Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
Despite the fact that Buechner has met, studied with, and received accolades from some of the more celebrated literati and theologians of the twentieth century, he would prefer to talk about an elderly lady in Vermont with whom he played the board game Aggravation or how empty he felt the...
(The entire section contains 1048 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Despite the fact that Buechner has met, studied with, and received accolades from some of the more celebrated literati and theologians of the twentieth century, he would prefer to talk about an elderly lady in Vermont with whom he played the board game Aggravation or how empty he felt the day his daughters left for boarding school. These less public and less apparently important events and relationships speak more eloquently to Buechner of what a relationship with God demands than the supposedly significant encounters he has had with celebrities and scholars. That fact is the reigning theme of his memoir and, indeed, of each of his postseminary volumes, both fiction and nonfiction.
The renowned (and controversial) theologian Paul Tillich, one of Buechner’s professors at Union, does emerge as one of the few more celebrated personalities given extensive coverage in Now and Then. It is Tillich’s volume The New Being (1955) that provides Buechner with his epigraph and title for the memoir: “We want only to show you something we have seen and to tell you something we have heard. . . . that here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation.” The opening part of Tillich’s statement echoes the words of Saint John in the New Testament, explaining the impulse of the early Christians to chronicle the life of Christ: Those whose lives were touched by Christ, John explains, simply must report what they have seen with their own eyes. Yet the quotation also reflects the basic motivation behind all biographical writing: To reveal the truth of a human life one must uncover the basic narrative that underpins it. The second half of the statement is thematically an apt capsuling of Buechner’s own view of narrative, which is reflected in his fiction to be sure but also in his theological texts and, certainly, his autobiographical writing. For Buechner, all life is the unfolding of a story, a narrative written, in essence, by God in history. It is “now and then,” “here and there,” in the ordinary footage and slippage of life, that one’s purpose and calling are discovered. The role of those narrators perceptive enough to fathom this truth is to listen carefully to their own lives, recovering the inner agenda or pattern of events that unlocks the meaning of their days.
When he or she is successful, Buechner suggests, the novelist or theologian lays bare not only the meaning of specific events but also the divine presence behind them. Now and Then admirably exemplifies that viewpoint. The most compelling novelist or memoirist is thus not one whose own characters or personal life can be called exemplary in some unique way but rather one who is able to evoke in readers a sense of wonder at the way their own lives have unfolded. The search for self is as rewarding as its discovery.
Tillich—along with his colleagues Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber, and James Muilenburg, famous theologians one and all—indeed do appear in Now and Then but no more and no less as literary characters might in a Buechner novel. Rather than fully developed persons, they tend to “stand for” a truth, motive, or experience that helps shape Buechner’s own response to life. Their presence in this work is not to satisfy the reader looking for gossip about famous people but to underscore the importance of the overlooked detail, the seemingly trivial fact that can reveal what is truly significant in any person’s life.
Oddly enough, the film actors, literary characters, and newsmakers whose images filled the mind of the young adult Buechner count for as much as the real celebrities he encountered; Buechner wonders out loud why the impact of such images in the ordinary person’s life is generally ignored. According to Buechner’s interpretation, God usually works “behind the scenes” in history and almost never explicitly; the exception is Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Buechner considers fictional narrative and autobiography the most appropriate media for conveying this theological truth. It is not the logician’s syllogism but the narrative of the graceful storyteller that sheds light on God’s hidden workings.
The reader finds in Now and Then some characteristic Buechnerian styles and themes. One finds, for example, that Buechner frequently quotes his previous fiction and theological works to underscore a point about his own life. In less skillful hands, this technique might seem to betray both rank egotism and the worst sort of pedantry. Since Buechner regards the characters peopling his works as independent voices who speak both to and against him at times, however, his citations seem more like conversations with friendly adversaries than pretentious self-promotion.
Buechner revives the theme that God writes history with an “alphabet of grace,” thus redeeming and imbuing language itself with a special power to transform lives:Words are put together out of letters, all twenty-six of them. So the alphabet is your instrument. . . . By means of vowels and consonants, you must put together the best words you can—words that, if possible, not only mean something but evoke something, call something forth from the person you address with your words. Christ himself both spoke such a word and was such a word.
With these words Buechner well describes his own narrative power. Like his most fully realized characters—Leo Bebb, the rogue preacher of The Book of Bebb (1979), and Godric (in Godric, 1980), the wizened twelfth century holy man whom Buechner found tucked away in a dictionary of saints—he refuses to explain away the tensions of faith or paint a simplistic picture of the spiritual dimensions of life that lie just beyond the horizon of man’s consciousness. All the while, though, he is convinced that when a human life is examined sensitively and honestly it emerges as a series of small but real triumphs over great odds and that even the most crushing defeats can be overcome by the irresistible grace of God that operates with or without man’s assistance. Now and Then concludes with a quotation from Godric that epitomizes this essential Buechnerian optimism: “‘What’s lost is nothing to what’s found,’ as Godric says, ‘and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”’