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Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale Hardcover – October 26, 1977
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A sermon arises out of silence, preacher and writer Frederick Buechner reminds us, and that silence is both an opportunity and a warning. An audience sits in the pews waiting, and each of those who sit there bring with them a long and complicated history. How will you reach them? How will you awaken them? "Tell them the truth," Buechner says in this brief and powerful book. The Gospel begins here, out of this silence: "It is life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experience it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is." Out of this silence, he writes, the "real news comes, which is sad news before it is glad news and that is fairy tale last of all."
This series of lectures explores these three ways of seeing the Gospel: first as tragedy, as honest sorrow and suffering--this must be faced before anything else becomes possible. From this comes the comedy of new life: a child born to Abraham and Sarah in old age, Lazarus raised from the dead. This is the folly of the Gospel--what Buechner will ultimately call the fairy tale. Drawing deeply from the well of The Wizard of Oz and other stories, he reminds us in this final chapter that "there is a child in all of us," a child in touch with a truth deeper than the logic of tragedy. --Doug Thorpe
"The same stylistic power, subtlety and originality that have distinguished Frederick Buechner's novels lift Wishful Thinking far above commonplace religion books nearly to the level of C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. An artist is at work here in the vineyard of theology, a wit with wisdom."-- "The New York Times Book Review""A beguiling book .... Buechner handles difficult subjects (eternity immortality prayer) with a casual aplomb and easy analogy"-- "Time""Thoughtful, spirited, entertaininga dictionary for doubtersand restless believers." -- "Chicago Tribune""Original, pungent and joyful." -- "The Christian Century"
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In regards to tragedy, Buechner says that, “Before the Gospel is word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it – meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful – but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery…the preacher must somehow himself present this silence and mystery of truth by speaking what he feels, not what he ought to say, but speaking forth not only the light and the hope of it but the darkness as well, all of it, because the Gospel has to do with all of it” (page 25-26). The Gospel seems bad before it becomes good. It is “tragedy before it is comedy because it strips us bare in order ultimately to clothe us” (page 33).
The tragic, Buechner writes, is the inevitable, while the comic is the unforeseeable (page 57). He goes on to say, “I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath” (page 63). “I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people, and I believe that the comedy of them is not just a device for making the truth that they contain go down easy but that the truth that they contain can itself be thought of as comic” (page 66).
When speaking of the Gospel as a fairy tale, he draws some parallels to our lives by saying, “To take the wrong turning of the path is to risk being lost in the forest forever, and an awful price has to be paid for choosing the wrong casket or the wrong door” (page 78). Furthermore fairy tales, “are tales of transformation where the ones who live happily ever after, as by no means everybody does in fairy tales, are transformed into what they have it in them at their best to be” (page 80).
Near the conclusion of the book, Buechner summarizes by writing, “That is the Gospel, this meeting of darkness and light and the final victory of light. That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still” (page 90).
This book was recommended to me when I was considering pursing pastoral work as a profession. My friend told me that no other book more greatly influenced his preaching style than this book. I can see what he meant now. Buechner implores the reader to tell the truth when spreading the Gospel. In response to Amos 5:21-24, Buechner writes, “Nobody before or since has ever used words to express more powerfully than they our injustice and unrighteousness, our hardness of heart, our pride, our complacency, our hypocrisy, our idolatry, our shallowness, our faithlessness. These particular truths that the prophets speak were crucial for their own times and are crucial also for ours, and any preacher who does not speak them in his own right, naming names including his own name, any religious person who does not heave them at the injustice and unrighteousness of his own time and of himself, runs the risk of being irrelevant, sentimental, a bag of wind” (page 18).
Soren Keirkegaard noted an irony in his own era: There may be one or two real poets born to any generation, but anyone my become a preacher by simply passing a test. Fredrick Buechner is more than a minister; he is a poet of this generation, gifted with a perspective that teaches not just what to see, as many preachers do, but how to see it in ways only a poet can. I consider him one of my fathers in the faith and his writings have had a large role in preserving my own faith. I hope you enjoy him as much as I do and this book is a great place to start.