Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading Buechner by Dale Brown

Whenever people ask me about Frederick Buechner, the first obstacle is the cumbersome name. I’m sure his career would have been more noticed had his name been Clay Steele or John Grisham. (The name is pronounced “Beekner.”) The second question is usually about which books to read. Such a query makes sense given the more than thirty possibilities. So here’s a quick primer from someone who likes them all:

If you lean toward the essay, you will no doubt enjoy one of Buechner’s unique studies of religious words and stories in such volumes as Wishful Thinking, Whistling in the Dark, Peculiar Treasures, or Alphabet of Grace. Many of his sermons have been anthologized in various collections like A Room Called Remember, The Clown in the Belfry, and Secrets in the Dark. But my favorite in this grouping would have to be Telling the Truth: The Gospel in Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. The book is the printed version of Buechner’s 1976 talks on preaching at Yale University’s Beecher Lectureship. Buechner’s admonition to preachers is that they tell the hard truth about the absence of God while not being afraid to also tell the outrageous story of God’s glorious presence in the world, the overwhelming of tragedy by comedy. The three essays always strike me as universal and useful in the daily grind. The joke is sometimes hard to get.

If your taste runs to biography, you might want to explore Buechner’s many volumes of personal reminiscence. The series began with The Sacred Journey in 1982. Buechner’s assumption is that the story of any one of us is the story of us all in some way. A very private man, Buechner nonetheless opens the pages of his photograph album in the hope that we might find snapshots of ourselves tucked in among his pictures. And note the adjective: the journey is “sacred.” Buechner believes that his life is going, not just anywhere, but somewhere. If you enjoy The Sacred Journey, move on to Now and Then, Telling Secrets, and The Eyes of the Heart.

If you are drawn to fiction, you’ll be in good hands with Buechner. His first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, made him famous in 1950, but the novels that come after his turn toward Christianity will be his legacy, I believe. There’s the bawdy and yet somehow sacred romp of the Bebb novels of the 1970’s. There’s The Son of Laughter and The Storm and even a wonderful little version of the book of Tobit, On the Road with the Archangel. But the book on which his reputation will finally rest is no doubt the 1980 novel Godric. Fred even recognizes this as his centerpiece as did the Pulitzer committee that made it a finalist for the prize. The novel is the story of a dimly known, eleventh-century saint, the irascible Godric, who insists on one basic premise—all things human are “a broth of false and true.” Much of Buechner’s entire career is summarized in that sentiment. And Godric’s story is, surprisingly enough, somehow the story of us all.

Dale Brown
January 2011

Dale Brown, the founding director of the Buechner Institute at King College, is the author of numerous articles and the recent critical biography, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings.

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