The pithy gospel of Frederick Buechner (1926–2022)

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (Frederick Buechner – Wishful Thinking, p. 79)

After two dozen or so house moves, my wife and I do not collect much. My record/CD collection is all digitized and I am down to only four left-handed guitars (just the essentials). Most of my books are gone as well, but I do have a shelf of 23 of the nearly 40 books written by Frederick Buechner, who recently died at the age of 96.

Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) was a novelist, essayist, and, as one admirer called him, “theologian of the lost and found” who often wrote in Christian themes. He was more C. S. Lewis than Billy Graham, erudite and with a distinctive patrician air that betrayed his Manhattan birth, even though he spent much of his life in rural Vermont and never had a full-time pulpit. But what made him most distinctive as a writer was his quotability for preachers across the spectrum of Christianity, a gift for the short, pithy take on classic messy theological themes.

My first encounter with Buechner’s work was the opening quote, which struck me in a 1973 Time article about this religion teacher at an Eastern boy’s prep school who wrote a slim volume entitled Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper and Row, 1973). In later editions the book was subtitled “A Seeker’s ABC.” Wishful Thinking is, as admitted in its preface, a kinder, gentler version of Ambrose Bierce’s classic Devil’s Dictionary from 1906. Bierce, for example, acidly defined “repentance” as “manifest in a degree of reformation that is not inconsistent with continuity of sin.” Buechner, on the other hand, writes more kindly: “True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying ‘I’m sorry’ than to the future and saying ‘Wow!'”

He could also get prescient about future legal/theological debates. I have quoted in this blog his take on the Virgin Birth, which both typifies his dogma-lite theology and counters today’s resurgence of patriarchal ignorance of women’s reproductive health: “Life is complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.” (p. 94)

Buechner would publish another book in this genre, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who in 1979. He got his start, however, as a novelist in 1950, with critical acclaim right out of Princeton with A Long Day’s Dying. He grew up unchurched, but after a religious epiphany in, of all places, Manhattan, he was moved to study at Union Theological Seminary in 1954 under Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Rather than taking on a pastorate in his chosen Presbyterian denomination, he taught religion at an upscale boy’s school and reconfigured his novel writing.

The post-conversion books Buechner penned wove Christian themes into the plots in ways that were often too religious for the “cultured despisers,” but at the same time were too earthy for more conservative Christian readers. His characters swore and had sex. In at least two books he describes Jesus as “taking on the shit of the world.” He wrote a trilogy, later collected into The Book of Bebb, about a well-intentioned-but-inept preacher with mail-order credentials and a shady past who nonetheless connected to people who felt lost in the modern world:

Bebb said, “We all got secrets. I got them same as everybody else — things we feel bad about and wish hadn’t ever happened. Hurtful things. Long ago things. We’re all scared and lonesome, but most of the time we keep it hid. It’s like everyone of us has lost his way so bad we don’t even know which way is home any more only we’re ashamed to ask.

You know what would happen if we would own up we’re lost and ask? Why, what would happen is we’d find out home is each other. We’d find out home is Jesus that loves us lost or found or any whichway.” (The Book of Bebb – Love Feast, pp. 306-307)

Buechner next took a turn to historical fiction, writing in a style and language that emulated the time of the subject. His novel Godric (1980), the story of a 12th century acetic saint told in the first person, was nominated for a Pulitzer. He followed that up with his take on the Irish sea-faring St. Brendan. In 1982, however, he shifted again to the first of four books of “autobiography as theology,” honestly coming to grips with the private spiritual struggles from the 1950s that directed him to seminary study in the first place.

Despite that patrician demeanor, Frederick Buechner’s early life was filled with “family secrets,” as he called them. His father failed at several businesses in the early years of the Great Depression, depleting the family’s inherited wealth. When “Freddy” was 10 years old, his father committed suicide in the family garage. His maternal grandmother would then escape Manhattan by moving her daughter and grandchildren with her to Bermuda, where they stayed until World War II forced their evacuation back to New York. His uncle’s suicide would follow later, leading Buechner to believe that he was seeing his own fate.

It is admittedly out of this family trauma that Buechner develops his “theology of the lost and found,” tying his own fate with people coming from a very different upbringing compared with his own. Far from the currently popular Dominionist picture of Jesus as a triumphant political Caesar quashing the “woke” liberals, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, the “salvation” that Buechner’s Jesus brings is much more literal and inclusive. The Christian hope and expanded sense of compassion for his fellow “lost souls” that he found in his twenties kept him alive to see the grand old age of 96.

The author’s first edition copy of Wishful Thinking.

My personal recommendation for getting the flavor of Frederick Buechner’s pithy gospel, besides Wishful Thinking, is a compilation of 366 short excerpts from his many writings into a “book of days” entitled Listening to Your Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

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