absurdity. Under those guidelines, my decision that it is good to massacre school children has no less moral appropriateness and validity than feeding the poor or caring for the homeless.
Nor can morality be legislated, for all legislation reflects only a portion of the population, abortion or gun legislation being examples which divide our nation. I pray for a heart of flesh, not of stone, for the world, that we may truly love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and show that love in our daily lives by forgiving each other and loving one another as we love ourselves.
As Bunyan prayed: “Now God Almighty give his people grace not to hate or malign sinners, nor to choose any of their ways, but to keep themselves pure from the blood of all men by speaking and doing according to that name which is above all names and whose commands they profess to know and love for Jesus Christ’s sake.”
While I concur that Bunyan’s admirable goal was “to bring sinners back from hellish living and to save them from death,” whether his work had an impact on “the badness of the times” is questionable. As in his day, “our entire earth reels and staggers back and forth like a drunkard because sin lies so heavily on it.”
An edited excerpt from a recent comment on the internet sums our world up well: “I may have well entered the twilight zone in a nation that has lost its collective mind….” where fake news, disproven allegations and conspiracy theories cause insurrection, where pointing out all this hypocrisy somehow makes us blind or racist. “Nothing makes sense anymore. No values, no morals and no stability….We are clearly living in an upside down world where right is wrong and wrong is right, where moral is immoral and immoral is moral where good is evil and evil is good, where killing murderers is wrong, but killing unborn babies is a OK.”
Whether a delineation of some of the more, compared with today’s societal evils, mundane sins such as Badman’s has a significant impact on the conscience of this country is perhaps to some doubtful. But so was the crucifixion of an itinerant preacher in Jerusalem 2000 years ago…in Him we place our hope.
Wise and Attentive, while condemning Mr. Badman, are themselves violating Christ’s command to judge not and you shall not be judged. Mt 7:1 Of course, by virtue of writing this, I too, am attempting to take the sliver out of their eyes while ignoring the beam in my own. Mt 7:3 Granted, Mr. Badman would test the law of forgiveness of Peter…who would remember 70 x 7…and Badman would probably need a few hundred more. On the other hand, such judging should remain confined to literature and not to life, else we too violate Christ’s command to love even our enemies.
THE FINAL PREMISE:
Finally, I must disagree with Bunyan who devotes Ch. 40-44 to “proving” that Badman, who, in his dying moments, personally witnessed by Wise, never seemed repentant, is damned to hell. Wise pronounces the ultimate condemnatory judgement: “I must confess, Attentive, I’m no admirer of sickbed repentance because I seldom think it’s good for anything. And I still say the one who lives in sin and vulgarity their entire life, as Badman did, then dies peacefully, never repenting, has surely gone to hell, and is damned.”
Such a final judgement I am not, nor ever would I be willing to make; that is alone reserved to “the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom.” 2 Tim 4:1 With Paul, I ask: “Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;…So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God].” Rom 14:10,12.
I stand with “the saintly Father John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, in France, who, one day a woman went to and said: My husband has not been to the sacraments or to Mass for years. He has been unfaithful, wicked, and unjust. He has just fallen from a bridge and was drowned — a double death of body and soul. The Cure answered: Madam, there is a short distance between the bridge and the water, and it is that distance which forbids you to judge.”
And, as Bishop, Sheen wrote: “In a single moment, a soul with a genuine fear of God can come to a greater understanding of the purpose of life than in a lifetime spent in the study of ephemeral philosophies of men. That is why deathbed conversions may be sincere conversions. The hardened soul disbelieves in God until that awful moment when he has no one to deceive but himself. Once the spark of salutary fear of God had jumped into the soul,…fear gives way to faith. His next words are believing.” While Badman showed no earthly evidence of repentance, the state of his soul is in the hand of God.
Vermilye asserts in the title that his is “A Readable Modern-Day Version of John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman.” I commend him for not only achieving but exceeding such an admirable goal. I strongly agree that not only his revision but his addition of an almost idyllic storyline gratefully counterbalances the tenor and harshness of the morality text, and not only makes the whole more palatable to the modern reader but may even entice some to explore further with the guidance and supplementary material of his forthcoming study guide.
VERMILYE’S STUDY GUIDE
I await the publication in August of his study guide with eager anticipation, as it will enable me to both get a studied perspective on the work but also to present it to others as a basis for discussion. In lieu of that, my present recommendations for reading this book are three: (a) mirror its format and consider reading it with others as a basis for discussion…it is tough going alone; (b) if you insist on going it alone, I suggest a chapter or two a day into which Vermilye has divided the book is sufficient moral grist for you to absorb and reflect upon in one sitting; but (c) if you wish to read more, I suggest that you consider dividing it into sections:
- Intro and childhood: Chs. Intro and Letter – 8
- Apprenticeship and Youth: Chs. 9-16
- Marriage and Deception: Chs. 17-21
- Business Practices: Chs. 22-30
- Vices: Chs. 31-34
- Remorse, Remarriage and “Repentance”: Chs. 35-41
- His final Days: Chs. 42-45
I will end with Vermilye’s own words: “I’ll warn you before reading: you will not like Badman. He is the antagonist in his own story. He is not meant to be liked, rather to be repulsed by….Bunyan is clearly presenting a warning to unrepentant sinners of the judgment to come in a much more direct way than in his previous attempt in The Pilgrims Progress….Unlike the journeys of Christian or Christiana, Badman took an entirely different path. It wasn’t because of bad upbringing or lack of godly influences or opportunity, but rather a strand of wickedness that ran deep through his heart, beginning as a child and going through the end of his life.”
“Christian’s journey on the way in The Pilgrims Progress is my journey, your journey, as we traverse the road of life. But there’s also another journey, one that takes you down and entirely different path in life. At some point, we’re all presented with that path and might have walked it for a while, but by the grace of God, we found ourselves back on the Way.”
I pray that you and I always find ourselves on that true Way. Amen.