Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is a writer with two more or less distinct readerships. Readers of The New York Times Book Review know him best as a novelist. Of Buechner’s ten novels, only his first, A Long Day’s Dying (1950), published when he was twenty-three, has achieved great commercial success, but he has won critical esteem and a small, loyal following with novels such as The Entrance to Porlock (1969), Lion Country (1971; later collected in The Book of Bebb, 1979), and, most recently, Godric (1980). As a writer of what might be called popular theology, Buechner has a much larger readership. His works in this genre—certainly among the best of their kind—range from the meditative tone of The Hungering Dark (1969) and The Alphabet of Grace (1970) to the broad humor of Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (1979).
Readers from both camps should be attracted to The Sacred Journey and thereby encouraged to discover the “other” Buechner. The Sacred Journey, the first volume of an unusual autobiography, takes Buechner up to his late twenties and his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary; the second volume, Now and Then, which brings him up to the early 1980’s, was published in 1983.
The forms of autobiography are as diverse as the men and women who write them, yet Buechner’s project can justly be called “unusual” in two significant ways. The Sacred Journey and its sequel are unusual primarily for what they choose to omit. Both books are very slim volumes of little more than one hundred pages. Buechner himself, looking back at The Sacred Journey in the introduction to Now and Then, summarizes his omissions: “I left out pretty much the whole dimension of my life that had to do with matters like sex, money, travel, health. . . .” What he has left out, in fact, is much of the stuff of life which one expects to find in an autobiography. Yet more surprising is Buechner’s principle of inclusion, as he explained in an interview in Publishers Weekly:It’s an odd thing, to write your autobiography. It seems egotistical. But I really do believe that every life is a sacred journey, and I wanted to write about mine—and the discovery of God I had made in it—in such a way as to persuade people to look at their own lives.
In one sense, there is nothing unusual about an autobiography centered on a coming to Christ; indeed, probably more autobiographies have been devoted to this theme than to any other, and they continue to appear each year. Such books, however, whatever their devotional value, are generally not literature. For a writer of Buechner’s repute—a serious modern novelist—to shape his autobiography around a conversion to Christ: that is most unusual. Very few contemporary Christian writers—themselves a distinct minority in the modern pantheon—have attempted such a project. It is striking to observe how Christian writers as diverse as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Flannery O’Connor, even when writing under the cover of fiction, choose not to depict their own positive experience of faith.
Perhaps the serious Christian writer, fully aware of the pervasive doubt and skepticism that characterize modern literature—a doubt which he has surely experienced himself—is too self-conscious to make a statement of his faith, fearful that his conviction will be mistaken for arrogance, his hope dismissed as evidence of an insufficient acquaintance with harsh reality. Above all, perhaps, he is reluctant to appear to be claiming a holiness which he does not in fact possess. While even Buechner is not exempt from such self-consciousness, his great achievement in this autobiography is to have brought all of his craftsmanship as a writer to bear on an explicit account of a Christian life, a life described in Christian terms. As such, The Sacred Journey and Now and Then will be of great interest both to Christian and to non-Christian readers, joining a select company of similar books headed by C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (1955).
The metaphor of life as a journey is as old as literature itself. A journey is purposeful: one is traveling to a destination. The characteristic modern attitude toward this metaphor is summed...