What You Need to Know about Frederick Buechner

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Updated Aug 17, 2022
What You Need to Know about Frederick Buechner

The late, great Frederick Buechner (1926-2022) had a surprising place in religious circles. He made a big splash in the New York literary scene with his first novel A Long Day’s Dying, then surprised everyone by entering seminary. After that, he lived in an interesting in-between territory. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but his sermons and novels tackled complex subjects. Secular publications praised his work, but many reviewers struggled to accept a minister who wrote fiction. In Reading Buechner, Jeffrey Munroe called him “neither liberal nor conservative… nor evangelical nor mainline.” Slipping between readers' comfortable categories made Buechner a surprising author when they discovered him.

While he was never a big name in Christian bookstores, Buechner gained a committed following. Dale Brown observed in The Book of Buechner that the writer had “become an oft-quoted source of pulpit anecdotes, devotional tidbits, and magazine fillers.” He received praise from Christian artists all over the political/philosophical spectrum—from Annie Dillard to Philip Yancey, from Reynolds Price to Madeleine L’Engle, from Anne Lamott to Makoto Fujimura. Here is what you need to know about this perceptive writer.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Blake Gardner

10 Important Events in the Life of Frederick Buechner

1. On July 11, 1926, Carl Frederick Buechner was born in New York to Katherine Kuhn and Carl Frederick Buechner, Sr. Their family had wealth and connections, but his father’s alcoholism made it difficult for him to find work.

2. In 1936, Buechner’s father committed suicide. Buechner wrote several books about this event and his family’s reluctance to discuss it.

3. In 1950, Buechner’s first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, was published with positive reviews in TIME, Newsweek, and Life. Reviewers compared him to Marcel Proust and Henry James, and celebrities like Leonard Bernstein and Christopher Isherwood praised the book. It was optioned for a film in 1954, which never got past the script stage.

4. In 1953, Buechner moved to Manhattan to become a full-time writer and released his second novel to mixed or terrible reviews. He began attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and decided to become a Christian after hearing one of pastor George Buttrick’s sermons.

5. In 1954, Buechner began his studies at Union Theological Seminary, studying under well-known teachers like James Muilenberg, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

6. In 1956, Buechner married Judith “Judy” Merck, daughter of pharmaceutical tycoon George W. Merck. They went on to have three daughters, one mentioned in his memoirs as her struggles pushed Buechner to face his traumatic childhood.

7. In 1958, after finishing his Bachelor of Divinity and becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister, Buechner accepted a position teaching religious studies at the Philip Exeter Academy. Buechner also served as the school chaplain, and his experience with skeptical students changed his style.

8. In 1967, Buechner left his teaching position at Exeter, and moved to the Merck family farm in Vermont. He became a full-time writer and entered a new phase as a preacher when he gave the 1969 William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard (later published as The Alphabet of Grace).

9. In 1980, Buechner published the Pulitzer-nominated novel Godric, a historical fiction story about St. Godric of Finchale.

10. In 1982, Buechner released his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, covering his childhood to his conversion.

By the time Buechner passed away at 96 years old on August 15, 2022, the New York Times reported that he'd published 39 books translated into 27 languages, with critics comparing him to Mark Twain, Henry James, and Truman Capote. Christianity Today published a memoriam article by Russell Moore and republished a 1997 profile by Philip Yancey. Yancey described meeting Buechner in 1979 and observed, “I have a hunch, in fact, that Buechner has become the most quoted living writer among Christians of influence.”

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10 Famous Quotes by Frederick Buechner

1. “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”—Wishful Thinking

2. “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”—Now and Then

3. “But I think that the price that one pays by dealing with your pain by forgetting it, by stuffing it aside, by not looking at it, is that some part of you doesn’t grow.”—A Crazy, Holy Grace

4. “War is Hell, but sometimes in the midst of that Hell men do things that Heaven itself must be proud of. A hand grenade is hurled into a group of men. One of the men throws himself on top of it, making his body a living shield. In the burst of wild fire he dies, and the others live.”—The Hungering Dark

5. “How can we be strangers when we are all of us in the same interior war and do battle with the same interior enemy, which is most of the time ourselves?”—Buechner 101

