The Big Deal About Buechner

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In a recent post, a reader asked why so many people here in the rabbit room were so enthusiastic about author/novelist/theologian Frederick Buechner, so I thought I’d start a post that would let people discuss what it is they love about Buechner, or even why they don’t get what all the fuss is about.

I’ve found that Buechner’s writings are a love it or hate it affair, and I understand people who find it too difficult to climb over his eclectic fence given the strong flavor of his work and the way he nudges the envelope of orthodoxy.

But for my money, there’s no writer who brings the story of the bible to life for me the way Buechner does – especially the characters who inhabit those stories. Through Buechner’s eyes, characters like Jacob, Job, Pilate, and even Jesus himself jump off the Sunday school flannel board and break through the confines of the morality tales we’ve tried to make of their lives. They become unpredictable, dangerous, sweaty, and human.

Whether I’m reading Buechner’s telling of the Jacob narratives in his novel “The Son Of Laughter”, or his short biographical sketches of familiar biblical characters in “Peculiar Treasures”, or even the way these characters show up in his other books like “Telling The Truth”, these people we think we know so well and that we’ve often reduced to pietistic symbols and straw men all of sudden come alive. Pilate feels dangerous as he regards Jesus through the haze of the smoke of his cigarette. We see Sara’s toothless smile as she doubles over laughing at the announcement that she will soon bring Laughter into the world from the geriatric ward with medicare footing the bill. We smell the sweat and feel the spittle as Jacob wrestles with the Angel by the river Jabok. We ache to be the one who places a pillow beneath Jesus’ head in the stern of the boat.

Somehow in the way he dusts off these old biblical friends we always thought we knew so well he helps me not only pay attention to their lives, but calls attention to my own life, and in the process I too am dusted off and come alive in ways that are dangerous, unpredictable, and human.

For this alone I would love him, but there’s also his sharp wit and uncommon observations that defy convention and provide an endless fount of wonder. But of course his greatest gift is in telling his own story so courageously and truthfully that it invites us deeper into our own stories and ultimately connects us to the grand story of God’s redemptive work in our lives.

I could say more, but I’m more interested in hearing from you.

But let me close with this thought. Though some find fault with some of his conclusions, and even though I myself don’t agree with everything he writes, the truth remains that at a time in my life when Christianity looked so shabby and untenable to me, when Christian belief seemed so unbelievable and void of vibrancy (all this because of a toxic church environment that I was in), God brought Buechner to me and in his writing I rediscovered my love for Christ and passion for walking out a faith that is alive and full of wonder and holy mystery. Many years later my wife and I had an opportunity to hear Buechner speak at Calvin College. He simply read some passages from his books, but as I looked over at Taya, I found that like me, her face was wet with tears.

Note: Three of Buechner’s works, “The Magnificent Defeat“, “The Sacred Journey“, and “Godric“, are currently available in the Rabbit Room store.


23 Comments

  1. sevenmiles

    For someone who isn’t a heavy reader and has never read Buechner before, what would you fans of his recommend be my first foray into “Buechner’s world.” (Incidentally, if it’s anything like Beakman’s World, then I’m sure I’ll love it.)

  2. Tony Heringer

    Jason,

    Thanks for the post. I haven’t gotten to Buechner but I know he has touched many lives including many authors I’ve read who quote him. He is on my list. When he pops up, I know I’ll enjoy the journey. Look forward to seeing the feedback from others — like “sevenmiles” it will be nice to have a list of favorites from fans of the man.

  3. Jeremy

    Jason,

    Honestly, I cant remember what it was I didn’t like about Buechner in the first place. I think that someone quoted him against me in the post you started that sparked interest in homosexuality and it made me instantly not like him (although, I looked again at the quote and I agree with him…heh…without changing my position of course). I also found another quote that someone wrote in the nakedness post about nakedness, and I disagree with his assertion in that quote.

