Tag Archives: Frederick Buechner (b. 1926)

Review: A Crazy, Holy Grace

Rating:

Full Title: A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory

Author: Frederick Buechner is an American Presbyterian preacher and the author of more than thirty books. His short story “The Tiger” won the O. Henry Award in 1955 and his novel Godric was a Pulitzer-prize finalist in 1980, but Christians of many streams admire him for his candid memoirs and essays. Buechner had an affluent upbringing between Bermuda and the east coast of the United States. He gained fame as a novelist in his twenties. He eventually chose seminary and ordination, but continued to write throughout his lifetime.

Overview:

A Crazy, Holy Grace (2017) is a compilation of many of Buechner’s best passages related to death, grief, and the problem of suffering. Most of them are taken from his four memoirs, which are highly regarded by many Christian authors. They are listed here:

  1. The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982)
  2. Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983)
  3. Telling Secrets: A Memoir (1991)
  4. The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (1999)

While compilations are often detrimental to a writer’s original purpose and flow of thought, I welcome it in the case of Frederick Buechner. Buechner’s memoirs are reflective and untraditional. In my opinion, they don’t drive home a grand thesis from cover to cover. They may feel slow for an informed reader expecting heavy theology. A Crazy, Holy Grace, however, remedies this by drawing together Buechner’s many profound writings on a group of related themes. He is still not proposing a theodicy or a system of thought; but we may read his meaning a little more clearly.

As a child, Frederick Buechner suffered the loss of his father to suicide. He writes of being disconnected from the trauma as a child, but later being haunted by his father’s absence. This experience is one that shapes a large portion of The Sacred Journey, the best of which is found in A Crazy, Holy Grace.

Buechner is nothing if not frank. He chooses honesty over tradition in his writings, telling of his questions about the afterlife in The Sacred Journey and his seminary doubts in Now and Then. A Crazy, Holy Grace may be considered unsettling for a reader that lacks theological grounding. For instance, he imagines a conversation with his grandmother who is in the afterlife. Some readers (especially High Church adherents, perhaps) can appreciate this type of creative reflection, a la George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis; others may find it disruptive or strange. For my own part, I believe that this approach is why many ministers find Buechner so refreshing.

In an interview, Buechner was asked, “Do you envision a particular audience when you write?” He answered:

“I always hope to reach people who don’t want to touch religion with a ten-foot pole. The cultured despisers of religion, Schleiermacher called them. Maybe some of my books reach them. But most of my readers, as far as I can tell, aren’t that type. Many of them are ministers. They say, ‘You’ve given us something back we lost and opened up doors we didn’t think could be opened for people.'” (The Christian Century)

Review: Now and Then (Buechner)

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Full Title: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Who: Frederick Buechner, preacher and writer of novels and spiritual nonfiction.

Overview: Buechner divides this book into three places he has lived: New York, Exeter (New Hampshire, not England), and Vermont. He gives us a tour through several unspectacular events and places in his life, yet draws the truth out of them like an unlooked-for flavor in a meal prepared by a master chef. The book is along the line of a spiritual autobiography, not giving many details about his life and work, but piecing together the truths he learned along the way.

This book carries forward particularly an idea present in Buechner’s other books, about seeing God as the main character in your own autobiography. “Listen to your life,” he says more than once.

Meat: Buechner is consummately skilled as a writer. He speaks truth more unobtrusively than almost any other author I have read, and in that I would see him as a predecessor to Donald Miller. (Or, others would say Donald Miller is a successor of his.)

The main theme, repeated at the beginning and the end, is stated thus:

Here and there, even in our world, and now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

He also shows a great appreciation for “the dark night of the soul”—an idea I’ve written about elsewhere—and shows that preachers and theologians (such as those he studied under) are not exempt from being mystics to a certain extent. Intellect does not guard us from doubt.

Bones: Where I was less impressed is his theology proper. I sense a deep sympathy in some paragraphs where he mentions times of doubt or depression, but at other times it simply felt like he was hedging with his language. Occasionally I felt that Buechner was betraying more skepticism than is becoming of a preacher, and perhaps that is why he is so popular in theologically mainstream-to-liberal circles.

As just another instance, when he cites examples from Buddhism, they are, for the most part interesting, but I can’t help but feel that it is a ploy to keep less religious readers engaged, especially when he backpedals and says that the Christian view is more encompassing.

Of course, Buechner himself mentions this dillemma of audience, which tries to straddle the line between those who are “in” and “out” of this club we call religion. He is neither the first nor the last to experience this dillemma, but all in all I feel that, whoever his reader is, Buechner truly has something to say, and says it powerfully—not so much like a trumpet, but more like rising string overture, a gentle reminder that your soundtrack is already playing, the camera is running. This is your life. What is God saying through it?

Quotes:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery 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 grace.”

“I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”