• Leigh Gerstenberger

Who Was Frederick Buechner?

Updated: Sep 20



I had only known about Frederick Buechner for a couple of years when I learned that he passed away recently. Then I came across the following opinion piece in The Washington Post by Michael Gerson where he shares the impact that Buechner made on his life which gave me considerable insight into what made Buechner so special to so many. I’ve reprinted Gerson’s tribute in the hope that it gives you some insight into one of the great

thinkers of our time.


Frederick Buechner Was a Writer Tuned into the Frequency of Grace

by Michael Gerson

The Washington Post

August 22, 2022


When the late Frederick Buechner — novelist, preacher, Christian apologist — was asked to summarize the single essential insight of his prolific writing and speaking career, he would respond, “Listen to your life.”


“If indeed there is a God,” he explained, “which most of the time I believe there is, and if indeed he is concerned with the world, which the Christian faith is saying … one of the ways he speaks to us, and maybe one of the most powerful ways, is through what

happens to us.”


Life’s temptation, of course, is to move from place to place on cruise control, which means, for me, focusing on failures in the past or worries about the future. So how, some questioners would persist with Buechner, do we start getting into the habit of fully inhabiting our experience? “Pay attention to moments,” he said, when “unexpected tears come to your eyes and what may trigger them.” He was talking about those sudden upwellings of emotion we get from the sublimity of nature or art, when we see a whale breaching, or are emotionally ambushed by a line in a film or poem. We are led toward truth and beauty by a lump in the throat.


I felt that kind of lump when I heard of Buechner’s recent passing It was not primarily the evidence of grief. How could anyone die better than at 96, in his own bed, after a life filled with significance and heaped with honors? My unbidden tears were triggered by gratitude to the mentor I had never met. More than anyone else in recent literary history, he showed how a modern person, schooled in skepticism, pursued by appropriate doubts, could find the frequency of grace, as if he were tuning an old radio.


We were encouraged to listen to our lives because Buechner allowed us to listen in on his. His model of ministry was heroic vulnerability. All that took was for him to rip his own heart out and put it on display. This would be hard for anyone, but especially for someone with a reticence that was not just a protective bark, butfound, ring by ring, all the way to his core. In his brilliant and moving memoirs, Buechner tells us about the 10-year-old boy, playing indoors with his brother, while his business-failure of a father kills himself with carbon monoxide in the garage. The sensitive child had perceived that “something had gone terribly wrong with his laughter.” On the final page of the family copy of “Gone with the Wind,” his father had written a suicide note: “I adore and love you and am no good.”


Buechner tells of being a writer whose first novel is given rave reviews. “I had written a book,” he wrote, “that was compared with Henry James and Marcel Proust and, headier still, was labeled decadent.” After moving to New York with great expectations, he finds he can hardly write a word. Though from a secular background, he finds himself almost inexplicably drawn to the Presbyterian ministry. “In the midst of our freedom,” he wrote, “we hear whispers from beyond time” and “sense something hiddenly at work in all our working.” Someone asked him whether he had ever considered putting his talents to work for God, which he had not. And then his whispers organized themselves into a faith.

“Something in me recoils from using such language,” he said, “but here in the end I am left with no other way of saying it than that what I finally found was Christ. Or was found. It hardly seems to matter which.”


Rather than arriving at faith along the sawdust trail of American evangelicalism, Buechner came via Princeton University and, eventually, Union Theological Seminary. And when he

encountered evangelicals for the first time, the cultural contrast was obvious. He accepted modern levels of doubt about the historicity of scripture and understood the reasons for skepticism about organized religion. But over the decades, Buechner came to find his enduring popularity in evangelical circles. He taught at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1985, and his public papers now reside there.


Buechner’s warm welcome among evangelicals, points to a revealing fact. Their literary heroes tend to be decidedly non-evangelical. Neither C.S. Lewis (a traditional Anglican) nor G.K. Chesterton (after his conversion, a tireless Catholic apologist) nor J.R.R. Tolkien (a devout Catholic from boyhood) would be comfortable within the theological and aesthetic confines of conservative Protestantism. Which means those confines are too narrow. Evangelicals prove through appropriation that they are missing out on the power of myth, on the sacramental nature of reality, on what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness

of the mercy of God.”


Buechner fit this company. He understood that faith and doubt are not opposites but integral parts of the human journey. He knew that openness is ultimately a more important virtue than certainty. He presented, especially in his powerful novels, the mixture of sacred and profane at the heart of humanity, even at the heart of holiness.


Now he rests, if there is any justice in the world, in the grace that pursued him for so long.


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