How is it that I only just read Frederick Buechner? What captivating prose! I must read more by him.
Telling the Truth is a short work on the art of preaching. It’s a sort of manual, but it reads like literary time-travel that highlights critical points of telling the truth. We muse with Pilate and the ultimate question of “What is truth?” We hear Jesus’ weeping at the premature death of Lazarus. We snicker with Abraham and Sarah and God at the thought of bearing a child at 91. We wonder with child-like fascination at the ‘high magic’ that is God’s victorious grace. In short, telling the truth is telling it as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale.
The truth must be told as all three, but not in such a way that diminishes any one. The truth is tragic because our world is tragic. The world feels awfully void, as if God is absent. Before the gospel is good news, it is bad news, and bad news acknowledges that God seems silent and absent. To deny this overwhelming feeling is to deny that Jesus’ tears were real at Lazarus’s death. The preacher must, therefore, veer from the temptation to skip over tragedy. Not an actress or a magician but rather “[s]he is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any [hu]man” (40). For to be human is to experience absence that beckons her to search presence. “It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present… God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself” (43). And tragedy must make way for comedy — God’s surprising gesture of grace.
The gospel is comedic because God is comedic (not haha-comedic, though that’s certainly a part of it, but unexpected-comedic). The good news is the punch-line that completes the set-up. It is the unexpected gag or the Charlie Chaplin “whoops!” that breaks the silence with laughter. It laughs alongside and in defiance to tragedy. God promises the elderly couple a child way past their bearing age. Sarah chuckles, Abraham snickers, the angel giggles, and God undoubtably cackles. The laughter that God brings sees tragedy as what it is but does not quiver. This is because to us tragedy is inevitable, but to God comedy is. This is what it means to have divine perspective:
I have spoken of tragedy as inevitable and comedy as unforeseeable and seen from the inside of each, that seems to me to be so…. But seen from the outside, seen as God sees it and as occasionally by the grace of God man also sees it, I suspect that it is really the other way around. From the divine perspective, I suspect that it is the tragic that is seen as not inevitable whereas it is the comic that is bound to happen. The comedy of God’s saving the most unlikely people when they least expect it, the joke in which God laughs with man and man with God… (72)
Telling the Truth is certainly a worthy read for any storyteller, though it is thoroughly Christian. Each chapter tells the particular truth of the truth, whether it be tragedy, comedy, or fairy tale. I was, however, a bit disappointed by the last chapter. It lacked the gripping storytelling of the first three chapters. Nonetheless, it is still a great chapter, especially for recapping the whole flow of the book with poetic prose:
Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people… And finally let him preach this overwhelming of trade by by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with the it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have. (98)
Indeed, let us tell the truth.