A Faith to Life and Die With

Shirley’s Old Book Shop in Springfield, Missouri, was, in 1980, a perfect sort of place for book lovers. Complete with musty smells, dusty shelves, and a witty proprietor, the shop promised that this time, maybe, you could find the book to change your life. And I was in the market for that.

Dressed in a black pullover that roughly matched her smudgy wig, Shirley presided over her shop with a certain regal sense of what was good for us, her customers. She had an eye for the out-of-the-way book that just might work for one of the out-of-the-way folks who dropped in every few days. Shirley introduced me to Frederick Buechner.

Still carrying its orange and yellow dust jacket, the book stood out gaudily on the shelf. The Book of Bebb—an omnibus of four novels—though hefty, felt right in the hand. And at $4.60, how could I lose? It was a cheap enough price for a week or so of escape into somebody else’s story.

I’d never heard of this Buechner. Was it "Bukener," or "Buckner," or "Beekner"? I’d never heard of Bebb either, for that matter, but I took him home for a trial run. I’d probably have been more careful had I known where Leo Bebb would take me.

LEO BEBB, WEARING a porkpie hat and a raincoat that is a size too small, is the "shady minister" at the center of the four novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). I had long been wary of over-identification with characters in books, but Buechner’s Bebb and Bebb’s erstwhile sidekick Antonio Parr invited me into a world where the questions were some of my own.

The Leo Bebb of Lion Country is a con man extraordinaire: He runs a degree-granting, mail-order Bible college from the garage of his house in Armadillo, Florida. He ordains anyone who writes him—anyone male and over the age of 18, that is. His advertisement in a New York newspaper reads: "Put yourself on God’s payroll—go to work for Jesus NOW."

Thus enters Antonio Parr, "hungry for fortissimo," homesick, lost, and restless. Antonio writes to Bebb’s "Church of Holy Love, Inc." to get his ordination papers. The story is straightforward enough: Antonio, aspiring to investigative journalism, is going to shine light into the vermin-infested corner that is Leo Bebb, cousin to all the clerical charlatans who have filled our newspaper exposés in recent years.

But Antonio carries more than the ordinary baggage as he boards a train for Armadillo to get the goods on Bebb. Antonio bears the image of his twin sister, Miriam, who is dying of bone cancer in a New York hospital. In a grotesque body cast shaped like the letter "A," Miriam is suffering out the remaining days of her uncompleted life.

Antonio lives out his days in a dream, only vaguely aware of what’s happening around him. He knows, as he says, what he’s looked at but not what he’s seen. Uncertain of ever making the most of his life, Antonio just tries to make the best of it. He has investigated all sorts of professions—writing, teaching, sculpting—and all sorts of relationships.

Buechner manages to engage his readers in his tired narrator’s mission—the noble task of debunking the hypocritical Bebb. Buechner never minces words about Bebb’s transgressions. He shares Antonio’s rage when the journalist-to-be learns that Bebb has done prison time for exposing himself to a group of children. Bebb is the raincoat-wearing flimflam artist, the abuser of all things holy, the worst it gets in villains. We are ready for him to "get his."

Determined to expose the exposer, Antonio meets Lucille, Bebb’s alcoholic wife, who, like the television set she watches all day, seems slightly out of contrast; Brownie, Bebb’s disciple and right-hand man, whom Bebb has maybe raised from the dead in Knoxville, Tennessee; and Sharon, Bebb’s adopted daughter, with that "caught red-handed smile." Out to embarrass the head of the slapstick family, Antonio finds himself weirdly attracted instead. And what’s even more unsettling, Bebb begins to wrench Antonio’s preconceptions inside out.

Though everything from his fluttering eyelid to his too-tight clothes suggests fraud, Bebb is life with a capital L. He talks about God and to God incessantly. He knows his scripture; he epitomizes the notion that "God moves in mysterious ways." Buechner leaves little doubt that, though Bebb is a charlatan, he is a priest. Through Bebb, the homesick Antonio begins to move toward something that almost looks like hope.

FINISHED WITH Bebb, I’d only begun the Frederick Buechner story. Who would write stories so strikingly, juggling theological themes like grace and salvation and faith? Could the author of these crazy stories filled with hastiness and suffering, exhibitionism and promiscuity really be a Presbyterian minister living on a farm in Vermont?

I learned that Buechner’s writing career began long before Bebb, with a dramatic flourish of a novel, A Long Day’s Dying, in 1950. Only 24 and fresh out of Princeton, Buechner had written this Salinger-like novel and been shocked by a huge success. His picture was in Newsweek, he was compared to Henry James, and strangers wrote him letters. This novel, though written by a young man whose position on religion could only be labeled vague, displayed a God-hauntedness that is characteristic of much of the fiction of the modern era.

