Author: Jeffrey Monroe
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publishing Date: November 19, 2019
Pages: 232 (Paperback)
As I sat in the passenger seat of my car reading Jeff Monroe’s book, Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher, a feather got caught in between the pages of the book. It was one of those little, fluffy feathers that sometimes sneak their way out of a down coat or a pillow. It had floated through the air and caught itself in between the book pages, where it swayed and trembled from the flow of air coming from my car vents. While this feather may seem insignificant, it made its appearance right as I was reading Monroe’s insightful connection between Buechner’s writing and the question of the floating feather in the movie Forrest Gump. Is everything in our life left up to chance, or is there meaning and purpose behind the things that happen? Perhaps it is a bit of both.
The feather throughout this marvelous book on the life and writings of Frederick Buechner is grace. As Jeff Monroe navigated his own profound difficulties and suffering, he connected to Buechner’s words. Buechner did not hide his pain or shy away from seeking to understand God’s role and presence throughout it all. Instead, in an essay on adolescence and pain, Buechner reinterpreted the parable of the talents as a parable about the stewarding of our pains. Do we bury our pains, and along with them our joys as we make a habit of burying things? The transparency and wisdom of Buechner’s writings invited Monroe to open his heart to his own pains, an invitation that transformed Monroe’s life.
Through Buechner’s words and wisdom, Monroe found a path toward healing and wholeness. He said it this way: “The path to healing, to wholeness, to salvation, is always through the difficult and painful things, not around them. Buechner’s words challenged me to bring my pain out and hold it to the light, a quest I have been on ever since.” This book is the fruit of Monroe’s years of study into the life and work of Frederick Buechner, but more than that, this book is an invitation for the reader to go and do likewise. The varied and prolific writings of Buechner are signposts on the path to healing, placed just where we need them as we face the up and down contours of our life journeys.
In the book Reading Buechner, each reader is invited to either get to know Buechner’s life and writings, or to be inspired by them all over again. I confess that before I read Monroe’s book, I had only read fragments of Buechner’s works, though quotes from his writings were ubiquitous in the sermons and lectures I had listened to throughout the years. Even though I was largely unfamiliar with the whole works of Buechner, I knew from what little I had heard that his works were filled with an unconventional and fresh wisdom. I knew that his works had blessed many and had blessed the church.
Monroe structures his book around the different ways Buechner offered his gifts of words to the church and to the world: through memoir, through novels, through popular theology, and through preaching. In each section of the book, Monroe paints a vivid picture of the genius of Buechner in a way that encourages each person to pick up one of his works and read it. As a writer myself, I thought I would most connect with the section on Buechner’s memoirs, but what struck me most was Buechner the novelist. Through his works of fiction, Buechner explored much of his own imagination and his own pains. Yet, because his fiction was not “Christian” enough to be carried in Christian bookstores and his religious convictions caused readers outside of the church to view his work with suspicion and as “propaganda,” Buechner’s work did not find a quick audience.
Despite the fact that Buechner’s first novel ended up being his biggest success, his impact on the church cannot be quantified. Through his playful interpretations of familiar Bible stories, his fresh way of looking at faith in general, and his grappling with the tough stuff of life, Buechner shaped a generation of people within the church and those who might be considered faith-adjacent. Buechner believed, and it came through all of his writings, that, “If there is anything in this world I believe, it is that God is indeed doing all kinds of things in the lives of all of us.”
Monroe’s book will inspire you to explore the works of Buechner—either again (for the seasoned Buechner reader), or for the first time. We need his words today as much as we ever have. As Monroe writes: “My strong conviction is we need Buechner’s voice today more than ever. The one word that best describes both the church and our wider culture at the moment is polarized…Buechner, however, refuses to be pushed toward a side.” For Buechner, it was not about proving himself right, but about telling the truth as he encountered it. Whether you’ve read everything Buechner’s written, or you’ve never read anything by Frederick Buechner before, pick up Monroe’s book and enjoy getting to know Buechner through the eyes of Jeff Monroe. Once you experience the wit and wisdom of Buechner, you’ll be eager to read more.