    However, I was really just being kind of a dummy-head. I dont always agree with John Piper either (though I usually do). I have to remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I guess. This post actually got me looking at a few interviews with him and he doesn’t seem all the bad. If I ever decide to read something, I may pick up a Buechner book (the yellow leaves has a pretty cover…)

  4. Eric R

    Thanks for the post. I must admit that I never did any research into who this man is until today. Once I did, I found a site, beuchnerfilm.com where you can view a 15 minute clip of a DVD that was created recently.

    Now I have a better understanding of who this man is and what his works can contribute to our lives. This initial look into who he is just put his books on my list as well.

    Thanks again,

    Eric

  5. Marcus hong

    If I were to pick a book for someone who is just getting into Buechner, I’d pick Secrets in the Dark. It’s a collection of sermons/essays/lectures that span almost his entire life, from one of his first, to some of his latest, and I found it both engaging, inspiring and though-provoking. Also, each sermon is only about 10 pages and complete in and of itself, so you can read one in a sitting, think about it and let it stew over a little and then continue on. The collection shows both his ability to bring biblical characters to life and to connect his life with others. I just finished reading it, and it was great for me.

  6. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I started with Godric and it made me a fan for life. It was a Pulizter nominee for fiction and it’s probably quite unlike anything you’ve ever read. Lyrical, beautiful, true.

  7. Taya Gray

    My first experience with Buechner was The Son of Laughter. The style is visceral – you can see, hear, smell, and very nearly touch the world of Jacob and Esau. It was this book that breathed a new life into the bible for me . . . ., “oh yeah, this stuff really happened!”

  8. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    C’mon Pete! Don’t spill the bean yet! We don’t want to scare them away from Buechner right away!

    But in regards to suggested reading – I would say “Yellow Leaves” is NOT the place to start.

    My first Buechner book was also a novel – “The Son Of Laughter” that is based on the Jacob narratives. That was what hooked me for life. Next was “Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale”.

    I would recommend for his nonfiction that I think would work as a good introduction are

    1.) “Telling The Truth”
    2.) and the third entry of his memoirs called “Telling Secrets” (it’s weird I know to start with the third one, but it is the most personal).

    However, it’s the collection “Beyond Words” that I reach for and give away as gifts the most. It’s kind of like a devotional, but more complete than that, too. It’s his three lexicon books in one, the ones where he offers definitions of both sacred and secular words that have lost their shine from over use. He gives a similar treatment to biblical characters in this same book. I think it has some of his most moving, insightful, and even controversial reflections all in one volume, and you can look up whatever you like because it’s like a dictionary. From Adam to abortion, depression to ocean, X-rated to Zacheus – you can look them all up here and there are 365 entries so it can serve as a daily reader.

    You get pithy thoughts like this:
    “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity to feel what it’s like to live inside someone else’s skin”

    or:
    “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. they keep it awake and moving”

    or:
    “Lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst”

    For novels, the three that move me the most are:
    1. The Son Of Laughter
    2. Brendan
    3. Godric

    But the book of Bebb deserves honorable mention.

  9. Staci Frenes

    A friend gave me The Hungering Dark several years ago–it’s a small collection of Buechner essays loosely based around the theme of finding God in unexpected places. I had just finished my English degree at UC Berkeley and I was completely at a loss to find any authors in the evangelical Christian world who seemed to care about language the way I discovered Buechner did.

    I cried through most of it–because of what he said but also because he wasn’t afraid to use bold, colorful, figurative words to say it! In fact, he says in the book, “…when you try and talk about God,…the best you can do is to speak in the language of symbol and metaphor.” I guess I’d always believed that, and as a songwriter, found that to be the only way I could get at the deep things I wanted to say about God. So, in Buechner it feels like I’ve found a kindred spirit.

