For those of you who know me, you know Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors, probably top five. He’s a brilliant storyteller, who, like Shakespeare, gets both the peasant and the prince and writes stories that all at once capture them both, stories that are magical yet earthy. In Telling the Truth, Buechner tells the story of Jesus before Pilate, but as if it were happening in 1977. And it’s real. What I mean is it isn’t cheesy. As I’m reading it I believe it could have happened in 1977, like I’m watching it happen on some old rerun. He does this with several stories from the Scriptures, and I read these stories with fresh eyes and new perspective.
And this is part of telling the truth: making new metaphors and painting contemporary word pictures so that people who have ears to hear… But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because the truth is silence before it is spoken, Buechner points out.
He [Pilate] says, “What is truth?” and by way of an answer, the man with the split lip doesn’t say a blessed thing. Or else his not saying anything, that is the blessed thing. [...] We are all of us Pilate in our asking after truth, and when we come to church to ask it, the preacher would do well to answer us also with silence because the truth and the Gospel are one, and before the Gospel is a word, it too like truth is silence—not an ordinary silence, silence as nothing to hear, but silence that makes itself heard if you listen to it the way Pilate listens to the silence of the man with the split lip. The Gospel that is truth is good news, but before it is good news, let us say that it is just news. Let us say that it is the evening news, the television news, but with the sound turned off.
Picture that then, the video without the audio, the news with, for the moment, no words to explain it or explain it away, no words to cushion or sharpen the shock of it, no definition given to dispose of it with… (14)
We are all of us the preacher too, in one sense, and we would all do well to reacquaint ourselves with the silence that is, the silence that speaks into the silence that isn’t. One way we do this, Buechner tells us, is by listening to our lives. All of it (34): the tragedy, the comedy, and the fairy tale. Your car that was stolen, your marital affair, your friend who betrayed you, the iPhone you own but can’t afford, the self-righteousness you feel about someone else’s affair, materialism, tax-collecting… that is the tragedy. And the comedy is that part which is both your wedding day and the day you fall in the toilet because he left the seat up, both “a kind of terrible funniness and of a happy end to all that is terrible” (6). Finally, we must listen to our lives within the overarching framework of fairy tale. Because the tragic and the comic isn’t all that’s there. The fairy tale is the spell lifted and the Beast becoming on the outside the handsome prince he had become on the inside; it is the beautiful step-sisters whose feet turned out to be too fat and ugly like the sisters were in their hearts; it is those moments in our lives when we give to the least of these in spite of ourselves because we climbed up the tree a cold opportunist and climbed down a caring, and cared for, philanthropist.
This listening to life—our own lives and the lives of others, the darkness and joyousness and impossible possibility of transformation into newness that we all share—listening to all of it in the silence before we finally but restlessly fall asleep or start our car or pour our coffee; and then also listening to the rustling of our tossing and turning, the cranking of the engine, the brewing of our coffee… this listening enables us to tell the truth.
Coupled with this we must also listen to the artists of our time and the times before us.
There would be a strong argument for saying that much of the most powerful preaching of our time is the preaching of the poets, playwrights, novelists because it is often they better than the rest of us who speak with awful honesty about the absence of God in the world, and about the storm of his absence, both without and within, which, because it is unendurable, unlivable, drives us to look to the eye of the storm. (44)
We would of course add the film writer/director (not movies necessarily, but film). Fiction is such an important informer of the Gospel, I cannot image how shallow my theology would be without it. (See It’s a Rather Dark Tale.) Likewise, if I didn’t discipline myself to listen to others, my theology would be shallow. And I recognize that some are gifted with a propensity for listening to nature, some to other people, some to art, etcetera. But we each of us regardless of which comes more naturally can grow through the Holy Spirit in our spiritual ability to listen in those less natural ways, and more importantly, we all must learn to lean on one another: he who has ears for music learns from she who has ears for engineering, for example—and she learns from him too.
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale is a small book divided into four chapters that brings us a refreshing look at sharing the Gospel. It’s refreshing because it is the whole, honest truth, not only about the world, but about our own hearts. “So if preachers or lecturers are going to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves,” Buechner, the ordained, “part-time novelist, Christian, pig” knowingly tells us,
they must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us. They must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all. (4)
And so, Buechner being a gifted, contemplative listener to life and literature, uses everyday life to tell Gospel history in fresh ways, and uses those stories together with the poetry of the prophets, the magic of familiar fairy tales, and the blood-bought masterpieces of some of Buechner’s favorite writers to tell the truth, which is the Gospel, and to help us tell the truth, the whole and total truth.