Sunday, December 15, 2013

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner is a book I was excited to read but also fearful of reading for I had since tried to read his fiction and found it so complicated that I had to put it down in hopes that when I next pick it up my mind will be more mature and open to his writing style.  This is nonfiction though, and perhaps that is why I became accustomed to reading this book versus his fictional work that I hope to pick up again someday, because although his style was complex and beautiful and haunting, it was very clear and mind shattering.  It is funny how you feel certain emotions but can't seem to put them into words.  As a writer I feel like this isn't something I shouldn't be struggling with and yet I do.  Buechner is one of those special writers who not only writes these unexplainable emotions down on paper in colorful terms but also has an ability to connect with his readers and touch a part of them that is held close to their heart.  I believe that all books have the ability to touch our lives but there are some authors that have the insane ability to do this so well that you feel as if reading another author would be an insult to the one you are so fond of.  Indeed I was sad when I shut this book for the final time.  It was truly a remarkable read.
Telling the Truth is subtitled, The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.  The book is split into four sections - the introduction, the gospel as tragedy, the gospel as comedy, and the gospel as fairy tale.  I want to take a moment to address each section.  The introduction really drew me into the book but it was the three main parts that had me hooked.  One special trait that each section shared was that they all contained many references to Shakespeare's King Lear.  I can't claim to have read the play but I sure want to read it after reading this book.
The gospel as tragedy focuses on the apparent absence of God in the real world.   What does Buechner mean by absence?  He is referring to the idea that people have created that God cannot be real for if he were, bad things would not happen.  Of the many Biblical examples Buechner uses in this section, the one he comes back to the most is John chapter 11, the Death of Lazarus.  Buechner goes to great lengths to explain the psychology of the chapter, explaining that Jesus wept for Lazarus for many reasons.  Lazarus was his friend and he loved him and will miss him but he also weeps because he wasn't there to save Lazarus.  Despite all the miracles, despite being the son of God, he did not save this man and God had not saved him either.  So when he hangs on the cross and shouts, "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", he is asking, "where are you God?"  Even the cross speaks of the absence of God.  And yet this very scene points to the fact that God makes himself present in his absence, Buechner explains.  People try to explain God but Buechner says "they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life.  God is not an answer man can give, God says.  God himself does not give answers.  He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself." (Pg. 43)
The next section, the gospel as comedy, was just as remarkable as the previous section.  It paints a new picture of the gospel for the see it as comedy.  I believe it was this section that surprised me the most.  The whole idea of the gospel being comedy is something I never stopped to consider.  Buechner uses the Biblical example of Genesis when an angel comes to tell Abraham and Sarah that Sarah is pregnant at the age of 91.  In this chapter, Sarah laughs when the angel tells her the news and God asks her why she laughed and she then lies, saying she did not laugh.  But it is funny, isn't it?  I can imagine a comedy movie being made about the old lady who was pregnant at 91 years old.  It is so funny because it is so ridiculous and Sarah knew it, Abraham knew it, and so did God.  In fact, he instructed the couple to name their son Isaac which means he laughs.  Another
Biblical example Buechner uses in this section is Jesus' apt for speaking in riddles.  Jesus never gives a clear answer to things, nor does God.  After all, how can the cross be a clear answer of God's love for us?  The ridiculousness of the whole situation is laughable - and I can vouch for that since I have been around many people who laugh at this aspect of the gospel and how it can't be true.  Buechner explains this technique with the technique of telling a good joke.  Say you are at a dinner party and you tell a hilarious joke you heard at work to the crowd of quiet people, all eyes on you expecting to laugh, and you expecting them to laugh too because it truly was quite funny.  What if they didn't laugh though?  There you would be standing, all eyes still on you but no laughter and you may start to sweat and you can't really explain the joke because that would ruin the joke so you sit down embarrassed because no one understood it.  The same can be said for Jesus who stood in front of large crowds speaking the gospel.  He didn't use plain language but colorful and metaphorical and comical language so that if someone did not understand, he would not explain himself for the same reason that you didn't explain your joke.  It would ruin the message.
The last section, the gospel as fairy tale, is one that I consider myself very familiar with.  I don't claim to be an expert on the matter but I will claim that I am very interested in the fairy tale and fantasy genre and how they relate to the Bible and share many Biblical themes.  Buechner references many great works of fantasy and fairy tale such as the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and the Wizard of Oz. What these stories, and most other fantasy and fairy tale works is that nothing is what it seems.  The white which is not pure but evil and Aslan is not a killer but gentle.  Dorothy is a little girl yet the hero of the story.  Glinda is beautiful but a witch.  And Jesus is a king in spite of everything.  He looks like a poor man and unworthy but beneath it all he is the son of God, a king, God in the flesh.  Just as the ugly duckling transformed into a swan and the beast transformed into a handsome prince, Jesus is proof that beauty resides in unexpected places.  Many people would expect that if God showed up today he would be dressed in a nice tuxedo with his hair slicked back and a successful back story on his shoulders but in fact God is the man at the soup kitchen poorly dressed for the cold weather or the young school teacher helping her students everyday after school.  Like the fairy tale and fantasy, the gospel is never what it seems.
I don't think it is a big surprise to say that this book moved me in many ways and it is one that I will never forget.  It is easily one of the best books I have read this year and I plan on reading much more from Frederick Buechner.  The book was rich, the language was exquisite, and the content was brilliant and beautiful.  I will give this book 5 out of 5 stars!

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