6. “Every person we have ever known, every place we have ever seen, everything that has ever happened to us—it all lives and breathes deep in us somewhere whether we like it or not, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to bring it back to the surface in bits and pieces.”—A Room Called Remember

7. “One of the worlds, of course, is innocence, self-forgetfulness, openness, playing for fun. The other is experience, self-consciousness, guardedness, playing for keeps. Some of us go on straddling both for years… We become fully and undividedly human, I suppose, when we discover that the ultimate prudence is a kind of holy recklessness, and our passion for having finds peace in our passion for giving, and playing for keeps is the greatest fun.”—Beyond Words

8. “I believe that what we long for most in the home we knew is the peace and charity, if we were lucky, we first came to experience there, and I believe that it is that same peace and charity we dream of finding once again in the home that the time of tide draws us toward. The first home foreshadows the final home, and the final home hallows and fulfills what was most precious in the first.”—The Longing for Home

9. “There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him. If there are people who remain unconvinced, let them tune in their TVs to almost any of the big-time pulpit-pounders almost any Sunday morning of the year.”—Whistling in the Dark

10. “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy.”—Telling the Truth

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rihard_wolfram

10 Things You Should Know about Frederick Buechner

1. He didn’t have a Christian upbringing. Unlike many religious writers, Buechner came from a secular background with a certain pedigree. His family was affluent, non-religious New York stock (his father was one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s friends at Princeton). After his father’s suicide, his mother moved the family to Bermuda for several years. Later he attended a boarding school in New Jersey and graduated from Princeton. By his admission, Buechner was surprised as anyone else when he became a Christian.

2. He almost became a different kind of writer. Before graduating from seminary (and maybe for a few years afterward), Buechner seemed to be becoming a standard East Coast literary novelist. He was a lifelong friend of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill. He won an O. Henry Award for his short story “The Tiger,” published in the New Yorker. The year after he graduated from seminary, Playhouse 90 adapted his third novel for TV. At Exeter, his students included future novelist John Irving (The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meaney). It wasn’t until the 1980s that most evangelical Christians discovered his work, leading to Buechner teaching at Wheaton College in 1985.

3. He has wide influences. While Buechner cited many classic writers (Herman Melville, Shakespeare, Mark Twain) he admired, he had an eclectic mix of influences. His theology books referenced C.S. Lewis and Paul Tillich. He expressed admiration for Charles Williams’ metaphysical thrillers and L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. Wheaton College’s profile of Buechner mentions many other influences, including Friedrich Schleiermacher, E. Nesbitt, and Louis Armstrong.

4. He struggled from early success. In the decades since A Long Day’s Dying appeared, Buechner distanced himself from it. In his introduction to The Book of Buechner, Buechner said that seeing Brown mention that book first felt like “hanging my baby pictures in the front hall.” At the same time, he admitted in The Sacred Journey that ever since A Long Day's Day was published, he felt driven “to write something, to do something, to be something to justify the fluke of that early and for the most part undeserved success.”

5. He didn’t write “Christian fiction.” Buechner observed in Now and Then that many people automatically assume a novel written by a minister will be “essentially a sermon with illustrations.” However, his experience at Exeter pushed him to explain religious ideas without standard religious language. As a result, his novels were written for what Munroe calls “the religiously indifferent reader.” Even his novels about Biblical characters (such as The Son of Laughter) feature paradox and complex choices.

6. He wasn’t an average minister. While Buechner was ordained as a minister, he was ordained as an evangelist and said he preferred to be seen as an apologist. Instead of pastoring churches, Buechner used his credentials to preach sermons and write theology books, with the same goal as his novels: “I always hope to reach people who don’t want to touch religion with a ten-foot pole.” His sermons also encouraged many ministers seeking new ideas or language, including Russell Moore.

7. He wasn’t afraid to talk about doubt. Buechner’s nonfiction had several recurring themes, one being that doubt and faith can live alongside each other. In Secrets in the Dark, he wrote, “there is doubt hard on the heels of every belief… but faith waits even so.” Many readers have discussed how Buechner’s openness to discussing doubt has helped them in spiritual crises.