A second novel, The Season’s Difference (1952), though less successful in best-seller terms, is even more caught up in the search for meaning. Peter Cowley, a young teacher, has a vision; he thinks he’s seen angels in a dogwood tree. His attempts to explain this possibility to his students and their sophisticated parents provide much of the drama of the book.

In 1953, more or less on a dare, Buechner wrote his one short story, "The Tiger." He seems embarrassed now by this story and the two early novels, but, taken together, these stories offer a strong glimpse of Buechner’s circuitous route toward God. "The Tiger," following the New Yorker formula and later anthologized in a "Best of the Year" volume, features a young narrator who longs for the real in an atmosphere of pretense. It is no surprise that the man who could write such a story would end up visiting a famous New York City church on a lonely Sunday not so many months after his successful story appeared.

The preacher was George Buttrick, and Buechner has described the event in several books. Although hesitant to call it a conversion, something happened that sparked Buechner’s theological curiosity. So off he went to Union Theological Seminary and classes with Tillich, Muilenburg, and Niebuhr. Beginning in earnest to think about the call of faith, Buechner worked in a Harlem employment clinic, took journeys through the scriptures with his powerful tutors, and began to consider what turning his writing gift toward Christ would look like.

In 1958, Buechner accepted ordination into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. He wonders still if the decision was a wise one for his writing career. After all, what sort of books do we expect from ministers? But he believes that faith gave him the focus he needed, gave him the reason for his writing that has led to an almost 50-year career and nearly 30 books.

SINCE HIS MID-1950s collision with God, Buechner has offered us books that search lucidly into the central questions of our lives. In fiction, autobiography, essay, and sermon, he has performed with remarkable humility, deft humor, and consistent honesty.

His 1958 novel, The Return of Ansel Gibbs, piled in everything bubbling in the young author-seminarian. The God-business is there as are Muilenburg and the Harlem work. And, for the first time, he writes of his father’s suicide. The father’s death on a November Saturday in 1936 when the son was but 10 years old stands as a marker post in the writer’s life and becomes an event he’s still trying to solve his way into. Gibbs was the last of his books his mother would read. Retreating from memories, she found the abyss too threatening. Buechner, however, had begun to embrace memory, even the pain of his own story, as a way toward meaning, maybe even toward providence.

Now officially working for the church as a school minister, "trying to put flesh on the theological bones" for troubled students in the tumultuous 1960s, Buechner turned to the novel again with The Final Beast in 1965. One reviewer summarizes the reaction: "Mr. Buechner has put his foot in it. He is a Christian....He writes, this formidably austere and dedicated and most delightfully amusing man, from an unfashionable centre." Here Buechner began to see himself as caught between two worlds, "too religious for the irreligious and too secular for the religious." The God-haunted minister of The Final Beast is reminiscent of Graham Greene’s whiskey priest, and Buechner will later say that his entire career has been an attempt "to rewrite Greene’s The Power and the Glory in a way of my own." Buechner’s minister is bumbling toward grace in a chaos of suffering and doubt. Light is there but so is dark.

The ’60s and ’70s feature a move to full-time writing. More novels, beginning with The Entrance to Porlock in 1970 and running through the Bebb novels, span the decade, as well as sermon collections, speeches gathered into collections, biblical paraphrases, and re-encounters with scripture and theology.

But the big book was yet to come, and it opens with the unforgettable line, "Five friends I had and two of them snakes." Godric, the 1980 novel that imagines the life of an 11th-century pirate who was to become a monk and a saint, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is a good place to start on Buechner’s fiction. The irascible saint concludes, "Nothing human’s not a broth of false and true," summarizing Buechner’s essential theme. Readers find again that remarkable honesty about human frailty and that glimmering hope for grace. "All’s lost. All’s found."

Over the last two decades, Buechner has added three volumes of autobiography, beginning with The Sacred Journey in 1982. It seems anomalous somehow that such a deeply private, humble man would offer up his life in print. But he offers it, he says, as a photograph album in which we might see a picture we recognize. He gives it as a challenge to readers to pay attention to the currents of their own lives.

Other versions of Godric have come along with Brendan (1987) and The Son of Laughter (1993). We’ve seen volumes of collected essays and speeches, and even a stirring memoir through the eyes of a child—The Wizard’s Tide (1990). And the questions have been the same throughout. Buechner’s most recent book, On the Road with the Archangel (1997), a re-imagining of the apocryphal Book of Tobit, once more features that question: "Is there a God who looks after the world?" The poignant message is that we probably believe in God "for all the wrong reasons." And we disbelieve "for all the wrong reasons too."

In Frederick Buechner’s stories and words, many of us have stumbled upon hints of a faith we can live and die with. And it is a fine time to say "thank you." As Samuel Johnson says of Oliver Goldsmith: "Everything he touches he adorns." ?

W. DALE BROWN is a professor of English at Calvin College, and the author, most recently, of Of Faith and Fiction (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).

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