Sunday, October 28, 2007

Telling the Truth

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner

I had this one written already too, and my review of Fruits Basket Volume 3 references it. And so the spree lengthens. If I'm posting too much all at once for you, well... deal with it. (= Just come finish reading some other time.

Although I didn’t realize it when I checked it out from the library (or rather, had John check it out for me from the library), this book is apparently about preaching. It’s about preaching in a very general sense though, and has plenty to say to those who aren’t preachers.

I first discovered Buechner in Foundations of Global Studies, when we had to read The Sacred Journey. Buechner is farther to the left than I or most of my readers, but I really enjoy him. And I think, coming from farther to the left as he does, and speaking to an audience he assumes is farther to the left, the things he says which seem the “worst” to me are not always as bad as they appear at first. With a different worldview, the chosen language is a little different.

He’s not the best at exegesis. He’s wonderful at evoking, at coming up with what I might call “emotional truths.” I wish he were better at the more intellectual truths, since I think they and the emotional truths should be happily married, but he is so good at the emotional truths I cannot abandon him. That said, here are several long quotes. I’m sorry, sometimes it annoys me when people quote and quote and quote a book in a review, so that the whole thing takes forever to read, but he has a way of writing long sentences that make the quotes hard to shorten. And I like these ones and want to share them. Hopefully they’re good enough that you won’t be too annoyed.

“The pressure on the preacher, of course, is to speak just the answer. The answer is what people have come to hear and what he has also come to hear, preaching always as much to himself as to anybody, to keep his spirits up. He has to give an answer because everybody else is giving answers. Transcendental meditation is an answer, and the Democratic party is an answer, or the Republican party, and acupuncture and acupressure are answers, and so are natural foods, yogurt, and brown rice. Yoga is an answer and transactional analysis and jogging. The pressure on the preacher is to promote the Gospel, to sell Christ as an answer that outshines all the other answers by talking up the shining side, by calling even the day of his death Good Friday when if it was good, it was good only after it was bad, the worst of all Fridays.”

“Given the vulnerability of man and the pitiless storm of the world, tragedy is bound to happen. Given the sinfulness of man and the temptation of the world to sin, tragedy is bound to happen. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, Job says, and there is an inevitability to the tears we shed over it. They are part of what it means to be human. But the announcement of the angel is just the reverse of that.

They are going to have a baby after all. It is just what was bound not to happen… It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.

The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.”

“Switching on the lectern light and clearing his throat, the preacher speaks both the word of tragedy and the word of comedy because they are both of them of the truth and because Jesus speaks them both, blessed be he. The preacher tells the truth by speaking of the visible absence of God because if he doesn’t see and own up to the absence of God in the world, then he is the only one there who doesn’t see it, and who then is going to take him seriously when he tries to make real what he claims also to see as the invisible presence of God in the world? Sin and grace, absence and presence, tragedy and comedy, they divide the world between them and where they meet head on, the Gospel happens. Let the preacher preach the Gospel of their preposterous meeting as the high, unbidden, hilarious thing it is.”

“To moralize or allegorize these tales or to explain them as having to do with sexual awakening or the successful resolution of Oedipal conflicts is not so much to go too far with them as it is not to go far enough because beneath whatever with varying degrees of success they can be shown to mean, and beneath the specific events and adventures they describe, what gives them their real power and meaning is the world they evoke. It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name.”

“The truth is all the sounds that well up within the preacher as he sits down at his desk to put his sermon together – the sounds of the bills to be paid, the children to educate, the storm windows to put up, the sounds of his own blunders and triumphs, of his lusts and memories and dreams and doubts, any one of which when you come right down to it is apt to seem more real and immediate and clamorous to him than the sound of truth as high and wild and holy. So homiletics become apologetics. The preacher exchanges the fairy-tale truth that is too good to be true for a truth that instead of drowning out all the other truths the world is loud with is in some kind of harmony with them. He secularizes and makes rational. He adapts and makes relevant. He demythologizes and makes credible. And what remains of the fairy tale of the Gospel becomes in his hands a fairy tale not unlike The Wizard of Oz.”

The Wizard of Oz is the fairy tale dehumbugged, and the good news it bears is the good news that hard and conscientious effort and a little help from our friends pay off in the end, and faith is its own reward… As for the one who promises to save the world, he is in the richest sense a good man to be sure, but like the little bald man behind the screen, when you come right down to it not all that much of a wizard. His goodness, his love, his simple eloquence, touch our hearts and illumine our darkness across the centuries, but for all of that, both we and our world remain basically untransformed…

…The peace that passeth all understanding is reduced to peace that anybody can understand. The faith that can move mountains and raise the dead becomes faith that can help make life bearable until death ends it. Eternal life becomes a metaphor for the way the good a man does lives after him. ‘Blessed is he who takes no offense at me’ (Matt. 11:6), Jesus says, and the preacher is apt to seek to remove the offense by removing from the Gospel all that he believes we find offensive. You cannot blame him because up to a point, of course, he is right. With part of ourselves we are offended as he thinks by what is too much for us to believe. We weren’t born yesterday. We are from Missouri.

But we are also from somewhere else. We are from Oz, from Looking-Glass Land, from Narnia, and from Middle Earth. If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still. No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth. You pull the shade on the snow falling, white on white, and the child comes to life for a moment. There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die? The child in us lives in a world where nothing is too familiar or unpromising to open up into the world where a path unwinds before our feet into a deep wood, and when that happens, neither the world we live in nor the world that lives in us can ever entirely be home again any more than it was home for Dorothy in the end either because in the Oz books that follow The Wizard, she keeps coming back again and again to Oz because Oz, not Kansas, is where her heart is, and the wizard turns out to be not a humbug but the greatest of all wizards after all.”

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