8. He kickstarted spiritual memoirs. Munroe observes that memoirs about one’s spiritual journey aren’t new, but the modern subgenre, with its emphasis on inward journeys, didn’t take off until after 1982 when Buechner published The Sacred Journey. As Munroe puts it, that book “started an avalanche,” making room for memoirists like Anne Lamott.

9. He had a different view of saints. Many characters in Buechner’s novels are disreputable people—Leo Bebb runs a theology diploma mill, and Godrick commits a terrible sexual sin. However, Buechner argued that these characters are all saints in varying ways. They do not get everything right, but they become surprising “life-givers” that God uses to enrich their surroundings.

10. He had a sense of humor. Buechner gained many fans for writing honestly about doubt and telling stories about religious people who are very human. Religious stories about doubt and flawed characters can be very dark, as in the case of Shusako Endo’s novel Silence. However, Buecher wrote comedy as well as darkness. His Leo Bebb stories and later books like On the Road with the Archangel are occasionally risqué but very lighthearted.

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10 Frederick Buechner Books to Read

Because Buechner published many books covering many subjects, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are 10 great books to start with, showing the range of his work:

1. Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner. An anthology of Buechner’s work for beginners, alongside writings about him by Anne Lamott, Barbarow Brown Taylor, Brian McClaren, and Dale Brown. A good place to see a variety of his work.

2. Godric. Buechner’s most complex novel, but perhaps his most acclaimed one. Godric fictionalizes the life story of St. Godric of Finchale (1065-1170), an adventurer-turned hermit who reportedly healed the sick and counseled Pope Alexander III. Buechner reimagines this little-known saint as a man who can’t forgive himself for his past sins, yet miracles follow him everywhere. He is, in Buechner’s words, a saint because whatever his flaws, Godric is a “life-giver.”

3. The Magnificent Defeat. Buechner’s first nonfiction book, a collection of sermons given when he was Exeter’s chaplain and religious teacher. A great place to start exploring his religious material.

4. The Book of Bebb. These four novels were first published separately, then rewritten and published together in this edition. They follow the adventure of Leo Bebb, the disreputable head of the Church of Holy Love in Florida, who turns out to be something more than a con artist.

5. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. This book is the first of three collections where Buecher gives short but profound thoughts on religious topics (from “Zacheus” to “Blessing” to “Coincidence”). This format sounds cheesy, but Buechner’s meditations are often cleverer than expected and provide extended food for thought.

6. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. This book collects four sermons Buechner gave in 1976 as the Lyman Ward Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School. Probably Buechner’s best-known book of special occasion lectures, it considers the gospel story from several angles that unpack its transformative power.

7. The Sacred Journey. Buechner’s first memoir is the best place to start reading about his life. He begins discussing his childhood (including his father’s suicide and his mother’s refusal to discuss it). He ends with his calling to ministry (pastor George Buttrick giving Buechner a ride to Union Theological Seminary’s offices).

8. The Wizard’s TideAlso available as The Christmas Tide, this short novel fictionalizes Buechner’s early years leading up to his father’s suicide. Tragic but tender, it was planned as a book for young adults and was perhaps ahead of its time. Since then, Young Adult Fiction has become a larger category dealing with mature themes, making this book more relevant today than ever.

9. On the Road With the Archangel. One of Buechner’s lesser-known novels, but worth exploring since it does something unusual: it’s a literary novel about faith that highlights God’s goodness. Retelling the Apocrypha’s Book of Tobit, the novel shows the Archangel Raphael meeting two families who have given, answering their prayers in unexpected ways that bring renewal.

10. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life. One of Buechner’s last books, a collection of previously unpublished speeches and sermons. Some of the material was reworked into his memoirs but never appeared quite like this.

Photo Credit: Mahendra Kumar/Unsplash

5 Best Books on Frederick Buechner

If you want to know not just what Buechner wrote, but also about his life and how others see him, these biographies and studies are well worth exploring:

1. The Book of Buechner by Dale Brown

2. Laughter in a Genevan Gown by Marie-Helene Davies

3. Reading Buechner by Jeffrey Munroe

4. Frederick Buechner by Marjorie Casebier McCoy

5. Listening to Life by Victoria S. Allen

You can also take classes about his work through the Buechner Center or see the 2003 interview documentary Buechner for free online.

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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