The Mainliner Who Made Me More Evangelical

How Frederick Buechner changed the course of Russell Moore's life.
The Mainliner Who Made Me More Evangelical
Image: Jeremy Cowart

Years ago, I found myself sitting at the dinner table of one of my literary heroes, Wendell Berry, on his farm in Henry County, Kentucky.

At the end of the evening, Berry made it clear it was time for me to go by saying something along the lines of, “Well, it’s been good to have you.” I couldn’t leave, though, without telling the agrarian novelist and poet how much his writing had meant to me—while attempting to sound like a Christian academic rather than a giddy fanboy. His response was less a thank-you than a benediction.

“Isn’t it something, how we get what we need at just the right time?” he said. “The right book comes along at just the right time. The right friend comes along at just the right time. The right conversation comes along at just the right time. It’s grace.”

His words left me bursting with gratitude, but not only—or even primarily—for Berry. As I left his farm, I couldn’t help thinking of two authors who came along right when I needed them: C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner.

Lewis won’t come as a surprise to most of my fellow conservative evangelicals (even though we occasionally disagree with some of his theological positions). Many of us have the same story—of walking through the old man’s wardrobe into mere Christianity and an intellectually defensible Christian theism. But Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is a little harder for some in my tribe to get. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like one of us. He came to embrace his Christian calling not at a Billy Graham crusade, but in the Sunday services of New York modernist George Buttrick. Buechner studied for ministry at Union Theological Seminary, haunt of such theological supervillains as, shiver, Paul Tillich.

So why would I—a conservative evangelical of the Reformed stripe, a Southern Baptist of all things—keep coming back to the writings of this mainline Protestant from Vermont? One reason is that Buechner probably kept me from becoming a liberal Protestant.

As a teenager, I grappled with a call to ministry, but I was reluctant to enter the Bible-Belt ministry of the time, suspicious as it was of the intellect and imagination. For a few months, I wondered if the problem was evangelicalism itself, so I visited a couple of mainline Methodist and Presbyterian churches, which gave off the vibe of mortician more than shepherd.

Then, meandering through a local library’s used book sale, I found Buechner. The book was his collection of essays, A Room Called Remember. This was someone who didn’t seek to manipulate my emotions or enlist me in a cause. He just told the truth as he saw it. And he clearly loved Jesus. So I voraciously consumed everything he ever wrote—and in the 30 or so years since, I’ve read much of it over and over again. J. Gresham Machen and Carl F. H. Henry taught me that I needn’t put my mind in a blind trust in order to follow Jesus. Buechner taught me the same about my imagination.

I’m not alone. Scores of evangelicals have traveled the same way with Buechner. With his decreased output in recent years (due to advanced age—Buechner is 91), most of us were resigned to re-reading older material. Most of us probably didn’t expect to see his name on the spine of a new book.

But now Buechner is back.

Listening to One’s Life

Zondervan has just released two new volumes of Buechner’s writings. The first, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life, contains mostly unpublished lectures from the late 1980s and early 1990s (the same time frame, come to think of it, when I first found Buechner in the discard bin). The second, A Crazy, Holy Grace, is a collection of essays on (as the subtitle has it) “the healing power of pain and memory.” (Most of these have been published elsewhere.) These books are not necessarily Buechner’s best, but they don’t have to be. We’ve had his best. It’s enough that he’s back.

In The Remarkable Ordinary, we find distilled the overriding theme of Buechner’s writings, whether novels or essays or autobiographies: A person should listen to his or her life, giving attention to what God is saying in the little subplots of a lifespan.

I started, in the sentence above, to type the words narrative or story. But then I stopped, remembering how Buechner once upbraided a hapless ministers’ conference organizer who asked him to speak on the theme of “story.” Buechner fumed that this was a “fad.” At first, I thought this was akin to Henry David Thoreau chiding someone for using the cliché of “marching to the beat of a different drummer.” After all, who talks about story more than Buechner?

For Buechner, though, “story” had come to mean “the minister gets up and tries to convey his message by usually telling a perfectly wretched story.” He recalls going to hear a famously “narrative” preacher and sitting through “this awful thing where he took the story of the prodigal son and recast it as a Western.” As Buechner observes, if Jesus had wanted this beautifully perfect story to be contrived, overworked, and thoughtless, he could have given us this allegedly superior version in the first place.

Buechner has something different in mind: How can one connect the story of God to the overall human story, and then to the story of one’s own life? “I think that’s the most fascinating story anybody can tell, especially anybody who happens to be religiously inclined,” he notes. “How did you get to be the way you are when there are a million reasons for not being that way at all? How did you happen?”

This might sound suspiciously like we’ve entered Eat, Pray, Love territory. Hardly. Buechner’s appeal to story is an apologetic—one as clear and compelling as Lewis’s treatment of the universal moral sense in Mere Christianity. “Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots,” he says in a much earlier book. “After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.” Personally, I’ve noticed that even the most hardened non-theists still tend to live as though their lives have a plotline—or at least they hope there is a plotline. For most of the last century, Buechner has challenged skeptics to ask why this is the case—while inviting believers to find a quiet holiness in this developing plot.

