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The dinner conversation veered onto the topic of Frederick Buechner, and I steeled myself for the inevitable comment, which came with the predictability of a Labor Day sale at JC Penney. “I have read some Buechner and find that I like his non-fiction a lot better than his fiction. I tried to read Godric, but couldn’t get into it.” If I had a nickel, I thought, for every time I’ve heard that, I’d have at least three dollars by now. Maybe four.
I know there is no accounting for taste, but you really shouldn’t make that comment. It causes steam to leak slowly out of my ears. In Godric, Buechner is offering a challenge and reward to readers not found in his non-fiction. A few lines about the questions readers should ask when encountering a book from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s wonderful Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies are appropriate here:
“What does this writer invite you to do? What does he or she require of you? What does he or she not let you do? These questions focus attention of the “contract” between writer and reader. A story is an invitation, and a challenge, and a choice. If you consent to its terms, you will have your reward, but only if you take it on in the spirit in which it is offered.”
There is a contract between writers and readers, and I admire writers who are determined to only share their insights with readers willing to consent to their terms. Many years ago I had the opportunity to send a letter to the late Mark Harris, author of twenty books including Bang the Drum Slowly, one of my favorites. I filled my letter with at least a dozen questions and Mark Harris graciously wrote back. He wished me well and then added, “As for your questions, I don’t know any answers anymore.” That cryptic note was scribbled in cursive atop a complete bibliography of all he’d published. I felt like the master was saying, “When you can take the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper . . . .“ It took me some time to figure out what Mark Harris was telling me. He didn’t have anything to say that he hadn’t already said in his books. If I wanted answers, I needed to do the work of reading.
Frederick Buechner appeared at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing in the intervening years between my correspondence with Mark Harris and today. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion called “Frederick Buechner: An Appreciation” and unbeknownst to the crowd that gathered that afternoon, Fred and Judy Buechner slipped into the back of the auditorium to hear what was being said about them. I took my allotted time and poured out my heart in a humble ode to Fred, and my modest expectations were that after the session Buechner might approach the front of the room, wave off my attempt at a handshake with a warm hug and follow that with an invitation to drinks and dinner. Instead, as the session was winding down, Fred and Judy tiptoed out as surreptitiously as they’d arrived. My wise old professor Jim Cook, also a panelist, leaned over to me as we watched Fred and Judy disappear, and whispered, “We do not possess the man. But we have the gift of his books.”
What a gift those books are. Especially his fiction. In his fiction, he lets all the sides of his personality out (not just the minister side which writes non-fiction). In Godric and Brendan and the Bebb books Buechner demonstrates he is one of the supreme talents of his generation. I know Godric is challenging, if for no other reason than you have to slow down to read it, an absurdly countercultural practice in this era of instant messaging, Minute Rice and One Hour Martinizing. Much of it is written in iambic pentameter, and who since the days of John Milton does that? Because the book is set in England before the time of William the Conqueror and the Normans, there are no words used with Latin roots – every word has an Anglo-Saxon root. And since the narrator is a one-hundred-year-old man, he tends to tell his story from both ends at once, so it isn’t what you would call linear. But please, don’t be put off by that – ADMIRE THAT!
About halfway through Godric tells us, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” Amen and amen. But you really need to follow the twists and turns of Buechner’s rich imagining of Godric’s remarkable life for that comment to bear its full weight. Take the challenge and reap the reward.