Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Forty: Peculiar Treasures--A Biblical Who's Who by Frederick Buechner

Nobody claims there's a chuckle on every page, but laughter's what the whole Bible is really about. -- Frederick Buechner

As a Christian I'm as dismayed as many at the lack of joy we sometimes find in our own faith. As a Catholic living in a Reformed Church of America community, I'm fully aware of the sinfulness of all of us. I was raised in a Protestant church (Methodist) which was light on sin, but far too serious for a growing boy. As a Catholic I found joy in the Mass, but cannot deny it was the seriousness of theology which attracted me to the Church. But seriously, we Christians need a good laugh now and then (with an emphasis on the now).

Frederick Buechner offers us that option without the guilt of slipping from the faith. I reviewed Buechner's The Storm two months ago, and this week I returned to Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who a book I read a couple of years ago and have given as a gift several times. Buechner is a Union Theological trained minister who studied theology after becoming a novelist. Peculiar Treasures shows a writer as comfortable with the ugly stories in the Bible as he is with the humor. This is a laugh-out-loud book which can make you reexamine your own faith at the same time.

Buechner takes on subjects big and small, and finds something worth celebrating everywhere. And he writes in a vernacular which pulls in the present as a way to explain the past. In discussing the prophet Elisha he chooses a story in which the prophet stops to get rest "when a boy scout troop broke ranks and surrounded him. They threw bottle caps at him and they made rude gestures...'Skin-head' and 'Chrome-Dome' and 'Curly' they called him till finally the old man had enough. He made a few passes at them, muttered a few words, and within seconds a couple of she-bears lumbered out from the trees...and mauled some of the slower members of the troop." Buechner notes that this "is not the most edifying story in the Old Testament" but says we realize that "the Lord does not call everyone to be Mister Rogers." He does not soften the tougher stories, but he sees in them something worth pondering. It may be that as novelist Buechner recognizes that there is more truth in the narrative than in fact. 

Biblical literalists are too focused on the "word," as opposed to John's "Word." The truth is not in the words, but in the stories and lessons they communicate to us. When I teach Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in class we talk a lot about this truth. O'Brien knows that a factual retelling of his time in Vietnam would simply be masquerading as the the truth. The truth is in the narrative, the story that reaches into us, grabs us, and forces us to look it in the face. Why else would Jesus tell stories? He knows that stories are what connect us and have a way of communicating the truth which is larger than the sum of the words. Buechner uses this as a way to imagine what some of the Biblical folks are thinking which may not be "factual," but are likely closer to the truth.
His discussions both of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene are touching in his focus. For Mary it is on how her son called her "woman" and seemed to have no time for her, until dying on the cross he gives another disciple to be her son -- the son she never had. Mary Magdalene is, of course, the person  Jesus chooses to first appear to after rising on Easter morning. When she goes back to the disciples who never really knew what to make of her, she tells them "I have seen the Lord" and Buechner says "whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist."

Much of Buechner's thought may be found in his summary of Sarah. He tells the story of how Sarah and Abraham laugh when the angel tells the old couple that Sarah is going to have a baby. Sarah laughs so hard she has to go in the tent so as to not insult the angel. But Buechner says they are not laughing at the message the angel carries. "The reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they'd ever had hadn't been half wild enough."

That is when laughter and joy become one.

Book 40B--I finally finished one of my bedtime reads, Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces. No lengthy review here. Mosley is almost always enjoyable and Easy Rawlins one of his best characters. This collection puts together six stories (and a 7th unrelated one) which were published one-by-one at the back of some reissues of Rawlins novels. A decent story, but because they appeared separately we get a lot of repeated information to set up the stories. The extra stories in the reissues was a ploy to get past readers to buy new editions -- hey, if it works, fine. But before putting them together they should have been edited to form one of Mosely's usually strong novels. If you have not read Mosley, start elsewhere.
Up Next
Well, I was going to read the John Marshall book, but that is going to take some time to get through. So I'll pick that off in smaller segments and as a whole focus this week on Caron McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. This is one of those classics always left unread on my list, so this week I read it! I'm also reading The Lightening Thief along with my 10-year-old; once we finish we'll go see the movie.

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