an overview of Buechner
I've been a fan of Frederick Buechner and his work for a long time. (His name is pronounced "Beek-ner". It's important to him-- and to us-- but he explains that elsewhere.) I don't remember who introduced me to his writing-- and I can't say that I'm a follower or a devotee, because I've only read a fraction of what he's written. But I've read, I've always enjoyed, often been provoked, and sometimes, profoundly moved.
In particular, I've enjoyed his books of definitions and brief character sketches. Along those lines, I have posted on Buechner previously-- here, with his memorable picture of anger; his closing comments on Moses' life; and his observation that Jesus saves is more difficult for us to hear than "Christ saves".
I recently picked up and read an overview of Buechner's work, assembled by Anne Lamott, called Buechner 101. I can recommend the book as a helpful overview, particularly if you enjoy fiction. If you're more interested in non-fiction, I'd start with my favorite book of definitions, Wishful Thinking. As with any writing, it's wheat and chaff. (In all of this, it's worth a compare and contrast with Eugene Peterson who is more pastoral and less into fiction. But their style and outlook are similar and similarly refreshing.)
Buechner shades liberal on some matters of theology and application, so from my perspective, there is some chaff to dispel. But as best as I can tell, the chaff is easy to discern-- and even there, the disagreements are always thoughtful, provocative, and helpful for promoting empathy. In any case, the wheat is too good to pass up.
Lamott opens the volume by noting that Buechner and C.S. Lewis are the authors she revisits frequently. (Lamott says that John Irving was a student of Buechner's. I didn't know that, but it figures, given the similarities. Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany was an enjoyable and important piece of fiction in my life.) Buechner and Lewis "have been, like all mentors, marbled into me." (3) And I concur with that. Both write well; both use vivid examples and draw out lively metaphors; both offer new insights or useful reminders every time I pick them up. Lamott says that Buechner is "plain and majestic at the same time" (2). In this, Buechner is a cousin of Annie Dillard more than C.S. Lewis.
A recurring theme for Buechner is the intersection and combination of doubt and faith. Lamott quotes him twice on this topic: "Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me." (3) And "If you tell me Christian commitment is...once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery", then you're fooling yourself or trying to fool me. Instead, you should ask yourself each day: "Can I believe it all again today?...If your answer's always Yes, then you probably don't know what believing means." (4)
Brian Mclaren and Barbara Brown Taylor also contribute introductory remarks. (I've blogged on BBT two other times: here on her excellent book about Christianity and darkness; and here, with a provocative excerpt on Judas with application to us.) BBT describes how a Buechner talk changed her entire life: "Dear Mr. Buechner, you rearranged the air...From you, I have learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look...From you, I have learned that the good news is not the cheerful news but the dismantling news." (19) (The last line reminds me of N.T. Wright's book on The Good News-- as both good and news.)
Enough on the intro; how about some Buechner? Lamott opens her selections with one of his commencement addresses. Here's an excerpt (21-22):
"...how can we be other than strangers when at those rare moments of our lives when we stop hiding from each other and try instead passionately and profoundly to make ourselves known to each other, we find this is precisely what we cannot do?...And yet in another sense we are none of us strangers...how can we be strangers when, for all these years, we have ridden on the back of this same rogue planet, when we have awakened to the same sun and dreamed the same dreams under the same moon? How can we be strangers when we are all of us in the same interior war and do battle with the same interior enemy, which is most of the time ourselves? How can we be strangers when we laugh and cry at the same things and have the same bad habits and occasionally astonish ourselves and everybody else by performing the same uncharacteristic deeds of disinterested kindness and love?...The question is: Can God in his grace and power speak anything that matters ultimately through the likes of me to the likes of you?"
And then, from the same address, on the small, strange things that often change us and the world (32):
"Again and again Christ is present not where, as priests, you would be apt to look for him but precisely where you wouldn’t have thought to look for him in a thousand years. The great preacher, the sunset, the Mozart Requiem can leave you cold, but the child in the doorway, the rain on the roof, the half-remembered dream, can speak of him and for him with an eloquence that turns your knees to water. The decisions you think are most important turn out not to matter so much after all, but whether or not you mail the letter, the way you say goodbye or decide not to say it, the afternoon you cancel everything and drive out to the beach to watch the tide come in -- these are apt to be the moments when souls are won or lost, including quite possibly your own."
An excerpt from his memoir on the life-changing moment in a George Buttrick sermon that also led to his fascination with Isaac's name and life as "laughter" (44-45). Buechner notes that Buttrick scripted his sermons, but years later, Buechner read the transcript and realized that Buttrick had providentially ad-libbed the strange phrase that changed his life. The idea? That the inward coronation of Jesus in our souls came "among confession, and ears, and great laughter". Buechner says: "It was the phrase great laughter that did it...not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon."
Another quote from that essay: "Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders." (48) Here, we see one of the downsides of reductionism, scientism, and various forms of fundamentalism. The blinkered view of the world is sad because it misses so much; scary when combined with self-righteousness; and especially troubling when it's combined with faux intellectualism.
As I blogged about earlier today, music helps to avoid such reductionism and fundamentalism. As such, "the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life...as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot." (61)
Another book definition-- for "evil" (64)-- concludes with this on the "problem of evil": Christianity "ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good."
See also: his definition of "forgiveness" (67) or these thoughts on The Lord's Prayer (73-74)...
Lamott also shares a Buechner essay on "Faith and Fiction", connecting/comparing the idea with the medium by drawing parallels in their exercise. (I also like his comment that he can only write about saints anymore, since they're much more interesting than other people [96-97]. Billy Joel sang that "only the good die young" but he and the young ladies in the song apparently conflate a narrow morality with Christianity and Spirit-filled living.) Buechner opens with three providential stories (83-84) and notes that all of them could be coincidence. But "if you had to bet your life, which would you bet...?" Providence or coincidence?
"...we can bet yes this evening and no tomorrow morning. We may know we're betting. We may not know. We may bet one way with our lips...and another way with our feet. But we, all of us, bet...we can never be sure we bet right because the evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous...Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith."
People are often unaware of their faith in various aspects of life-- from history to religion, from whether a bridge will not collapse to what my money is worth. Or they're allergic to faith or worried about having to rely on it and its cousin, doubt. But it's part and parcel for the world in which we inhabit. Relax; enjoy the ride; and do your best to put your faith and trust in things and people who are worthy.