Frederick Buechner

By: Brian Robertson

Frederick Buechner Secrets in the darkEverybody who stops by here knows it’s no secret that I have a great admiration for Frederick Buechner. I was browsing today and found several quotes that brought me up short, that sent me in that strange direction where you find yourself peering through the words into something so much more than day to day life that you are speechless, stunned.

Wanted to share a few with you.

“It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle.”

“If it seems a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.”

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

“In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”

“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”

Something terrible happens, and you might say, “God help us!”, or “Jesus Christ!” — the poor, crippled prayers that are hidden in the minor blasphemies of people for whom in every sense God is dead, except that they still have to speak to him, if only through clenched teeth.

“Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage.”


Part of an interview with Frederick Buechner done by The Door. Hope this intrigues you enough to have you look into his work, via Google. Thanks so much to Wiliam for pointing him out. Check the end for a special link.

DOOR: Is the Bible truth?

frederick buechnerBUECHNER: There is a wonderful piece by Karl Barth in a book called The Word of God, The Word of Man. He says that reading the Bible is like looking down from a building onto the street and seeing everyone looking up, pointing at something. Because of the way the window is situated, you can’t see what they’re seeing but you realize they are seeing something of extraordinary importance. That is what it is like to read the Bible. It’s full of people, all pointing up at some extraordinary event. All those different fingers are pointing at truth; all those different voices are babbling about truth in all the Bible’s different forms.

DOOR: But what is the truth the fingers are pointing at?

BUECHNER: Well, the truth has to do basically with the presence of God in history, the presence of God in the tangled history of Israel, of all places, and the tangled histories of us all. The truth is very hard to verbalize without making it sound like a platitude framed on a minister’s wall. It is a living truth in the sense that it is better experienced than explained. Not even the Bible can contain it finally, but only point to it.

DOOR: You mentioned in your book Wishful Thinking that reading the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual. As evangelicals, our problem seems to be the opposite- an extreme literalism that reads the Bible as a whaling manual rather than literature.

Buechner BookBUECHNER: You can’t listen to some of the more blood-curdling psalms without feeling they’ve got something basically wrong. The one I always think of is Psalm 137:9, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Something has gone wrong. That must be an imperfect expression of the majesty of God. But I would want to be very careful with the one who does take the Bible literally. We had a baby-sitter once who was very fundamentalistic. She became a Jehovah’s Witness later on. She would say to me, “Mr. Buechner, I will not allow my children to take the Salk vaccine because the Bible says you are not to eat blood, and everyone knows there is blood in the Salk vaccine. What do you think?” Part of me wanted to say that such a response was a travesty, and suggest that, of course, her children should have the Salk vaccine. But I always drew back from saying that, because I was afraid that if I destroyed that way of reading the Bible, I might destroy all sorts of other things. But I have always had the feeling that to take things literally may be closer to the truth than some of the more sophisticated ways of looking at the Bible. If you want to talk of being literally washed in the blood of the lamb, there is something in me that recoils from that. Yet, in another sense, I’d rather have that kind of language used as an expression of experience of Christ than whatever it might be watered down to.

DOOR: What does the Bible tell you about Jesus Christ?

BUECHNER: He’s central. I mean, he’s there even when he’s not being talked about. I never felt that so much as I did while reading the book of Job, the other day- Christ in Job, the innocent sufferer. Christ is an enormously moving figure. I never cease to be moved to the roots of my being. (I’m even moved now thinking about him.) It is only his friends who make him boring. You’d think he’d grow stale after a while. Certainly, the Bible can grow stale, but I’ve never found him to grow stale. I’ve never been bored by him.

DOOR: Is the Bible primarily a book of rules, principles, and norms set down for us to follow?

I don’t feel that. At least that’s not what I hear. To me, the most precious words of his are, “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden.” I can hardly speak those words without getting a lump in my throat. It is as though the Jesus that comes through to me is less a lawgiver, for all his giving of laws, than a speaker of a stern and loving word. What I hear is his great openness. What I experience is the opening up of a whole new range of possibilities. Jesus has the invitation. He’s the inviter, the opener of doors. Falling back on biblical images, he opens the door, and a light floods through that you never dreamed possible.

DOOR: Your book Telling the Truth is subtitled The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Of course, the most intriguing part of that is your concept of the gospel as fairy tale. What do you mean?