  10. Leigh McLeroy

    The first Buechner book I read was “Telling the Truth.” I still have not recovered. Why am I an avid reader of his work? Because I can count on him to stun me to near-paralysis with a deft combination of words; to move me to tears, or to laughter; to send me skittering for a pen to write down a phrase that, as soon as I read it, became unforgettable. I, too, delighted in the opening line of Godric. But it in no way overshadows the last…which I believe found its way into an Andrew Peterson song. I’ve been enriched by his gift. It’s as simple as that. Just by the Holy Spirit-fired way he combines words on a page I’ve been blessed over and over. If we argued theology we might finds points about which we disagree, but if we simply celebrated the raw, rumbling power of the good news together…and the many ways there are to tell it – well, we’d be closer than close. So…definitely “Telling the Truth.” And “Godric.” Then maybe Sacred Journey, Son of Laughter, Brendan…and don’t miss the tiny “The Wizard’s Tide.” It might just break your heart. In a good way. Just this week a friend pointed me to this interview, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/1870/frameindex.html, which might be a good place for a new reader to begin to explore. Enjoy.

  11. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I just wanted to give some props to Jeremy for the sweet spirit of his post.

    Jeremy, you’re completely entitled to not like Buechner, so don’t feel like you have to just because some artsy touchy feely types like him here in the rabbit room :- )

    For those who do love Buechner, are there any passages you’d like to quote here? I for one would be blessed to read some of your favorite passages.

    And any Buechner haterz out there, you’re welcome to weigh in too!

  12. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    “The story of any one of us is, in some measure, the story of us all.”
    Sacred Journey

    My first intro to Buechner was Godric, and it very nearly stalled me as a potential Buechner-ite. I waded through it (yes, it’s difficult to get into the flow of his writing, especially in this, his Pulitzer nominated novel) but I slowly received the style as if warming to it by a fire. I think my next book of his was a non-fiction work (Peculiar Treasures?) and from there on, I was absolutely hooked. I don’t know if it’s his depth of language or his ability to use the perfect words to describe what he imagines is true of Adam, or Jacob, or any other figure in the Old or New Testaments, but Buechner made/makes many of those folks real to me for the first time in my shallow life. He put skin and bones on, what previously, were mere ghosts.

  13. Dusty

    The only Buechner I’ve read yet is “Godric,” and just got “A Room Called Remember” from Amazon (can’t wait to start it). I started reading “Godric” around 8 at night and couldn’t put it down, by the early hours of the next morning I had finished it. He had an amazing way about him, in describing the darkness and depravity in even the most holy of us. I, however, in reading others talking about him have come to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t agree with him theologically on many issues. He seems like he would fall in the camp of Barth or N. T. Wright, or someone along those lines for me; by that I mean he has a lot of good things to offer, but doesn’t quite fit into orthodoxy enough for me. Never the less, many of my favorite authors and theologians fall into this camp including both Wright and Barth, and even C. S. Lewis. But, with authors like this we must appreciate them for what they have done well, and avoid falling into their faults. Anyway, I loved Buechner as an author, and before I actually judge him theologically I plan on reading some of his theological writings, and no matter what I conclude on that issue still plan on enjoying his works in the future.

  14. Robert McB

    The problem with finding a starting place with Buechner is that his writing is so diverse. I suspect that I could give you five Buechner books stripped of their covers and title pages and you would be hard pressed to believe that they were written by the same man. I read several of his non-fiction works before venturing into the Bebb series (novels). The raw humanity he depicts through the Bebb novels is hard to reconcile with the deep theology of his non-fiction works. So, I have learned to apporach each Buechner offering on its own.

    My first introduction was Whislting in the Dark, a delightful, witty, quick-hitting, but at the same time profound overview of Christianity. Telling the Truth is magnificent, as well. Then there are the sermon/essay collections of which I like The Magnificent Defeat and Room Called Remember best, although I like Clown in the Belfry too.

    He has also written several autobiograhpical works that are very insightful as well, although I have enjoyed these less than the other offerings.

    In the fiction section, The Storm is really hard to beat. And last but not least is Son of Laughter which is a category unto itself. I think of it as historical fiction. He fills in the gaps so seamlessly that I kept going back to the Bible to distinguish the scriptural basis from the fiction. I came away with an incredible appreciation of Jacob that I would never have reached otherwise.

