Frederick Buechner: Religious Novelist

NOTE: I was not much of a fan of Frederick Buechner, a writer who died last week at 96. I tried his quartet of novels about a semi-charlatan-but-maybe-a-saint preacher in Florida, but Buechner lost me with his character’s name, Leo Bebb, which is bar none the most uneuphonious & off-putting monicker in my experience of what is said to be serious fiction.

But on the other hand, his work did hit me a glancing blow once, glancing but perhaps mortal.

It happened when a woman friend named Patricia, assigned to do a reading, pulled a slim book from her purse and opened it somewhere in the middle. The book is called Peculiar Treasures, and in it Buechner collected short sketches of various biblical characters. Here is what Patricia read, complete:

Isaiah

There were banks of candles in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him . . there was the Mystery Itself . . . and the whole vast reeking place started to shake beneath his feet . . .and he cried out, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I’m a goner and sunk.”

Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said, “There, it will be all right now,” and the Mystery Itself said, “Who will it be?” and with charred lips he said “Me,” and Mystery said, “GO.”

Mystery said, “Go give the deaf hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.”

Isaiah said, “Do it till when?”

Mystery said, “Till Hell freezes over.”

Mystery said, “Do it till the cows come home.”

And that is what a prophet does for a living, so starting from the year that King Uzziah died when he saw and heard all these things, Isaiah went and did it.

— Frederic Buechner, “Peculiar Treasures, A Biblical Who’s Who.”

NOTE: I’ve forgotten when and where the reading took place, and lost touch with Patricia. But I hunted down & bought the book, and hung on to it for years. Just one sketch like that can put a reader in permanent debt to a writer, even if the guy published 38 other books (as Buechner did) which were over my head or didn’t speak to my condition.

As a writer, I should be so lucky.

New York Times

Frederick Buechner, Novelist With a Religious Slant, Dies at 96

He drew on his theological credentials in essays and memoirs, and his fiction, full of colorful characters, was admired for its elegance, wit and depth.

Frederick Buechner, who wrote 39 books, exploring the human condition from inspirational and sometimes humorous perspectives.
Credit…Alan Fortney, via Buechner family

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who never held a church pastorate but found his calling writing a prodigious quantity of novels, memoirs and essays that explored the human condition from inspirational and often humorous religious perspectives, died on Monday at his home in Rupert, Vt. He was 96.

His son-in-law and literary executor, David Altshuler, confirmed the death.

Drawing on literary and theological credentials over six decades, Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) published 39 books, many of them well-received fictional excursions into the adventures of charlatans, lovers, historical or biblical characters and ordinary people who take on self-imposed superhuman challenges and stoop to only-too-human skulduggery, all in the name of God.

His 10th novel, “Godric” (1980), the first-person tale of a 12th-century English holy man who purifies his soul of the mortal sin of pride, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1981. His “Lion Country” (1971), a novel about a pedophilic former jailbird who ministers to the faithful as a fake pastor in a phony church, was a National Book Award finalist in 1972.

While he was best known for his novels, some translated into 27 languages, Mr. Buechner also wrote poetry, literary reviews, essays on secular subjects and “meditations” on religious matters. He lectured widely at colleges and universities and delivered sermons in the United States and Europe. His four autobiographies professed to find divine grace everywhere in the human experience.

3 thoughts on “Frederick Buechner: Religious Novelist”

  1. Thank you Chuck for introducing me to this fascinating writer.
    Now I will return the favor: I just finished reading All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg. I had never heard of her until I came upon a review of the book by someone who said it had changed her life. I’m a sucker for life-changing experiences.
    NG was an Italian Jew, the book takes place before, during and right after WW2 in Italy. It may not appeal to everyone but it spoke to me.

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