A number of my writer friends have been fans of, or influenced by, the works of Frederick Buechner, an American writer, theologian and Presbyterian minister who has published more than 30 books. I’d yet to dive into Buechner but had him on my someday-read list.
A recent conversation with storyteller Brad Woods prompted me to shift Buechner to my to-read list. Brad and I were talking about a new play I’d been working on and he suggested a read through Telling the Truth: the Gospel as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale would be helpful.
Written to aid preachers, Telling the Truth shows how the gospels “record the tragedy of human failure, the comedy of being loved overwhelmingly by God despite that failure, and the fairy tale of transformation through that love” (from the book’s front cover flap).”
The more I read, the more I realized Telling the Truth had as much to say to me, as a writer, as it did a preacher. The used copy I bought from amazon.com was already marked in black, so I used a red pen to highlight what struck me as significant, like:
“But to preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to…The preacher must always try to feel what it is like to live inside the skins of the people who he is preaching to, to hear the truth as they hear it.”
Let (the artist) use (art) which (does) not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask…but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have the words for asking…
The further into the book I delved, the more convinced I became that Buechner’s observations applied to all art forms. Writers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, actors, filmmakers, photographers, storytellers, singer/songwriters, etc. all want to share the truth of God’s love as found in the Gospel. Color, palette, imagery, metaphor, simile, realism, character, setting, etc. are the tools used to portray the truth that so many seek. Rephrasing Buechner, we can read:
“Let (the artist) use (art) which (does) not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have the words for asking and to hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions. Drawing on nothing fancier than the (art) of (the artist’s) own life, let (the artist) use (art) that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting.”
Anyone who has read Buechner knows his books aren’t an easy read. I know I’ll find myself returning to Telling the Truth to try to glean a little more from his words. Until then, I take the book’s last paragraph as both a challenge and an encouragement:
“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”