Jeffrey Munroe. Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher. IVP, 2019. See here to purchase the book.
I first learned about Frederick Buechner from Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor. I was on a Philip Yancey kick in those days because I thrived on Yancey’s honesty about religion and his emphasis on God’s grace. Soul Survivor appealed to me because it was about the Christian anchors to whom Yancey clung when he was disillusioned with the Christians and the Christianity around him. I do not remember anything Yancey said about Buechner, but I think that the chapter made a positive impression on me. Buechner’s name stuck with me over the years, enough that I thought I would be edified in reading Jeffrey Munroe’s book.
Reading Buechner is a guide to Buechner’s life, fiction, non-fiction, and sermons. In Munroe’s telling, Buecher is a Christian thinker who grapples honestly with the suffering in life and the doubts that people have about the Christian faith. Yet, he sees importance in Christian orthodoxy, which is why he felt somewhat alienated when he taught at Harvard Divinity School. Buechner has drawn from different sources. A Pentecostal faith healer, for example, inspired his thinking about prayer.
Many evangelicals who love Buechner’s non-fiction, particularly his memoirs, do not quite know what to make of his fiction. Munroe acknowledges this common sentiment, and he speculates as to why this is the case while exploring the theological themes in Buechner’s novels.
There was a lot in this book that I appreciated and with which I identified. I did not identify much with what Buechner said about the usefulness of pain and suffering in the Christian life, since I would prefer a pleasant mood to the continual rage that I felt before taking Zoloft. Yet, suffering is a problem with which everyone copes, and this included Buechner, who for years struggled with the suicide of his father. Other topics that Buechner engaged includes the usefulness and non-usefulness of Christian apologetics and the mixture of joy, apprehension, and disappointment he had when seeing his grandchildren. His disappointment was not in them but in his realization that he would not live long enough to see how they turn out.
In terms of whether I would like to read Buechner sometime in the future, maybe some things. I would probably appreciate his memoirs and his sermons, since I prefer how non-fiction lays out theological principles in a straightforward manner rather than leaving it to the reader to discern them. At the same time, I did enjoy Munroe’s summaries of Buechner’s fiction, particularly his biblical fiction. Buechner’s placing of some biblical characters in a modern setting, with modern problems, was intriguing.
Munroe’s telling of Buechner’s own story adds a dimension of humanity to the book, but so does Munroe’s description of his own encounters with Buechner’s work and with Buechner himself. Munroe also engages the criticisms that people have had of Buechner’s work and Buechner’s response to those criticisms, as well as offers his own criticism: that Buechner presents a weak ecclesiology. Munroe’s book is honest, as is Buechner’s work.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.