Tag Archives: Nonfiction

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: A Miscellany of Men

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Full title: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Essays, articles.

Overview:

A Miscellany of Men (1912) is one of Chesterton’s most humorous and interesting books of short articles. Like The Defendant (1901), the essays here share a loose frame, but vary widely in subject matter. The frame for A Miscellany of Men is that of a collection of types or profiles of various people, but all of the “men” (and women) being portrayed are anonymous: “The Free Man,” “The Real Journalist,” “The Fool,” etc.

Themes covered are Chesterton’s typical fare: political paradoxes, religious freedom, and, of course, embarrassing tales of his own lethargy and absentmindedness. His self-deprecating humor peaks in “The Real Journalist” and “The Gardener and the Guinea.” Only a few articles deal with current events, and he usually only does so when there is an element of humor or paradox involved. With that in mind, pegging this book as “journalistic” articles would fall short of their enduring quality.

Near the end of the book, “The Divine Detective” is an essay that is key to understanding why Chesterton revelled in detective stories, as well as a profound statement of missional theology. I highly recommend it.

Liberty is a theme that is repeated throughout this book more so than in his other books of essays. Several whole articles are devoted to this topic:

  • “The Mad Official”—about unjust laws;
  • “The Free Man”—about political liberty;
  • “The Sectarian of Society”—about religious tolerance;
  • “The Voter and the Two Voices”—about agenda-setting in politics;
  • “The Chartered Libertine”—about liberty and law.

But, for Chesterton, the other side of the coin is always equality. He deals with classism and inequality in essays such as:

  • “The Miser and His Friends”;
  • “The Man on Top”; and
  • “The Fool.”

The key to much of Chesterton’s thought is how he seeks to balance these two axiomatic principles of freedom and equality.

Meat:

This was a very good book of essays, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in how Chesterton thinks. It contains some of the clearer statements of Chesterton’s political thoughts, in the above-mentioned essays. In particular, I was intrigued by “The Voter and the Two Voices”:

It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose.

Agenda-setting was formalized in political science in the 1960s, so this was not a problem that scholars were often writing about in Chesterton’s day.

Chesterton’s political opinions are, like his other opinions, told in a rather upside-down fashion. That is, he stands on his head, and proceeds to point out that that is the only way our theories are turned right-side-up. When he writes about women’s suffrage in the books opening essay, he does not argue for one or the other solution; he is always turning them both down and searching for clues to the deeper issues in our system.

Bones:

I enjoyed the “miscellany” in A Miscellany of Men, but I do wish that Chesterton had spent more time connecting his arguments together in longer chains of thought, as he did in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. If there is one reason that he is not grappled with more often as a serious thinker, it is this: his epiphanies do not roll in linearly, one at a time, but they come in jumbles all at once—so that he has had precious little time to filter for us the light of the Muses as it shone so brilliantly on him for those four decades of prolific output.

If I may make a single criticism, Chesterton seems to have more criticisms for the greedy and the power-hungry than he has solutions. One gets the feeling sometimes that he was backed into a corner. But then, he was a journalist, and I suppose that a cheery exposition of his ideal society would not have sold papers! He had to couch his philosophy in the reality around him, which was not always free and not always equal.

Read for Free: You can read this book for free on LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (multiple formats), the Internet Archive (pdf), and in the Kindle Store (mobi).

Similar: The Defendant, Tremendous Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, All Things Considered

proving the unseen

Review: Proving the Unseen

Rating: ★★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a rare glimpse into the spoken sermons of George MacDonald. Proving the Unseen was arranged and edited by William J. Petersen from sermons published in Christian World Pulpit in MacDonald’s lifetime. The sermons are reasonably short and have the same subject matter found in most of MacDonald’s books: The Fatherhood of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the obedience of faith.

Meat: This book’s strength is that it is significantly easier to read than Unspoken Sermons, which many—unlike me—find too abstract. MacDonald’s spoken ministry as found here is surprisingly straightforward, and yet, the material has the same depth and spiritual sharpness. I especially enjoyed the titular sermon, “Faith, the Proof of the Unseen,” and “Alone with God.”

Bones: The sermons here are pretty short, so you may get the sense that MacDonald could say a lot more on each topic.

Quotes: “Often the very things that lift us up nearer to God are viewed by us as misfortunes. ‘How sad,’ we say, and console one another on the means that the Father of our spirits is using to cleanse our souls and to make us the very children of his heart.” (p. 61)