To Be an Insta Pilgrim

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Have you been hearing the social app, Instagram, likened to The Pilgrim’s Progress? It comes up in opinion columns occasionally. What has this classic tale to do with modern Instagram users? Is this a casual connection – simply shorthand for people having adventures and recording them? Or is there something more too this analogy?

As you know already; Instagram is like Twitter but with photos and seconds-short videos. It started as a mobile photo-sharing app in 2010 and has grown globally to become the social app choice of the groovy. These are people (the young mainly) who prefer to say it with a pic   – so much easier than words (pictures are processed 60000 times faster than text apparently). But it’s the ability to add filters to enhance the photos that made this app a game-changer and then loved by the famous and the wannabe famous.  But beware, for the uninitiated there are Vogue rules  about what and how to post – get it wrong and you’ll certainly be ostracised from the cool gang.  In a fickle world of apps and networks, Instagram (now Insta) is keeping itself shiny, there are reasons for it’s continued presence according to this article; an instant world-wide audience, access to people you wouldn’t normally see, immediate feedback (this is addictive apparently…) one-click sharing to all your networks and viewing one photo at a time (rather than a page of images). The service (like it’s social networking owner Facebook) is free to download and use, so how does it make money? From all that meta-data (and now ads) of course –  you can learn more about that here.

Do we, culturally interested people, need to know this? Yes, here’s some reasons why…

“Instagram…appeals to a basic human proclivity for social attention and connection. Combine that with the trendy toy camera/hipster automated effects, add in some proven social distribution tools and you got a winner app.” (Aaron Weyenberg)

“It taps partly into our desire to feel creative, but I think that more importantly it taps into our desire to appear creative to others. Snapping a photo with Instagram and applying a filter suddenly makes that photo seem inspired, even though the original subject matter was probably rather boring and the original shot poorly taken. When you hit the button to share with friends, there’s a satisfying feeling of anticipation that others will be impressed by your little creation.” Mark HendricksonProduct designer

“Instragam is about exploration of life, sharing them and experiencing others. There’s a slice of “day in a life” that makes a good thing to have.” Sony Atmadjaja

“I look at Instagram as the picture book to my life. I can chronicle the last two years of my life on Instagram in a really cool way. I have pictures of anything and everything – from an overdose of my newborn to gorgeous shots of mountains and trees, featured on other sites.” Denise Husted

(Comments quoted from readers of this article)

There are many commentators out there who would say that if you are interested in culture and/or a creative person you should be looking at Instagram.  “Instagram has risen to the level of a Twitter as far as the culture around it is concerned. It has spawned a new visual language, a new etiquette of sharing and an outpouring of creativity in the form of contests, collaborative art exhibits and personal expression.” Douglas Rushkoff, CNN

But what’s all this got to do with The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan? A masterpiece that has been continuously in print, from its first publication in 1678 to the present day. A classic, whose influence probably equals the Bible. An everyman tale; allegorical, spiritual, amusing.

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It’s about a man in search of the truth, an archetypal tale – a quest, fraught with danger. It’s the story of a dream;  Christian and his pilgrimage through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and the Delectable Mountains in a succession of adventures. With his good companions, Faithful and Hopeful, he vanquishes many enemies before arriving at the Celestial City with the line that still reverberates through the English literary tradition: “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

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A full Pilgrim’s Progress map

So 3 centuries on why do we still find Pilgrim’s Progress relevant today? Here’s what I think;

It’s about finding oneself – Bunyan may have used allegorical story-telling devices but this story is riven with poignancy. The theme may be biblical but even for non-believers there is enough good guidance on a fulfilling life, and this still resonates with a modern reader.  This is a story of a adventure, an unceasing quest to find oneself (told through places of man’s struggles; City of Desolation and Valley of Humiliation with characters named from moral attributes like Goodwill, Evangelist, Wordly Wiseman). Bunyan firmly wanted the reader to understand all life on earth is a struggle. A struggle until death. Knowing this was to be freeing – for us to understand there is no life without fight.

Puritanism – Bunyan was a deeply religious man, an outspoken English Puritan who believed in every word of the bible. Indeed it was whilst in jail (for preaching without a licence) that this book was conceived. He lived by a strict moral code we don’t so much of  today; determined by self-control, moderation, prudency, simplicity, good works and above all resisting the devil.

Good storytelling – for all his dourness, Bunyan knew how to tell a racking good yarn.  “He had a wonderful ear for the rhythms of colloquial speech and his allegorical characters come to life in dialogue that never fails to advance the narrative. Story is one thing. The simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan’s prose is something else. Braided together, style and content unite to make a timeless English classic.” (Robert McCrum)

The value of community – Bunyan wrote a sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress simply titled, Part II. Perhaps he considered Part 1 too self-interested because the follow-up is about pilgrimage as a communal activity. Here we learn of Christiana’s journeys with her children and others. Every time she makes a stop she picks up more pilgrims to accompany her, the group grows substantially. Her strength as a pilgrim is about reaching out to others. Although Christian does not end up in solitary bliss but in the Celestial City filled with happy throngs of residents; his community is a large group of similar-minded people. Yet Christiana instinctively knows what Christian learns in the end: spiritual existence should involve togetherness. Bunyan emphasis here is firmly that spirituality is best when it is communal.

And knowledge – Bunyan wasn’t an educated man, he had little schooling. But he had an ability to communicate complex understanding (and was known as “Bishop Bunyan” for his oratory skills).  He concluded that the key to gaining understanding lay in travel and from never repeating mistakes. So not just busying ourselves going places, but reflecting on our actions and reactions and learning from them.

So does quick-snap Instagram really feed our souls as Bunyan’s tracts have for centuries? Well Instagram certainly ticks the community box, it’s all about bringing people into your world (though the negatives; bullying, online security, self-esteem issues may lead to an over-use backlash.) Perhaps some users are on a journey of discovery… but there is a vanity associated with selfies and oversharing that doesn’t chime with capital P Puritanism and can you really know yourself through a filter? And there is argument against Instagram as a historical archive. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of the deep reflection or spirituality or moderation, The Pilgrim’s Progress aspires too…

But maybe Pope Francis’ recent decision to join up will herald a change in ethos. The rapid response to his @Franciscus profile on March 9th 2016  –  1 million followers within 12 hours suggests their is a ready audience for more thought-provoking postings.  Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom welcomed him warmly, “Watching Pope Francis post his first photo to Instagram today was an incredible moment. @franciscus, welcome to the Instagram community! Your messages of humility, compassion and mercy will leave a lasting mark.”

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But maybe the proper question is “Will Instagram be revered, like John Bunyan, in 350 years?” You know the answer.

Further Reading:

Ask: Get your Instagram questions answered by social media expert Tiffany Brumley

Read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. A modern reworking of Pilgrim’s Progress, with her everyman hero Harold walking the length of England in yachting shoes to reach a dying friend. A 2012 Booker-longlisted novel.

Watch: the film – Pilgrim’s Progress (2008) or this 1978 film version with Liam Neeson. Here’s an adult’s animated version, an old ITV storyboarded version and an animation for kids.

Listen: Radio 4 serial or this version on YouTube

Learn: Lesson and quiz from and a list of quotes to impress yourself

Visit: Bedford for John Bunyan’s statue with 3 relief scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress and other places of interest relating to the author’s life