BUECHNER: I mean the idea of preaching the gospel in all its preposterousness and not trying to water it down. The gospel does have many of the earmarks of a fairy tale. In fairy tales you have the poor boy who becomes rich, the leaden cabinet which turns out to have the treasure in it, the ugly duckling who turns out to be a swan, the frog who becomes a prince. Then we come to the gospel, where it’s the Pharisees, the good ones, who turn out to be the villians. It’s the whores and tax collectors who turn out to be the good ones. Just as in fairy tales, there is the impossible happy ending when Cinderella does marry the prince, and the ugly duckling is transformed into a swan, so Jesus is not, in the end, defeated. He rises again. In all these ways there is a kind of fairy tale quality to the gospel, with the extraordinary difference, of course, that this is the fairy tale that claims to be true. The difference is that this time it’s not just a story being told- it’s an event. It did happen! Here’s a fairy tale come true.

DOOR: It seems that many of us have tried to squeeze the fairy-tale quality out of the gospel. We have taken the peace that passes understanding and made it the peace everyone can understand.

BUECHNER: One of the greatest temptations, of course, in trying to sell something is to put it in terms that people will find palatable and swallowable. To reduce it to something that others will find in their powers to believe. But maybe the best apologetics is to present the truth as it really is. Why not present the gospel in all its madness? Why not say things like, “Yes, you will be given your life back again. Yes, it doesn’t end with death. Yes, the kingdom will come. Yes, Christ will come down from heaven.” Maybe people are hungry for these wild and mad things which some preachers attempt to pull down to earth.

DOOR: How do we keep our eyes open to the fairy-tale quality of the gospel?

BUECHNER: There has always been a certain mystery to me about Jesus’ saying that we must become like children. I think that is the answer to your question. A lot of what I’m trying to do as a preacher and writer is to reawaken the child in people. The child is the one who trusts. The child will at least go and look for the magic place. The child is the one who is not ashamed of not knowing the answers, because he’s not expected to know the answers. Maybe this is part of calling the gospel a fairy tale. Who believes more in fairy tales than a child? Therefore, maybe we need to speak to the child in people, who can indeed believe.

DOOR: You are invited to speak to ministers a great deal. What do you tell them?

BUECHNER: I tell them that a minister has only two stories to tell. One is the story of Jesus. The other is his own story. Most ministers don’t dare tell their own stories- the ups and downs, the darks and lights. In a sense, the two stories are the same story. The parallels are not exact… Jesus is tempted and resists; we are tempted and don’t resist. Of course, all ministers draw some stories from their lives- what somebody said or something that happened, but I mean more than that. If you want to talk about grace, if you want to talk about revelation, talk about your life with some depth (which doesn’t mean lurid revelations as much as simply looking at your own deep experiences and describing them as they are.) Many ministers agree that this is the way they should bear witness to their faith, but instead of drawing on their lives for truth, they draw on it only for anecdote.

If you have time, please take a look at the first 18 minutes of a documentary on Buechner, but you may want to slide the movie past all the intro and get to the interview itself.




[Thanks for this offering. It contributes to making this site an essential stop over point on the daily journey. I particularly warmed to the notion of saints as “handkerchiefs” dropped by a “flirtatious God”. I once heard that “we are all called to be saints”. But have learned that one of our human wealnesses is the ease with which we are distracted from the inner guidance that is always available. So we remain handkerchiefs in preparation!]


[Regarding Bruchner’s comment, “It is as impossible for man to

prove the existence of God”…..

Although it will be impossible to “prove” the existence of God

except through faith,

It is possible to prove the existence of Love.

God is Love.

If you believe in Love, you believe in God.]


[“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”

I am always trying to be concious of my actions and my thoughts, espcially when dealing with non-believers. The most amazing moments are when the touch you send out comes back to you, like the pebble you throw into the pond, the waves never stop. Then you see the fulcrum of your actions resonating in other’s lives. It’s so funny when you witness this, and other’s aren’t even aware that anything has happened.]


[Wonderful! It seems to me that so much wisdom about the Bible comes from men and women who aren’t just pastors/preachers/priests, but who also are involved in the arts. I think you can detect how his work as a writer (of both fiction and nonfiction) has given Buechner a much wider and wiser approach to understanding Scripture.
My favorite Christian thinkers fit this mold: Lewis, Williams, Merton, L’Engle, St. John of the Cross and others, all of whom aren’t just theologians, but artists as well. All too often an education limited to theology can put blinders on us, while experience in the arts expands our vision.]