He’s an ordained Presbyterian minister who rarely preaches, but who for six decades has maintained a congregation of loyal readers. While never winning the awards (a true example of oversight if ever one existed), he has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In his later years, he has published little, claiming to no longer have the same zeal for producing books, but in earlier times was quite prolific, crafting works of various form and genres, including novels, lexicons, literary criticism, sermons and autobiography. John Irving, one of his students from Phillips Exeter Academy, credits him as a mentor of profound impact. His most well-known works include Godric (a novel chronicling the life of the medieval, monastic hermit, Godric of Finchale, creatively narrated in Godric’s own “mediaeval” tone and language), A Long Day’s Dying (his critically acclaimed first novel), and his four memoirs, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets and The Eyes of the Heart.
Buechner’s themes are drawn from his own life and the similarities between his experiences and everyone else’s: themes of loneliness, rebellion, doubt, redemption, grace and contemplation. Despite the wide variation in his forms, these themes remain central but never wear thin or become repetitive. Anyone wishing to look into Buechner’s works would do well to start with his lexicons; these three works take overused-to-the-point-of-being-archaic religious terms (Wishful Thinking), well-known and obscure Bible characters (Peculiar Treasures), and common societal buzz words (Whistling in the Dark) and infuses them all with fresh, poetic theological significance. They were recently republished in a single volume called Beyond Words. And, for those interested in Buechner’s fiction and memoir, Godric and The Sacred Journey, respectively, will captivate in ways you never knew books could.
It is almost impossible to provide a short sample of Buechner’s talent, because it seems he is endlessly quotable. However, here are two wonder-filled lines:
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. - Now and Then
If you look at a window, you see dust, flyspecks, the crack where Junior’s frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between people who see the Bible as a Holy Bore, and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves. - Wishful Thinking (“Bible”)