The Holy Foolishness of Frederick Buechner
The first thing that’ll trip you up is the name: Buechner. How on earth do you say it? I once suffered through an entire presentation on Christianity and the arts in which the speaker leaned heavily into the u: “The novels of Frederick Be-you-chner are a great example of Christian art that’s aesthetically excellent.” I was peeved, but Buechner wouldn’t have been. In the entry for “Buechner” in his delightful Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, he confesses, “It is my name. It is pronounced Beekner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me.” I don’t think it’s pure speculation to suggest that Buechner would have followed this up by pointing out that our Lord has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.
So what’s foolish about an Ivy League-educated writer who took the literary world by storm with his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying? That’s the kind of success story that makes aspiring writers hunched over their laptops look up and stare deeply into the industrial ceilings of their local coffee shops. But Buechner was never able to replicate the success of that first book and so a new trajectory emerged, one that certainly seemed to court foolishness: literary has-been becomes preacher.
A minister and an artist? Can you find two more antithetical figures? The one delivering weekly sermons crafted to cater to the lowest common denominator in the most didactic of terms and the other offering up prophetic visions that shy away neither from life’s intractable ambiguity nor its radiant promise. On second thought, maybe these two aren’t worlds apart, or at least they shouldn’t be. Though we just lost Frederick Buechner at the age of 96, I suspect that part of his legacy will consist in his bold reminder that preachers are poets. The fact that he had the audacity to be both in our disillusioned time is part of the holy foolishness of his life.
Pick a Buechner book, any book, and prepare to be bowled over by the sensational throwaway lines that are scattered like benevolent spies throughout the paragraphs. Musing on the scene at the river Jabbok, he asks us to remember Jacob “limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn.” To this day, that inspired use of conflagration makes me green with envy. Here’s another from Godric: “Laugh till you weep. Weep till there’s nothing but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it’s all one.” On lighter days, I’m poised with pen in hand to do some furious underlining; just look at my tattered copies of the man’s books!
But on my darker days, I’ll confess I struggle with Buechner and worry that he’s just giving us vague poetic platitudes that fall short of the intrusive reality of Christ’s resurrection, i.e., the kind of amorphous spirituality that would warm the heart of a Friedrich Schleiermacher. That’s when I let the preacher come to the aid of the artist:
If the Lord is indeed our shepherd, then everything goes topsey-turvey. Losing becomes finding and crying becomes laughing. The last become first and the weak become strong. Instead of life being done in by death in the end as we always supposed, death is done in finally by life in the end. If the Lord is our great host at the great feast, then the sky is the limit.
But you need both poet and preacher to get this ecstatic scene from Godric:
“Be fools for Christ,” said the Apostle Paul, and thus I was thy bearded Saxon fool and clown for sure. Nothing I ever knew before and nothing I have ever come to know from then till now can match the holy mirth and madness of that time. Many’s the sin I’ve clipped to since. Many’s the dark and savage night of doubt. Many’s the prayer I haven’t prayed, the friend I’ve hurt, the kindness left undone. But this I know. The Godric that waded out of Jordan soaked and dripping wet that day was not the Godric that went wading in.
We’re not all bearded Saxons and not all of us will make it to the Holy Land, but every one of us who clings to Christ through thick and thin will feel those words in their bones.
The theme of holy foolishness really comes into sharp focus when we start to take the unblushing promises of Scripture seriously. Perhaps one of Buechner’s most famous quotes comes from his reflections on the word grace: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” A knee jerk response to this counsel might be, “Have you seen the inflation rates? Get real, buddy!” But then we’d have to contend with the words of our Lord, words that eloquently spell out the fact that chronic anxiety is a mark of those who are out of touch with reality (Matthew 6:25-33). True realists don’t overlook the grim aspects of life under the sun, but they’re also not fooled into thinking that darkness is the whole show.
It’s impossible for me to shake a Looney Tunes-style image of a red pointy-tailed devil and a plump little haloed angel whispering into each of my ears. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” The devil repeats the tagline from Ridley Scott’s Alien: “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.” I’ve got to admit: lil’ devil’s admonition often seems more plausible. It’s not just that terrible things happen. It’s that the world feels cold and indifferent, as clinical as a surgeon describing a terminal diagnosis. Or it feels actively cruel and hostile, like a cat playing with its prey and then abandoning the uneaten carcass. Forget Alien, how about these abject morsels from Buechner’s favorite play:
- “As flies are to th’ wanton boys are we to th’ gods; They kill us for their sport.” (Lear, 4.1.34.)
- “He hates him/That would upon the rack of this tough world/ Stretch him out longer.” (5.3.291-292.)
Top those, Lovecraft. Even the phrase “vale of tears” sounds remarkably trivial when it’s set alongside the dire circumstances that unfold in a given day. The goofy little devil whispers, “In cosmic terms, you’re less than infinitesimal. Nobody cares about your little sob stories. Maybe you’ll croak in your sleep, or maybe you’ll get devoured by a disease or a bear. In the end, it won’t matter. You’ll make your solitary exit and then it’s curtains, pal. In space no one can hear you scream.” The puny little angel just continues to intone, “Don’t be afraid.”
Frederick Buechner was no stranger to life’s calamities. His father committed suicide when he was just ten years old, forcing their family into all manner of turmoil. It’s possible that this searing event led to his abiding love of Shakespeare’s most unsparing of tragedies. A modest perusal of Buechner’s non-fiction writing reveals a stubborn preoccupation with King Lear. For those actively on the hunt for redemptive themes, this play confronts us with a stark challenge. Samuel Johnson famously chided Shakespeare for his cruel treatment of Cordelia and made it clear that the quality of the play wasn’t enough to lure him back for repeat visits. The horror of Lear is impenetrable. Any attempt to torture out some stray ray of hope is an act of imposition, not faithful interpretation. Why did Buechner find this agonizing work so compelling?
It’s an impossible question, of course, and I suspect that not even Buechner himself could give an adequate answer. Some things are simply too deep for articulation. I’m reasonably convinced, however, that the man would have zero interest in putting some kind of redemptive spin on a play that’s painstakingly constructed to exclude such a possibility. No, the only way to offer hope to Lear without dishonoring his grief is to be a fool. Stated bluntly, we have to recognize that life under the sun isn’t the whole story. If it is, then Lear is right to say of poor Cordelia, “Thou’lt come no more. Never, never, never, never, never.” (5.3.285-286. Those five heartrending never’s.) But if there is a heavenly perspective, listen to Godric—that bearded Saxon clown—once more: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” If you can’t take it from Godric, then take it from St. Paul: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
I don’t know, but I like to think that on the many occasions that Frederick Buechner faced King Lear’s disconsolate wails, he whispered, “Don’t be afraid.” No doubt, Lear would call him a fool and he’d be right. But once again, our Lord has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. As we look on a terrified, lonely, and wounded world, let’s join Buechner in saying, “Don’t be afraid.”
1. Paging John Donne.