Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale Frederick Buechner 1977 HarperCollins
I need to start my review by telling the truth. I read a high volume of books and other materials on a regular basis. One consequence of this is that it lessens the chance of a single book having a far larger impact on me than other books. But this one book by Frederick Buechner is an exception. I read it over a decade ago and am still thinking about it today.
Who is Frederick Buechner?
Full confession. Before buying this book I’d never heard of Buechner. I only bought his book because the title intrigued me. Now I know he’s a Presbyterian minister, a prize-winning novelist of some repute, a poet, and non-fiction author too. This book started out its life as a series of lectures Buechner delivered at Yale in 1976.
I was intrigued by this book’s title enough to buy it because of its claim to understand the Christian message in terms of classical literary genres – comedy and tragedy. And I was even more intrigued by the addition of fairy tale to the mix. Although fairy tale stories are often ancient in origin, with a grounding in folklore, they have given birth to the more modern genre of fantasy.
It’s important to understand what Buechner doesn’t mean when he talks about ‘the gospel’ as one of these three literary genres. Firstly, he’s not referring to the Gospels, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Secondly, he’s not referring to gospel preaching narrowly conceived of as a call to the unconverted to repent. Buechner understands the Gospel as the entire truth of the Christian message as understood from three progressing perspectives.
First, since the truth is tragic, telling the truth must include a tragic element. It involves human suffering, often as a result of human folly and wickedness. The Gospel starts with the bad news that man is a sinner – “eight parts chicken, phony, slob.” It strips us bare and burdens us with hard truths about ourselves. It makes us cry real tears, “painful and disfiguring,” at war, poverty, ignorance, injustice and disease, which we’re helpless to solve.
God seems absent and hidden in a world of tragedy. The Christian cross is a symbol of defeat. Life is unendurable, unliveable, meaningless. The tragic truth is of a “dark and storm-tossed world” where the best we can hope for is to see God only dimly and from afar. But, more usually, the human condition is one of weeping, defeat and death. The tragic is inevitable, necessary. The visible absence of God laughs at us.
Next, the truth is comic. Telling the truth in a comedic form provides a terrible funniness and a happy ending to all that is terrible. The Gospel is the good news that sinners are loved and forgiven anyway, “bleeding, to be sure, but bled for.” Astonishment, hope and joy are what it points to. It’s the surprise of laughter after tears, as something new breaks into the darkness, “something so unexpected and preposterous and glad” that we can only laugh in astonishment.
The comic is unforeseeable, but when it comes, it happens “gratuitously, freely, hilariously”. The Gospel is a high and holy joke about the shocking antics of grace and “the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people…The comedy of God’s saving the most unlikely people when they least expect it.” The invisibly present God laughs with man, and man with God.
Finally, the truth is a fairy tale, since it transcends all distinctions and points beyond itself. The Gospel is the extraordinary news that extraordinary things happen to turn sinners upside-down. The fairy tale world is not far away to entre or hard to get at. Like dreams and memory, it impinges on the ordinary world. But it is very different from the outer world we normally live and the inner world of who we usually are. It is a world in which good and evil are disguised, but where creatures are transformed and “revealed in the end as what they truly are”. In it, the marvellous and impossible truly happen, with an endless Joy that lives happily ever after “beyond the wall of the world.”
What strikes me the most in this analysis is Buechner’s insight that it’s the fairy tale world that brings tragedy and comedy together, without weakening the truth of either. The fairy tale world remains one of “darkness and danger and ambiguity” and full of great perils. But it is a world both of “deep darkness and flickering starlight” where “terrible things happen and wonderful things too.” Telling the truth means there is a “dark and monstrous side” to fairy tales but the message of the Gospel is one of the “overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary” in the tale that is “too good not to be true”.
That is the Gospel, this meeting of darkness and light and the final victory of light. This is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial different from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is true, that is not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is still happening. (p. 90)Buechner, p. 90
This is a short book – less than a hundred pages long. It isn’t a technical book, either in terms of theology or literary theory. It is beautifully written, sprinkled with insight from expected (C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien) and unexpected (Aldous Huxley) sources. Buechner lightly interacts with a wide range of high and pop culture touchpoints throughout. I enjoyed his insights into other genres, such as sci-fi (85) and horror (86). It’s a rare experience to read a book that’s so real and focused on ‘telling the truth’ but yet so creatively stimulating and uplifting at the same time. And that’s the point.
Very highly recommended.