The Gospel as Tragedy


I am currently making my way through Frederick Buechner’s masterwork Telling the Truth. The subheading is “The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.” Upon a friend’s recommendation, I found the book online for cheap and set a course once received.

I was only a few pages in before audible gasps and sighs were heard by my wife trying to sleep. It’s no secret ’round these parts that Buechner’s abilities are wonderfully poetic – a salve in my currently dry reading time (most books lately have left me wanting). In the midst of this piece, I found something particularly moving for me as a pastor and something I bookthought would resonate with the Rabbit Room audience no matter the vocation.

This is from the chapter entitled “The Gospel as Tragedy”:

The old ones and the young ones. The smart ones and the dumb ones. The lucky and the unlucky. The eggheads and potheads, the Gay Libs and Hard Hats. They all listen as they may listen even to the preacher if he will take the chance himself of being embarrasssing, appalling us by exposing the nakedness of the poor naked wretches and his own nakedness. The world hides God from us, or we hide ourselves from God, or for reasons of his own God hides himself from us, but however you account for it, he is often more conspicuous by his absence than by his presence, and his absence is much of what we labor under and are heavy laden by. Just as sacramental theology speaks of a doctrine of the Real Presence, maybe it should speak also of a doctrine of the Real Absence because absence can be sacramental, too, a door left open, a chamber of the heart kept ready and waiting.

I was so moved by this – the reflection upon absence (that goes on for several more paragraphs) and also the artistic responsibility to accurately and honestly portray that absence as much as the presence. That every poet and writer and pastor and artist and friend and neighbor and family member would be so bold as to proclaim their abundant faith and their crisis of faith, their joys and their sorrows. It’s a sweet, sweet endeavor Buechner describes and something I long to aim toward.

Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.


  1. Jason Gray


    This was the first book by Buechner I’d ever read and I’ve gifted it to several people over the years (though I was talking with my wife the other day that I’m not sure if I’ve ever successfully made anyone a Buechner fan… The same is sadly true of Mark Heard, though never for a lack of trying…).

    I was a very young man, early in my ministry as a youth pastor when I first read this, and the ideals Buechner set forth in this book about telling the truth have been guiding principles in everything I’ve done since (and sometimes a corrective!) I don’t read books more than once, but returned to this book earlier this year, making it the first book I’ve read all the way through twice. It’s a beautiful and challenging book. Thanks for giving it some attention here.

  2. Chris Slaten

    I’ve gone through several different seasons of gobbling up every Buechner book I could get my hands on and somehow I missed this one. Good summer reading, wohoo. I like the idea of His absence being celebrated or at least artistically lamented in a way that doesn’t just question His judgement, ignore the situation or blame it all on some unconfessed sin.
    Whenever I think of absence I think of the Pierce Pettis song “The presence of your absence follows me” and the 50 years during Mother Theresa’s life during which she felt very distance from God. I looked online for a quote from her that I was trying to remember about that period of time, but I couldn’t find it. I did find this though
    which is a good short essay on the same thing.

    You’ve probably read The Magnificent Defeat or The Hungering Dark if you are a Buechner fan, but if you haven’t I recommend them. Those are two easy to miss jewels that I return to often.

  3. Jim A

    I Love this book. I love the images Buechner paints in this book – the smoky scene with Pilate lighting up his Camel (presumably with his Zippo), asking Jesus just who he thought he was, and Jesus’ silence or the Absence of an answer for Pilate. Or the image of an old respected preacher leaning over his sink shaving with a straight blade (men were men back then) and blood dripping from a cut as his eyes light up and he realizes what his message needs to be.

    I too gifted this book (to my dad) but alas, I don’t believe I made him a fan. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from the varied luck warm reactions I’ve gotten from some Buechner readers when my reaction has always been so grateful and amazed.

    Chris S., “The Magnificent Defeat” was my first intro to Fred and this book followed. What a wonderful book MD was. Matt, I’d love to see a review from you on this one.

    Jason, you must must must read books more than once. I believe C.S. Lewis said that an illiterate man is someone who reads a book only once and he read tons of titles. They become very much a friend and companion on the repeated trips through them. My first experience of this happening was in reading through N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” at least 4 or 5 times over the course of a year. The ideas presented get so close, that they start to feel like your very own. Godric is another that I love to continue to pull off the shelf.

  4. eric peters

    thanks for this. there’s still the little kid in me that gets a bubbly (i’m honored to use the word “bubble” here in the RR) feeling whenever someone/anyone mentions Buechner in a public setting (e.g., the RR, the pulpit) such as this. it is childish of me, but i still take a certain pride in introducing (or, trying to introduce) his work to folks i meet along the way.

    as sad as this is to say, i believe Buechner will never be fully appreciated as an author – and theologian? – among the Body until he is no longer with us on earth. his work has obviously affected so many of us RRoomers (not to be confused with “rumors”). Matt, thank you for this post and for the reminder of the treasure that is Buechner.