    Summary – there are many Buechners, and I agree that he is not for everyone, but for some of us, there is no one that compares.

  15. Jim A

    The commenter above, Robert McB actually introduced me to Buechner – a fact that has made me forever in his debt. I would agree with Robert in the diversity of his writing

    I would also add that he is a very heady author, very educated (check out his pedigree on Wikipedia). He employs an immense vocabulary and sentence structure that forces you to () think and study on a bit. This is not comic book material.

    My first read was “The Magnificent Defeat” – like “Secrets in the Dark” – a collection of sermons some of which are found in the latter. This was followed by “Telling the Truth” which retold the Gospel story, or perhaps more accurately the telling of the Gospel, in way that as Jason puts it, makes it gritty and human.

    But Godric… Oh Godric. This book made all the hair on the back of my neck stand up at attention from the opening page.

    I’m now in the middle of “Speak What We Feel, not what we ought to say”. This one has been a little tougher. It’s about the writings of 4 authors and how they wrote in blood. The first author was a poet with writing I really don’t care for (Gerard Manley Hopkins). That said, even though I don’t care for Hopkins writing style much at all, Buechner actually opened it up for me in such a way that I now have at least a good respect for what Hopkins was trying to say.

    Thanks again Robert and thanks Jason for this post!

  16. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I, too, at first found Buechner’s writing hard to follow at first… but for me it wasn’t necessarily because it was ivory tower talk.

    This is my opinion, now: that he doesn’t write sentences like a writer does, and so since we’re so used to digesting sentences and chapters written by writers, it takes a bit of getting used to.

    Instead, I think he writes very conversationally (more so in his memoirs than his collected sermons). He has loooong run on sentences that will go on for an entire paragraph. And he starts sentences with the word “And”. So it’s very much like a conversation, or at least like hearing a person speak.

    It was helpful and rewarding to me to stop reading him as a writer of sentences and chapters and books and begin instead to read him as an orator, or a speaker, or as a friend who is sharing with me from the deepest places of his personal experience. I think Buechner’s work, though incredibly intelligent, is even more so incredibly personal.

    All that to say that he is heady, yes, but also full of heart (or as much as a buttoned up Northeasterner can be ;- )

    So for newbies, Give yourself a chapter or even a book or two to get accustomed to “Buechner-speak”. I think you’ll find it very rewarding if you stick with it!

    (This is why I usually recommend either “The Son of Laughter” and even “Beyond Words” as introductory books since the reader will already come to these books with a basic knowledge of the stories he will explore, so it removes a layer of effort in trying to discern the story and lets you get accustomed to Buechner’s way of telling a story that you’ve already heard before.)

    I just finished reading a short and moving piece of Buechner’s that is posted on the web called “The Stewardship of Pain”. I highly recommend it! Here’s the link:

    http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/buechner_3416.htm

  17. Lauren

    Listening to Jason and Taya’s advice i started reading Buechner’s (i just copied/pasted his name. Not going to attempt to spell it) Telling Secrets. Honestly i havent read it in a few weeks, and i am still wondering why. Maybe its the business and stresses of life, because what i have read so far was amazing. I not only was reading a book, i was sitting exactly where everything was happening. The way he goes into detail about his father’s death, and how his mother did not like the usage of family in his stories, was completely amazing. He draws so many emotions out of you, and paints such a wonderful story that you think that you are living it or have seen it at one point in your life.

    Hm…sounds like i need to pick that back up…

  18. Jim A

    Jason,
    That’s a GREAT point about Buechner’s writing being not at all like a writer. That’s something I fought for a while with and you are correct that if you approach it in more of a conversational style you might be better off.

    And I don’t think that heady/intelligent is at odds with the personal heart felt style you mention. Just be prepared to have a dictionary handy and be open to having your Vocabulary depth challenged!

    Jim A

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