(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)