How Frederick Buechner built up my faith

The late writer’s books upended the way I think about almost everything



August 22, 2022 - 2:39 PM

Frederick Buechner, a prolific author and theologian, died at age 96 on Monday, Aug. 15. Wikipedia Commons

After I heard the news of the death of Frederick Buechner, I walked over to a bookcase in my study that I visit more than any other.

These shelves are filled with what seems too small to say are my “favorite” authors. These are the ones who kept me Christian, who upended the way I think or feel about everything. The Buechner section of that bookcase seems like a disorganized chaos. There’s no coherent genre. Here’s a novel, there’s a Bible study, here’s a dictionary, there’s not just one but several autobiographies.

And there’s no coherent chronology, either. They are stacked not in the order they were written but in the order that I found them. That’s because, when I look at each one, I am retelling myself a story — of when I discovered each one of them, and what it was like to read each for the first time.

When I stand in front of those shelves, I’m doing what Buechner asked us all to do. I am listening to his life, and to my own.

The first book on the shelf is an old copy of A Room Called Remember, a collection of essays that I discovered as a teenager while rifling through the discard table of a public library. When I started reading, what caught my attention was a serious Christian who seemed to see what I could feel but couldn’t really articulate: that life is a mystery, a mystery that’s a plotline, a plotline that connects us with the story of Jesus.

These stories, he wrote, “meet as well as diverge, our stories and his, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that by his absence as well as by his presence in our lives, we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.”

A few inches down on that same shelf, I can find his writings on faith and fiction, The Clown and the Belfry, and remember how I never read another parable of Jesus the same way again after I encountered that book. For years, I had heard those stories just like Pauline Epistles. The preacher would break them down for us — point by subpoint by sub-sub-point, telling us the interpretation and application of each part.

But Buechner had more to say. “If we think the purpose of Jesus’ stories is essentially to make a point as extractable as the moral at the end of a fable,” he wrote, “then the inevitable conclusion is that once you get the point, you can throw the story itself away like the rind of an orange, when you have squeezed out the juice.”

That’s not how stories work, Buechner taught us. They’re meant to involve us — not just with our minds but with our affections and emotions and intuitions too. And all that points us to Jesus himself, who is the Truth — “the whole story of him.”

“So in the long run, the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round.”

Thanks to another volume on that shelf — a collection of sermons called The Hungering Dark — I never say “Christ” without the word “Jesus.” That’s because Buechner knew the phrase “Christ saves” wouldn’t make us nearly as uncomfortable as would the words “Jesus saves.”

Those words “have a kind of objective theological ring to them,” he wrote, “whereas ‘Jesus saves’ seems cringingly, painfully personal — somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be.”

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is graceFrederick Buechner

First in the pulpit, then in that book, Buechner preached that what we accept or reject is not an abstraction but a person.

A few spaces down on the shelf is The Alphabet of Grace, which even now startles me into paying attention to the miracle of the ordinary: