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Stuck in the Muck

June 15, 2012

The Slough of Despond

It’s a testament to John Bunyan’s skills as a writer that The Pilgrim’s Progress is still so relevant to 21st-century readers and observers. The story, at its core, is an allegory of a journey to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and that message is no less meaningful to today’s Christians than it was to those in 17th-century England.  But Christian’s adventures—and misadventures—also tell universal tales about human struggles through hardship that anyone can identify with.

The episode in the Slough of Despond is a great example.  First, a vocabulary lesson: a slough is like a swamp—watery, quicksandy stuff that looks like it will hold your weight but then threatens to pull you under.  And despond is just a less familiar form of the word “despondency”—despair, hopelessness, misery.  So the Slough of Despond, which Christian encounters just moments after he begins his journey on the King’s Highway, is a swamp of misery, a bog of despair, and Christian steps right into it (as it were) with his friend Pliable.  The panorama’s artists have effectively rendered the grimy cesspool of the slough with oozing, brownish brushstrokes. Powerful symbols of death and deceit rise above the swamp with the dead tree, the serpent, and the owl pitilessly observing the plight of Christian and his friend Pliable.

Pliable, true to his name, was perfectly agreeable at first when asked to join Christian on his journey, but as soon as they fall in that slough, the deal’s off for him. “Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill-speed at our first setting out, what may we expect betwixt this and our journey’s end?”  And with that, Pliable wrestles himself out of the slough from the same side he got in—you can see him departing back towards the City of Destruction on the left.

But our friend Christian is able to keep his eyes on the prize—and so are we, since the scene as designed includes a distant glimpse of the wicket gate (the first official gatepost on Christian’s journey) shining through the foul darkness of the swamp. He adopts something like our own modern-day proverb that “the only way to get past it is to get through it,” and he wrestles his way to the opposite side.  There a man named Help greets him and helps to pull him out.

Help apologizes that this part of the path is so bad, but explains that “it is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run.”  So the Slough of Despond is the wet basement, the sinkhole, the landfill of the King’s Highway, unpleasant but unavoidable. Still, Help points out that there is a flight of stairs that leads out of the slough, and Christian might have made his way a bit more easily if he’d taken the time to look for them instead of writhing about in panic and fear.

So really, it isn’t hard at all to see how Bunyan’s Slough of Despond has remained a powerful metaphor for today. We talk a lot these days about being “stuck” and “bogged down” and “digging your way out.” Ultimately, the message is that you’re going to encounter some nasty stuff in this lifetime, and that it’s unavoidable. You’re going to “step in it” probably more than once, and to some degree it’s going to be your own stupid fault. But if you can remember what’s important to you and keep hold of your senses, you’ll get through the tough times and make it out the other side.

And it’s OK if you need some Help.

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