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The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress by Kyle Mann and Joel Berry

No website has done a better job of promulgating the conservative Christian cause on social media in recent years than the Babylon Bee. Founded in 2016, the writers at the Bee have made an art form of satirically dismantling leftist talking points, dishonest politicians, and hypocritical religious leaders, and have had a lot of fun doing so. Many of their obviously parodic headlines have fooled the likes of CNN and the New York Times, and their suspension from Twitter influenced Elon Musk’s recent decision to buy the social media giant. The Babylon Bee’s satire comes from a refreshingly positive and right-minded point of view, and that same spirit pervades The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress, written by the two main writers for the Bee, Kyle Mann and Joel Berry.

As its title suggests, The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress is a reimagining of John Bunyan’s seminal work, a foundational document of Christian allegory and the first English novel ever written. As it happens, I have something of a soft spot for adaptations of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and was excited to see Mann and Berry’s take on it. Ultimately, though their tale can sometimes be rather ham-fisted in its symbolism (as Bunyan’s work was before them), it never ventures into being trite, and though the comedy can sometimes fall a little flat, the book is a thoroughly pleasant read with plenty of heart and humor.

For the uninitiated, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress — well worth reading in its own right — is a story about an every-man named Christian who escapes the City of Destruction bearing a heavy burden on his back (the knowledge of his sin) and undertakes an arduous journey to the Celestial City. On his way, he meets all sorts of colorful characters like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, the Interpreter, and the giant Despair, and passes through all manner of locales, such as the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, and even the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Through the story, Bunyan teaches many a lesson about Christian life by means of our protagonist’s interactions with these aptly-named people and places. It’s all a bit on-the-nose, but no less fun or meaningful because of it.

The story of The Pilgrim’s Progress is also the inspiration for a pair of fantastic progressive rock albums from the Neal Morse Band: The Similitude of a Dream and The Great Adventure, which are excellent companion pieces to Bunyan’s work.

The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress opens with our hero Ryan attending a typical megachurch service in accordance with his little brother’s dying wish, and the opening scene ends up being one of the funniest in the book by lampooning the megachurch trappings with biting accuracy. When a projector falls onto his head, Ryan finds himself transported into another reality, one where his name is Christian and he must escape the City of Destruction. You know how it goes. The tale is narrated by a very Douglas Adams-esque extraplanar being (an angel, essentially) tasked by “the First Being” to document Ryan’s story. Throughout, the Narrator provides a number of asides and footnotes in the style of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, many of which are clever, if not necessarily laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The book continues through the rest of Ryan’s story at a rapid clip, giving very little room for certain scenes or characters to breathe before jumping onto the next thing. This gives the book a somewhat disjointed feel, as though we were reading a series of vignettes rather than a fluid narrative, but it also works to the story’s benefit, as the authors don’t see fit to dawdle on scenes or beat the reader over the head with the meanings of Ryan’s various trials and tribulations before going onto the next. Mann and Berry assume a certain amount of intellect from their readers and are happy to give us the gist of a scene and its characters before excitedly jumping ahead to the next important moment in Ryan/Christian’s journey. Given its source material and that the narrator all but tells the reader exactly what’s going to happen, the joy in reading the tale isn’t found in surprise at the twists and turns it takes, but in the humorous characters and situations our heroes find themselves in and the satirized dangerous philosophies Mann and Berry warn against with their story.

Many of Bunyan’s classic characters are replaced with modern counterparts that do an excellent job of satirizing modern-day hypocrites and “thought leaders”. Personal favorites of mine included the Smiling Preacher, who screeches up in a luxury vehicle when Ryan is stuck in Depression Bog and merely offers that he needs to stop “speaking his problem into existence,” and Mr. Neckbeard, who sits on the side of the road arguing with passersby without ever bothering to venture out himself. The referential humor present throughout the story is a peculiar treat as well, as Mann and Berry sprinkle in allusions to everything from Megadeth to the Legend of Zelda to Jordan Peterson to G.K. Chesterton. The references don’t only serve as jokes, either — many serve to illustrate the allegorical meanings that the authors demonstrate with each chapter.

Like the original, The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress is, at its core, a story about man’s journey to find redemption in God, and to my mind it’s at its best when in pursuit of this message. Ryan/Christian’s mettle is tested at numerous points in his journey, and every time he is subjected to pressure he’s found wanting — needing to be saved by his companion for most of the book, whose name happens to be Faith. As I said, the metaphor here is anything but subtle, but the authors largely manage to be charming enough for the reader not to worry too much about it. Together, the two face mounting odds like an army of self-flagellating “deconstructors” trying to remove their “implicit biases,” the lotus-eating town of Evangelion, the strangely alluring bread and cheese that distracts one from the imminent ruin of the City of Destruction, horrific “humanists” who sacrifice their own babies and burn them for energy, and even Satan himself.

Our hero is taught early on to rely on a book he finds in the City of Destruction, which seems to read something like a mix between the Bible and Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Often, of course, he fails to consult its wisdom (or loses it altogether), and bad things naturally happen. As stated above, Ryan/Christian is as flawed a protagonist as they come, which is undoubtedly Mann and Berry’s point — we who travel on the road to redemption will inevitably fail, many times, and must rely on Faith to see us through. Our hero’s story manages to be heartwarming without coming off as saccharine, in part thanks to his constant faltering. The story’s end is delightfully ambiguous — we don’t necessarily know what becomes of Ryan thanks to his spiritual journey, we’re just expected to have faith that things turned out for the better.

Each chapter starts with a quote or two from books and authors that informed the authors’ work — from H.P. Lovecraft to C.S. Lewis — and seeing the breadth of different voices was interesting and fun. Mann and Berry never come off as didactic or prescriptive (as Bunyan could sometimes be), but merely seek to entertain and iterate a positive, Christian message. Sometimes the writing can come off as a bit cliche or unrefined, but it generally doesn’t detract from the effectiveness of demonstrating that message. All throughout, it’s very clear that the authors have a deep reverence for Bunyan’s original work and for Christian philosophy.

While The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress is not as impactful or poignant as Bunyan’s original work (few things are), Kyle Mann and Joel Berry successfully translate its themes and messages, and more importantly the inherent joy in its philosophy, to the modern — or postmodern — era. Bunyan’s satire and allegory are effectively represented and made recognizable to a wider audience, and the book’s briskness does it a great favor by keeping things tight and to the point. This is a story that deserves to be told in as many voices as it can be, and Mann and Berry’s particular voices are a delight to read.

The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress releases June 7th.


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