by Dana VanderLugt
The small town I live in has thirteen churches in just over four square miles. More churches mean more church signs. Driving past one last weekend, I stopped to ponder whether a catchy phrase or trite line of advice on a church sign has ever changed someone’s mind or drawn them to visit. My mind turned to Frederick Buechner and Jeffrey Munroe’s book, Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher. Buechner’s words are the antithesis of a church sign. Munroe argues that the question “what does it mean to believe in God when there is so much evidence to the contrary?” is “Buechner’s great theme and the thread that holds (his) novels, memoirs, popular theology, and sermons together” (167). This question does not make a great marketing phrase — which, unlike church signs, does the hard work of drawing me in and making me listen more closely.
Nearly twenty years ago as a college senior, I was first introduced to Buechner through his essay “Dwarves in the Stable.” One-third of the short collection that makes up his memoir Telling Secrets, this story — a heartbreaking piece that begins with the suicide of Buechner’s father, his mother’s refusal to discuss the tragedy, and then careens toward his trouble dealing with his daughter’s battle with anorexia — has stayed imprinted on my heart ever since. I’ve underlined and reread the essay countless times, though admit that I haven’t ventured much further into Buechner’s work. This will be changing, as Munroe’s well-crafted guide to Buechner’s essential works has convinced me of my need to put more of Buechner’s books on the top of my towering to-read pile.
Equal parts biography, reading companion, and a reflection of his own experience with Buechner, Munroe’s book begins with the introduction “How Buechner Changed my Life” and Munroe’s own heartbreaking story of the massive stroke his twenty-four-year-old fiancée suffered a month before their wedding. Taking seriously one friend’s advice to get ahold of himself and be strong, Munroe starved his pain and emotions for seven years before finding Buechner, particularly his reframing of the Parable of the Talents in The Clown in the Belfry. In that essay, Buechner writes, “The third servant takes what he is given — for our purposes let us focus particularly on the pain he is given — and buries it. He takes it and hides it in a hole in the ground, and thereby, I would suggest, becomes the blood brother and soul-mate of virtually all of us at one time or another.” Munroe describes how, with those words, the tears and pain he had swallowed years earlier finally surfaced. “Buechner showed me the way out, the way to becoming fully alive again” (5) With this personal invitation, Munroe calls readers to discover or rediscover Buechner through the four lenses its title lays out: by examining his work piece-by-piece as a memoirist, novelist, theologian and preacher. Munroe assures his reader that he is “not a literary scholar and won’t pretend to offer academic analyses,” but instead offers “an invitation in the spirit of love and admiration,” with the hope that maybe Buechner’s words “may well change your life too” (6).
Another thread that braids through both Munroe’s book and Buechner’s work, is the refusal to shy away from pain and doubt, but instead to put “flesh and blood on theology” (32). As a memoirist Buechner does this by suggesting “in essence all theology, like fiction, is autobiographical” (11). As a novelist, Buechner was “marginalized by the literary world because of his Christian faith and marginalized by the Christian world for a variety of reasons: he wasn’t published by a recognized evangelical publisher; novels like the Bebb books and Godric contain salty language and subject matter, and his work was filled with searing honesty instead of simple sermonettes” (78). As a popular theologian —the popular distinction made because Buechner “writes accessible theology for a wide, popular (non-academic) audience” — Buechner “felt challenged to revitalize the religious language and concepts his students were numb to” (112) And, finally, as a preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor says Buechner has “rearranged the air” (139) by, as one of his better-known book title suggests, Telling the Truth.
One of the book’s final chapters, “Reading Buechner Today,” was so enlightening that I almost wished I had flipped forward and read it first. Of particular interest is Munroe’s assessment of why Buechner’s voice is especially needed at this moment in history, with “precious little middle ground.” Buechner, Munroe argues, “refuses to be pushed toward a side. Attempts to classify him result in oxymorons. He is a conservative liberal. Or is he a liberal conservative? He is a Pentecostal mainliner, or is he a mainline Pentecostal? He is a novelist ordained to evangelize, and while that may not be an oxymoron, it is certainly unique” (166). And this perhaps is the best reason to pick up Munroe’s book and then more of Buechner’s books. Rather than a quick sound bite or a slick marketing campaign, what is drawn out is a path to think deeply, struggle mightily, and land safely in the arms of a God who welcomes our pain and refuses easy answers.
Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher
by Jeffrey Munroe
Dana VanderLugt is a teacher and instructional coach pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and The Reformed Journal. She blogs at www.stumblingtowardgrace.com and can be found on Twitter @danavanderlugt.