Thursday, September 29, 2005

Man, Buechner can sure write a sentence!

This is "letter to the editor" of the Boston Globe, that was published last Wednesday, Sept. 21. It happens to be one sentence. It was written by Frederick Buechner (pronounced "Beek-ner"), the novelist who enchanted and evangelized me so thoroughly in my youth.

The reckless George Bush is to blame
September 19, 2005
THIS SHALLOW, reckless, monolithically complacent man who touts his belief in the philosophy of Jesus but advocates tax cuts for the richest of the rich instead of succor for the poorest of the poor, who has entangled us in an unnecessary, unwinnable, and increasingly murderous war against shadows, who consistently favors the interests of big business over those of the imperiled environment, and appoints an official of the International Arabian Horse Association to be in charge of managing horrors like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, surely the second George Bush is not the only one to blame for his insane and tragic chapter in our history, but it is hard to imagine a more appropriate symbol of it than the never-to-be-forgotten Mission Accomplished dance he did on the carrier's deck for all the world as though he really believed it.
Pawlet, Vt.

Let me show you why I love Buechner so much. You'll get the picture best from this excerpt of an interview with the Wittenburg Door from the '80s.

DOOR: It is kind of refreshing to meet someone who speaks about the Christian faith in a new way, at least a new way to us. What is your connection with the church?

BUECHNER: To be honest, I grew up without any real church connection. When I was young, I was nominally an Episcopalian. I was confirmed, but had no strong connection.

DOOR: But you are a Presbyterian. How did that come about?

It was really almost a matter of tossing a coin. When it came time to be ordained (I had to be ordained in some particular church), I chose Presbyterian, basically because of George Buttrick. It was in his church that the whole thing came alive.

DOOR: What happened?

BUECHNER: Years ago I had decided to move to New York and become a writer. While I was there, I drifted into George Buttrick's church on a Sunday morning- for no good reason, really, except it was there and I had nothing else to do. Buttrick preached the sermon, and he was talking about coronations. (He was a marvelous preacher because he had no finesse. He plucked at his robes and mumbled his words, which made him all the more powerful.) This was at the time of the present Queen's coronation, and he was talking about Jesus at the time of his temptation. He said that Jesus was offered a crown, like Queen Elizabeth's, if he would kneel down and worship Satan, but he turned it down. Then Buttrick said, "But now Jesus is crowned in the heart of the believer," and he used this phrase, "among tears and confession and great laughter." For reasons I've never been able to explain, that phrase "great laughter" absolutely decimated me. I found tears spouting in my eyes. If one were looking for the "born-again" experience, in some funny way, this was it. I couldn't have told you then, nor can I tell you now, why the phrase "great laughter" did it. Maybe it was the laughter of incredulity that perhaps it was true, or the laughter of relief that all the things that might have been true, instead weren't.

DOOR: Is it the thought that the gospel is really true that overwhelms you?

BUECHNER: It's sort of a continuing dim spectacle of the subterranean presence of grace in the world that haunts me. If you look deeply enough into yourself or into the New York Times, there are many mysteries. And the mystery of the mysteries at the bottom of the well, at the far reach of the road, is the mystery of God, of Christ. This is what I explore as a novelist- the incredibleness of it, the spectrum of it. It seems as if maybe it isn't true... but, yes, maybe it is true! And the moments when it seems to be true are just staggering moments.

Yep, after 17 novels and 22 books of non-fiction, Freddie's still got the goods.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


His (your copy actually) "Listening to Your Life" changed mine.

During those years when I was out there floating aimlessly on the ocean, he sure was good company.


9:22 AM  
Blogger I.F. said...

Buechner is a genius and by far my favorite writer. Thanks for passing along the text from his editorial. I never imagined him writing something in that kind of forum.

5:10 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Thanks I.F!

I know, I was a little surprised too. I hadn't known "Freddie" to wade in on such matters before, though perhaps he did during Vietnam?

7:52 AM  
Blogger Browler said...

I like the interview, but I can't help feeling that the sentence at the top could have done with a good edit. Am I allowed back on this blog?

8:07 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Well, alright. You know, Derek, Buechner's style has always tended towards extremely long sentences. It can be a bit much, sometimes. I like his words, but oftentimes his prose can become overly florid. I have a mild case of this disease myself, and I squarely place the blame on old Fred. He tries to cram everything into a sentence. Buechner is the anti-Steinbeck. It's like he read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" and then decided to break every rule.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Browler said...

Yeah, I'm getting full on suspicious about these characters who, on the pretext of publishing something that everyone can read (everyone who chooses to do so, that is -- and we all know, or at least I hope we do, that that is by no means everyone), go ahead and write such overblown verbiage, which, being full of clauses (which, let's face it, can more often than not be irritating), not to say grotesque overbound, gooblous neologisms, tests the patience of even the most patient of patient (and don't we all need patience in these excruciatingly torrid days in George Dubya's awful, dreadful world of coffee multinationals and dwindling independent cinemas) readers. Orwell Schmorwell.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Droughtweeks said...

If I might weigh in here...

Although I would too argue that overly stylized writing does tend to marginalize and limit ones audience, often to detrimental effect, I think it's interesting that Buechner's sentence opposes George Bush both conceptually and rhetorically.

And really, it's not like we're talking about Faulkner here.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Wordsmyth said...

Buechner is my favorite.

5:54 PM  

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