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Frederick Buechner has met Christians who remind him of American tourists in Europe: Not knowing the language of their listeners, they speak the language of Zion loudly and forcefully, hoping the natives will somehow comprehend. They seem cocky with faith, voluble with their theology, and content with a God who resembles a cosmic Good Buddy. Their certitude both fascinates and alarms him. "I was astonished to hear students at one Christian college shift casually from small talk about the weather and movies to a discussion of what God was doing in their lives. If anybody said anything like that in my part of the world, the ceiling would fall in, the house would catch fire, and people's eyes would roll up in their heads."
Buechner himself has gained a reputation as a writer who speaks of his faith in more muted tones. Apart from a few childhood encounters, he hardly gave church a thought until he wandered into one in Manhattan as a young novelist whose star had flared brightly but briefly on the New York literary scene.
For him, faith was a pilgrimage undertaken voluntarily as an adult, a journey fraught with risk. Buechner's chronicles of that journey have, almost uniquely among modern writings, managed to attract readers from two polarized worlds, the Eastern elite and conservative evangelicals. His work divides evenly between fiction (14 books) and nonfiction (13 books), and Buechner notes that the two genres roughly fit his contrasting audiences: the fiction speaks to the "cultured despisers" of religion while his nonfiction, more overt, finds its primary audience among those already committed to the faith.
This straddling feat has cost him and is, in fact, the central ambiguity of his career. "I am too religious for the secular reader and too secular for the religious reader," Buechner often laments. Secular reviewers, noting him to be an ordained Presbyterian minister, sometimes prejudge his work. (Buechner has admitted that seeking ordination was probably the stupidest ...