As an American evangelical, I’m used to looking for dramatic plot twists. Saul of Tarsus is blinded on the road to Damascus. Charles Colson finds Jesus when he’s facing time in prison. A Wiccan priestess leaves the coven and becomes a missionary to East Africa (where she shares the gospel with witch doctors!). I love those stories, and the Bible says we should. But those are relatively easy to see.

In The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner suggests that having a Christian vision of reality means paying attention to the seemingly humdrum, even boring, plotlines of grace in our lives. One’s life is not “just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere.” Looking back on his own life, Buechner sees “that very often things that seemed at the time to have had very little significance were key points in the plot of my life.” In these essays, Buechner doesn’t want to shake us up with a new insight. He simply wants us to stop and pay attention to what we already know.

Now, again, Buechner’s “listening to your life” isn’t some sort of therapeutic prosperity gospel. God forbid. In the background of Buechner we hear not the giddiness of the television evangelist but the weeping of the exilic prophet. Behind both of these books—indeed, behind everything Buechner has ever written—is a suicide. Buechner’s father—ravaged by depression—killed himself in the family’s garage when Buechner and his brother were small children. The suicide left the family reeling—and A Crazy, Holy Grace shows us that Buechner is reeling still.

With unflinching honesty, both books take us through what Buechner calls the “shadow side” of his childhood. He describes his own attempts at understanding that childhood with a therapist. He writes of his stoic brother’s death with gallows humor (his wife is “not losing a husband but gaining half a closet”). He mentions his daughter’s harrowing battle with anorexia nervosa. Listen to the moments of longing and agony, he counsels us. Remember what it means to be forgiven, and to forgive. Remember “those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ alive within them.”

Listening to one’s life, then, isn’t a matter of psychoanalytic introspection or hyper-mystical spirituality. It certainly doesn’t mean figuring out what God is doing in all the mysteries of one’s existence. Instead, it means looking out from one’s self—and seeing a providence that should prompt those of us in Christ to trust the plot’s unfolding, to give thanks for the other characters in our story.

From Tears to Joy

Admittedly, Buechner’s theology sometimes drives me to sighs of exasperation. I wince when he writes that Jesus has “no hands of flesh” except our hands, and I want to exclaim, “Jesus’ hands are perfectly adequate—forever incarnate and nail-pierced.” I shake my head wondering why he keeps statues of the Buddha and the Hindu elephant-headed deity Ganesh on his library shelves. Often, he writes that “nothing is lost” in a way that sounds much more universalist than the warnings of judgment so often present in Jesus’ teaching. Buechner’s articulation of free will makes me wonder how God could be authoring a plot for the universe (or for me) without a stouter sense of sovereignty.

But then I remember that Buechner is not the only writer who, by God’s grace, has changed my life, despite big doctrinal differences. Buechner needs Machen and Henry to guide him through the authority of the Word of God and the creedal propositions of the faith (just as they, perhaps, could benefit from Buechner teaching them how to communicate those propositions with poetry). Buechner does not always say what I want him to say, but I never wonder if he’s telling me anything less than what he believes to be the truth. In an era of kinetic marketing and spin—as much within the church as anywhere else—that alone is remarkable.

And the main thing Buechner has taught me and re-taught me in these two books is to be a steward of tears. I found my eyes welling up several times over these pages, especially in Buechner’s stories of grappling with guilt, fear, and grief. “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention,” Buechner writes in Beyond Words, reprinted here in A Crazy, Holy Grace. “They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

But ultimately, Buechner wants us to see through our tears to the joy lying beyond. Again, as the writer of plots, he knows that joy is best glimpsed against a backdrop of conflict. He teaches us to feel what it is to suffer with Christ, but then to be held by him—to know he is there to hold us. “Joy is knowing that this is true from your stomach,” he concludes, referencing Deuteronomy 33:26–27. “Knowing that even though we see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen—wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness—joy is knowing, even for a moment, that underneath everything are the everlasting arms.” A few minutes after reading this, I caught myself humming the tune to the old gospel song, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Once again, Buechner drove me further into my evangelical identity, not away from it.

If you’re new to Buechner, pick up these books and let them lead you backward into his writings—to a complicated con artist named Bebb, to a conflicted monk named Godric, to a lost-and-found boy named Buechner. If you already love Buechner, pick up the conversation again, and maybe hand a book to a friend who is crying through a deep suffering or, even more important, to a friend who has stopped crying altogether.

While you’re at it, consider tossing a copy into your local library’s donation bin. Who knows? Maybe there’s a 15-year-old evangelical out there grappling with whether Christianity can speak to his innermost hopes and fears, to her intellect and imagination. Maybe, like me, this evangelical will find not just the musings of an old man but a long-distance friend for life. Maybe these books will come along at just the right time.

Russell Moore is president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (B&H).

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