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The Big Deal About Buechner

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.


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