When the church accommodates the city of Vanity

Celestial RailroadEncyclopaedia Britannica summarizes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical short story, “The Celestial Railroad” (1843):

Following the path of Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the narrator travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City—not on foot as had the original pilgrim but as a passenger on the Celestial Railroad. Mr. Smooth-it-away, a friendly fellow traveler, comments contemptuously about the arduous trip the old-fashioned pilgrims had to undergo. En route, the narrator notices that all the landmarks mentioned in Bunyan’s Celestial City have been changed. At the journey’s end, Mr. Smooth-it-away leaves the other passengers and divulges his true identity by breathing fire and brimstone. The narrator awakens and realizes, with great relief, that it has all been a dream.

Scott Horton provides a commentary in Harper’s:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Celestial Railroad” can easily be read in a quick sitting and is a first-class parody. Moreover, Hawthorne is sufficiently clever in going about his task that he lampoons just about everybody and leaves a certain degree of doubt about exactly where he stands. Those who know Hawthorne’s works from high school or college associate him with the stern Puritanism that underlies (and is critiqued in) The Scarlet Letter, but they may also know his flirtations with Transcendentalism and Renaissance humanism apparent in works like The Marble Faun. This story stands astride these two tendencies in his writing. At the first level, he is parodying the classic work of Puritan literature, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This he does brilliantly. It’s clear that he, like many of the intellectual leaders of New England in the early nineteenth century, finds the Puritan approach to religion a bit tired and ill-attuned to the modern world. They examine a number of alternatives–German idealism, especially Transcendentalism, Catholicism, and even faith in science. The mature Hawthorne exhibits fascination for German philosophy and for the Catholic faith and particularly the culture in Italy that it has helped to shape, but in this short story they receive a back of the hand. The strongest contempt is reserved for blind faith in science. That takes the form of the celestial railroad itself–together with its promise to whisk its passengers to the Celestial City without the trials and ordeals that Bunyan faced on his pilgrimage. This faith is misplaced, Hawthorne tells us–the railroad offers an amusing ride, but it never pulls into the end station. Hawthorne plainly has more sympathy for the stout-hearted faith of Bunyan’s hero. But he also sees that the Puritan model foments intolerance and has a latent hostility to science that holds its people back. These shortcomings must be overcome, just as the essential truth of the pilgrim’s tale is preserved.

There are many intriguing landmarks along the railway, but none more so than the city of Vanity, which “exhibits an epitome of whatever is brilliant, gay, and fascinating, beneath the sun.” Here, the visitants and inhabitants direct their attention to “the effervescent pleasures.” But the narrator takes note of how the church accommodates the city, which should trouble the Christian reader because his description eerily resembles American Christianity or the lukewarm Laodicean churches (Revelation 3:14-22):

The Christian reader, if he have had no accounts of the city later than Bunyan’s time, will be surprised to hear that almost every street has its church, and that the reverend clergy are nowhere held in higher respect than at Vanity Fair. And well do they deserve such honorable estimation; for the maxims of wisdom and virtue which fall from their lips come from as deep a spiritual source, and tend to as lofty a religious aim, as those of the sagest philosophers of old. In justification of this high praise I need only mention the names of the Rev. Mr. Shallow-deep, the Rev. Mr. Stumble-at-truth, that fine old clerical character the Rev. Mr. This-today, who expects shortly to resign his pulpit to the Rev. Mr. That-tomorrow; together with the Rev. Mr. Bewilderment, the Rev. Mr. Clog-the-spirit, and, last and greatest, the Rev. Dr. Wind-of-doctrine.

Just as the church is marked by easy-believism in the city of Vanity Fair, education and morality are obtained without “the slightest inconvenience “:

The labors of these eminent divines are aided by those of innumerable lecturers, who diffuse such a various profundity, in all subjects of human or celestial science, that any man may acquire an omnigenous erudition without the trouble of even learning to read. Thus literature is etherealized by assuming for its medium the human voice; and knowledge, depositing all its heavier particles, except, doubtless, its gold becomes exhaled into a sound, which forthwith steals into the ever-open ear of the community. These ingenious methods constitute a sort of machinery, by which thought and study are done to every person’s hand without his putting himself to the slightest inconvenience in the matter. There is another species of machine for the wholesale manufacture of individual morality. This excellent result is effected by societies for all manner of virtuous purposes, with which a man has merely to connect himself, throwing, as it were, his quota of virtue into the common stock, and the president and directors will take care that the aggregate amount be well applied. All these, and other wonderful improvements in ethics, religion, and literature, being made plain to my comprehension by the ingenious Mr. Smooth-it-away, inspired me with a vast admiration of Vanity Fair.


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