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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Frederick Buechner is not a religious writer

"The term gives me the creeps," the novelist-essayist-poet-theologian said this week from his home in Vermont. "It means to me obvious, preachy, unrealistic. I don't think I'm a religious writer at all in that sense." Instead, he has aimed in a six-decade writing career "to see the world as it is, to be as honest as possible with the representation of life as I've known it all these years."

For Buechner, the world is all flesh and spirit, humanness and holiness he has richly portrayed in an assortment of characters. There's Leo Bebb, an unctuous preacher who turns out to be something of a redeeming figure, a surprising stage on which God performs. There's Godric, a pirate turned priest from the 11th century, a real-life monk who was eventually named a saint. As imagined by Buechner in a novel nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Godric is racked with lust and doubts, but no less longing for God.

"In everything I write, I try to give a doubt a voice," Buechner said. "There's always a question mark, a shadow. I never pretended faith was easy. It's not so much a conscious effort to decide whether it's true or not, but the task of living in this world raises the question." Saints and sinners are not opposites in Buechner's stories, essays and memoirs. They are the same people. They are like real humans, that is, and Buechner is comfortable being human.

"Lucky is he who is flawed and recognizes he's flawed," he said. "There's a better chance to see things the way things really are, including themselves. They're not living on automatic pilot."

Buechner, now 85, grew up in a family "without any religious sensibility," but came to belief just as his writing star was rising in 1950s New York. He earned a degree from Union Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He never held a pulpit, but he taught religion at Philips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire before returning to full-time writing in the early 1960s.

"Words are my ministry," he has said.

Among his literary parishioners is Dale Brown, a professor of English at King College in Bristol, Tenn. Before moving there last year, Brown taught at Calvin College in Michigan for 20 years, where he directed the annual Festival of Faith and Writing. He had struck up a long-distance friendship with Buechner, and had come to regard Buechner as a mentor.

Three years ago, Brown visited King College for a sabbatical, researching and writing a book about Buechner. Along the way, he planted a seed for what is now called the Buechner Institute. The institute will be inaugurated on Monday at the college, with a program that includes three seminars, a concert by Christian singer-songwriter Michael Card, and an evening interview featuring Buechner and theologian Walter Brueggemann.

"I admire (Buechner's) work not just because he's a really great artist, but has a deep understanding of faith," Brown said this week. "He kind of fills the space between secularism and sectarianism. In our area, I hope the institute can be a place that invites people from a lot of different perspectives. We want to encourage a conversation that does not involve setting up walls." Brown is planning monthly events and a future research center where scholars and artists can explore "the intersection of faith and culture," to echo Buechner's work.

"I'm touched by the honor they do me," Buechner said. This is his first contact with the college. "I'd love to see (the institute) explore other writers who work the same territory I do," the author said, naming the late Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, author of "No Country for Old Men," among them. This territory, as he calls it, "pays attention to the thin places," those moments when the boundaries between heaven and earth, between physical and spiritual almost evaporate, when "an event that seems very unimportant becomes transparent to mystery, to holiness."

Paying attention: that's not only Buechner's calling card. That's his advice. "Henry James said writers are those on whom nothing is lost," he said. "Try to be someone on whom nothing is lost. Watch where you go, watch what memories see you through."

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