  5. Todd Hollback

    For me, AP’s song “The Silence of God” captures the Real Absence as beautifully as anything I have ever heard or read.

  6. Andrew Peterson


    Ah, Buechner.

    I remember about ten years ago, when I finally gave in to all the recommendations from folks, I read The Eyes of the Heart first, then The Hungering Dark, then Godric, then The Clown in the Belfry, then Telling the Truth. I probably read nine Buechner books in as many weeks, and for the first time realized not only that my secret fears and doubts were felt by at least one other human (if much more eloquently), but that they just might be cogs in the wheel of my faith.

    I had so many moments of resonance while reading his books I lost count–each of which reminded me delightfully–and hauntingly–that I am not alone.

    Todd: Thank you.

    Jason: You made a Mark Heard fan out of me. So there. Also, this would be an appropriate place to mention what happened on eBay last month. I was browsing eBay for first editions of Buechner books and found a fine (and very rare) first edition of Brendan. I bid $20 (which was more than I should have bid). I was informed via eBay that I was outbid at the last minute by some jerk who offered $30. (I added the jerk part.) I was bummed.

    About a week later I told Jason Gray on the phone and he started laughing. He was the high bidder–that guy swam up like a Minnesotan shark and snatched my prize from my hands! I’ll get him if it’s the last thing I do. (He more than redeemed himself by sending me a fine edition of Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus for my birthday.)

  7. Chris R

    Telling the Truth was the first Buechner non-fiction I read (Godric was read before, again a RR recommendation) and I have already given it to two others. Reading writing like this makes me want to be a good writer and also depresses me that I will never be that good. Praise God for people like him who take deep concepts and make it understandable, readable.

  8. Dale

    Matt – thanks for building my sense of anticipation. After reading The Hungering Dark again a few months ago, I realized that Buechner more than anyone has the ability to speak the beating of my heart. He has sincerely changed my life and made me feel far less alone in my perspective.

    So I’ve recently committed to reading ( or re-reading) all of his works, from the beginning, and acquiring as many first editions as possible along the way. I’ve enjoyed the first 2 novels already and I’m searching for a good copy of the third. I didn’t realize until now that I would be competing for those prizes with Andrew and Jason. It’s nice to know the competition.

  9. eric peters

    Dear, Andrew, Jason, and Dale:
    Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Buechner first edition competition on our hands. To the victor belong the spoils.

  10. Breann

    I read this book for the first time a couple of months ago. Since then, I have been struggling to find the proper balance and progression of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale in my teaching. (I’m a children’s minister.) Whenever kids reflexively answer “Jesus” to every question in class, it makes me wonder if I have over-emphasized Jesus as the answer. Have I been so concerned with making sure they know Jesus is the solution, that the kids are unaware there was ever a problem? Am I doing my students a disservice by not allowing them to feel the void before filling the void? Sure, I try to tell them of the problem, of sin, sadness, and separation, but do I say too much and over-explain? Have I reduced salvation to a matter of cognitively assenting to the right facts? Do I attempt to spell things out, because of a fear that silence may be misinterpreted?

    Anywho…these are just a few of the questions that have been pinballing in my mind the last couple of months. Any thoughts out there? I’d be grateful for some direction.

  11. eric peters

    Beware of Godric. It’s been known to scare some folks off of Buechner for good, especially if that’s where they start. Great book, though hard to get into the language until a few chapters in. But maybe that was just me, good for nothin’ south Louisiana boy.

  12. Chris Slaten

    For anyone who wants to nibble on his works before having a full meal I’d recommend Listening to Your Life which has small daily readings from a large slection of his works. Someone gifted that to me in high school and that collection is what drew me in. All of his autobiographies are fantastic too, particularly in the way that they push you to look more deeply at your own life rather than just his.

  13. Robert McB

    Dale – If the “third” book you are seeking is The Final Beast, your efforts will be rewarded when you finally land it. Of the early novels, I find it far superior.

    Eric Peters – I whole-heartedly endorse your warning about Godric. Some of my frineds just swoon over it. I have read it more than once trying deperately to “get it” and have been unable to do so as yet.

  14. Scott Coulter

    So many comments on Buechner and no mentions yet (unless I missed them) of his autobiographical trilogy, starting with Sacred Journey. To me, those are the must-read Buechner, along with Telling the Truth, which I really want to read again. Off to hunt for a cheap copy, if none of you guys outbid me!

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