Book Review: Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner
Telling the Truth is the written record of the 1977 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School. That year, Frederick Buechner gave a series of lectures/sermons on the “Gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale”.
They are breath-taking.
I will have to admit some affinity for Buechner at the outset of the review. I love Buechner’s preaching and he was a strong influence on by favorite fiction writer, John Irving.
The book is arranged in 4 chapters which directly correspond to the 4 opportunities Buechner had to address the seminarians. The first is more of a lecture on the great responsibility of preaching. He speaks of Henry Ward Beecher, the first to give these lectures. He speaks of Beecher’s failings and his own. He draws deeply on the awkwardness of a sinner telling other sinners of a holy God. And as he does this, what he does best is not necessarily in his content, but in his delivery. Buechner’s text is poetry. His cadence is rhythmic. His illustrations, weaving biblical narratives together with modern details, draw you into the world of scripture and the world of your own heart. To say that these sermons are a pleasure to read is make a categorical understatement.
After laying out the difficulty of preaching and setting the table for his coming lectures, Buechner focuses on the gospel as tragedy. He says, “the gospel must be bad news before it is good news”. He lays out how our tragic sin binds us to tragedy. He draws from Melville, Shakespeare, and Dostoyvski. And through it all he reminds the preacher that he must address the emptiness that we feel as humans.
Drawing on this emphasis, he turns to comedy. In the face of such tragedy, the fact that we are loved, persued by God is unbelievable. He uses the parables to show that Jesus again and again taught about the lavishness of God’s love. Much like Keller’s Prodigal God, Buechner shows us the comical degree that God chases us in spite of the tragic ways in which we reject him.
Finally, Buechner moves us to the arena of fairy tale. He shows how sermons should not just touch on our sin (tragedy), God’s extravagant grace (comedy), but the beauty and movement that happens when the two meet. God is making all things new. When he sat in the upper room with his disciples, he said without a hint of irony that he had overcome the world. Tra-la the witch is dead.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone. The only difficulty is in the price, it can be a bit costly.
And it is worth every penny.