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Buechner' on the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

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Here’s my review of Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. As much as Buechner has influenced me, it’s a bit surprising that I’ve only reviewed one of his books previously (Yellow Leaves– a compilation of nuggets). I did blog on his work overall. TTT was a good book, describing the Gospel in common literary terms. In this, I’d say it’s a cousin of N.T. Wright’s Good News– where he describes the Gospel as both “news” and as “good. 

In addition to being a gifted writer and a creative thinker, Buechner is helpful in our post-modern setting because of his emphasis on story and narrative. He starts this book by noting that our stories are all different and all the same: “You do not just live in a world but a world lives in you. You are a world…[But we] are all human…We all labor and are heavy laden under the burden of being human or at least of being on the way, we hope, to being human.” (3)

His summary of the book is a few pages later: “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner…at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy. And yet, so what?…In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen…That is the fairy tale. All together they are the truth.” (7-8)

Buechner’s top audience here is preachers and pastors. As such, he’s quick to note that the Gospel is not simply a compelling story to be told. Style still matters. The Gospel is to be relayed out of love– and with transparency, from the unique and universal world of the speaker. But of course, this point is applicable to all believers. 

Before Buechner gets to the Gospel per se, he notes that its presentation and acceptance should begin with silence. Here, he runs with Jesus’ answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (Do you remember Jesus’ response? He was silent!) “The man with the split lip doesn’t say a blessed thing. Or else his not saying anything, that is the blessed thing….Picture that then, the video without the audio…Jesus just stands there in silence in a way that throws Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself.” (14, 17) The punchline: “Before it is a word, the Gospel that is truth is silence…” (16)

Again, Buechner applies this to the use of silence within sermons (23-24)– and he exhorts preachers to use silence effectively. In this, I’m reminded of the challenges and opportunities of silence within teaching and facilitation. Novices don’t always see the value of silence– and the silences seem longer and more painful than they really are. So, there is a strong temptation to close them down too soon. (Likewise, students and group participants can be too uncomfortable with silence, tempting them to speak too quickly.) 

Silence sets the table for speaking about the tragedy. “Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it– but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery.” (25-26) 

In a more macro sense, Buechner mentions the “silence” of God before Moses and the Exodus; one might easily discuss the “silence” of God for 400 years between Malachi and John the Baptist. Buechner also relies– throughout the book, but especially in this section– on Shakespeare’s King Lear. (I need to read that!)

The tragedy then leads to good news in God’s economy. Again, the silence and the bad must precede the good: “by calling even the day of his death Good Friday when if it was god, it was good only after it was bad.” (36) “The cross that is a symbol of defeat before is a symbol of victory…” (41) For us, this results in the invitation of Mt 11:28: “Come to me, all you are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And thus, we have the comedy: that bozos like us are offered not only mercy and patience but extravagant grace. Mercy is when you get a warning ticket from a cop for speeding. Grace is like him offering you one of his donuts. To describe the comedy, Buechner provides many examples, but focuses on the laughter of Abram and Sarai at the news of Isaac’s impending arrival (49-53)– and then, wraps up with the Prodigal Son (66-68). 

“The tragedy is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” (57) The tragedy is a stumbling block for some, but the comedy of God’s grace is foolishness to others (I Cor 1:23). The punchline to the comedy is “the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.” (66) 

And so, Buechner closes with the fairy tale. I don’t remember if it was Lewis or Chesterton (or both) who described the Gospel as the fairy tale that’s true– The Fairy Tale, if you will. Buechner notes the universality of fairy tales among human stories– again, a hint that there is something true about the genre (73-77)– and that, importantly, access to the extra-ordinary is always through the ordinary (78). Those who embrace the Gospel start in the silence of introspection, see the tragedy of sin, embrace the comedy of grace, and maintain a child-like belief in the fairy tales that are real. 

Buechner closes with two references to The Wizard of Oz. He describes is at as “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.” (95) Since it was published in 1900, “it foreshadows something of what became of the fairy tale of the Gospel in the century it ushered in.” (95) 

But he notes that Baum wrote other Oz books– where Dorothy’s heart is really in Oz and where “the wizard turns out to be not a humbug but the greatest of all wizards after all.” (97) And so, Baum understands, after all. May we understand as well. 


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