Even if you’ve never read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, you’re probably familiar with the allegorical description of the Christian life as a dangerous journey filled with “many dangers, toils and snares”. The story is a touchstone in the canon of English-language literature as well as an apt interpreter of the trials, temptations and glimpses of glory we experience as we journey from The City Of Destruction through The Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, over the Delectable Mountains and toward The Celestial City. Pilgrim’s Progress is a story both of its era – there are some harsh Protestant references to the Catholic Church sprinkled throughout – and timeless in nature. We are pilgrims, and this world is not our home.
Author Annie Wald used the tone and structure of Bunyan’s classic to create a new take on the pilgrim journey called Walk With Me (River North, 2012)*. Dubbed “Pilgrim’s Progress For Married Couples”, Wald introduces readers to Peter and Celeste, a couple who fell in love with one another filled with high hopes and a deep commitment to cherish the King together. Out of Peter’s legalistic upbringing and the brokenness of Celeste’s family of origin, the pair begin their journey toward the King’s City:
The path through the woodland soon brought them to a tall rock gap with high ridges on either side. As they approached the entrance, they were met by two guides, Leave and Cleave.
“Welcome to Echo Gap,” said Leave.
Celeste turned to Peter. “This is the place Lord Will and Lady Sophia told us about. They said couples can get separated going through it.”
“Yes, it can be a tricky journey,” Cleave said. “The rock walls have an echo effect. If you’re not careful, one of you might get pulled off the path. But I’m afraid there’s really no way around the gap.”
“Good echoes or bad ones?” Celeste asked.
“Could be either, could be both,” Leave said. “It depends on what your families were like. In the gap, travelers hear echoes and whispers of everyone who ever cared for them, and told them where they should go and what they should do.”
Peter and Celeste travel around the Mountains of Maturity, across the Swamp of Selfishness, under the Disillusioning Sun, into the Orchard of Earthly Delights, along Desolate Canyon to Revenge Chasm, through the Darkest Night, and eventually begin their ascent up to the Highlands. In the hands of a lesser writer, the familiar allegory applied to marriage could easily become a tiresome, artless lecture. Walk With Me is anything but a lecture, though it is meant to be a teaching tool. The book is at once familiar and startling; Wald’s shimmering writing makes the story fresh and oh-so-relateable.
I worked part-time at a seminary bookstore for nearly 4 years, and remember sitting in a buying meeting with my boss and a publisher’s rep. The rep was discussing the new crop of marriage books coming out later that year. My boss asked, “Do any of `em say anything new?” The rep shook his head no and laughed.
Walk With Me isn’t “new” (since it is based on a story first published in 1678) but may the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of marriage. It could only have been written by someone who has been married for a long time, and who has been willing to do the hard work of navigating years of internal and external challenges to that one-flesh, `til-death-us-do-part commitment. It may serve as useful discussion fodder for engaged and newlywed couples, but the real value of the book is for those of us who’ve been married for a while. I saw many of my own experiences in a 33 year-and-counting marriage captured in the 278 pages of the book.
The baseline rule of good storytelling is “Show, Don’t Tell”, and though the allegory form is by definition “tell”, Wald shows us what it is really like to walk with someone through a lifetime. HIghly, highly recommended.
*I received a comp copy of the book from the publisher, but the freebie in no way affected my review of Walk With Me.