All posts by Stephen

Why I read Frederick Buechner

This was originally posted at My Friend Amy’s blog as part of her “Frederick Buechner week.”

When it came time to critique the piece I was workshopping at a writing class I took part in the end of last summer, Lauren Winner, the esteemed leader of our class, offered as one of her critiques that she thought I quoted Frederick Buechner too many times. When I attempted to explain that my quotations of Buechner were there because reading his books had helped me arrive at where I stand today, but that I was sure later drafts of the piece would rely less on Buechner’s words as I found my own, Lauren interrupted me, saying, “then write that. Write about how reading Buechner helped you become who you are today. That I would be interested in reading.”

So here it is: my attempt to explain something of what the writings of Frederick Buechner have meant to me. I have said elsewhere, and readily repeat it here, that I count myself among those are are still able to call themselves Christian, at least in part, because of the work of Buechner. When the voices of my fundamentalist religious upbringing threaten to drown out everything else, I have only to read something from Buechner to remember, once again, that maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole thing. Continue reading Why I read Frederick Buechner

Some thoughts on expanding our moral imagination

I’ve written before about my admiration for the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, in, for example, the following posts:

  • The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty
  • Naïve idealism / bitter realism
  • Never Safe against Temptation
  • I was, then, as you might imagine, happy to hear President Obama allude to another Niebuhr quote in his recent speech in Tuscon, and so wrote up some thoughts about it for Jesus Needs New PR, along the way tossing in quotes from Wendell Berry, David Dark, and Frederick Buechner.

    In his address in Tucson on January 12th, for the memorial service remembering the victims of the gunman who opened fire at U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords open meeting, President Obama exhorted those gathered, along with a listening nation, to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” His choice of words – “expand our moral imaginations” – was deliberate. He has used that phrase at least once before in a speech, in his Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 2009, where he encouraged “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.” In both cases, President Obama was undoubtedly referencing the work of the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr – whose work has been an influence upon Obama – and his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he wrote the following: “The most perfect justice cannot be established if the moral imagination of the individual does not try to understand the needs, interests and feelings of his fellow human beings.”

    Read the full post here

    Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

    The first book I ever read about writing was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was in high school, just beginning to realize that writing was something I wanted my future self to do, and so I asked my aunt and uncle, both published authors, what books on the craft of writing they would recommend. Besides Bird by Bird, the other book they recommended was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and both of them proved to be tremendously helpful. I was prompted to pick up Bird by Bird again last night after a writer friend mentioned it in her e-mail, and read the first chapter before I went to bed. After coffee with my friend Matthew Paul Turner this morning where it came up again, I read another twenty pages over lunch, and plan to read the rest of it this week.

    “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader,” she writes near the beginning of the book, “and that is the real payoff.” The act of putting the words down on the page is the part we should value, the reason why we do it, she repeats over and over, not the end goal of possibly being published. Continue reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

    Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

    I finished reading Frederick Buechner’s The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found last week, after starting it two years ago. It didn’t take that long to read because of the length; it’s only 180 pages. Rather, every time I picked it up, I couldn’t help but start back at chapter two once again, with its touching account of his lifelong friendship with the poet Jimmy Merrill. In their early 20’s, Buechner and Merrill shared a house for a summer on a small island off the coast of Maine, where they both worked on their first books. Buechner, writing these words fifty plus years after the events described therein, describes beautifully the process of growing up, of finding out who you are.

    Looking back, I think I see now how Jimmy and I were not much better than my characters at communicating with each other the innermost truth of who we were, not, I think, because it was a truth that either of us shied away from sharing-what made us such fast friends was that there was no topic we shied away from-but because we were only beginning to glimpse it ourselves. The selves we were beginning to grow into that summer were still in the shadowy wings awaiting their entrance cues… In the meantime we went on being the only selves we knew how to be just then[.]

    Finally, though, I kept reading past the second chapter, and found a lovely passage in chapter three where he describes his library and some of his favorite books. Continue reading Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

    “I write to change my own mind”

    I came across an interview this week with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review in which she talks a good bit about her writing process, and the answers she gives are very close to the way I would answer those questions. It’s one reason I find it worth my time to read interviews with authors whose work I value, to see how they are able to put into words the kind of things that I, more often than not, am also trying to sort through. Upon being asked if writing came easily to her, Robinson answered, “The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling.”

    Although she is probably best known for her fiction, she has several published collections of essays, and gave this answer when asked why she writes essays: Continue reading “I write to change my own mind”

    Is Your Faith Narcissistic?

    (This is a part of my Why I Stopped Going To Church series. You can read part one here, part two here, part two point five here, and part three here.)

    Before I move on to the next part, I wanted to expand upon a point I made in part three: stepping away from the Sunday morning expression of church-for now-does not mean that I have stepped away from community, nor do I think one can easily do so while still claiming they are following the Christian tradition in any discernible way. The decisions one makes when they are left alone with their own neuroses and what they think their Bible is saying to them on that day, in what is often a strange historical vacuum, do not tend to be in accordance with the Christian witness.

    As an example of what I’m arguing against, I’ll reference here the case of Sheila Larson, who is well known among sociologists of religion for this statement: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith is Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Continue reading Is Your Faith Narcissistic?

    The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence

    Last weekend I joined some family members for a camping trip to Skull Island, a spot about thirty minutes outside of Chattanooga we used to go to at least once or twice a year for a good part of my childhood, all five of us kids and the parents packing like sardines into our big dome tent until my brothers and I came into possession of little one-man G.I. Joe themed pup tents. Instead of spending the weekend fishing, swimming, and biking around the small island, the way I filled my days there growing up, the majority of the weekend was taken up with reading and sitting in silent reflection under the full moon, staring into the fire or off across the water, the lights from the nearby nuclear power plant lighting up the northern sky. That is, during those times when the silence wasn’t shattered by the loud country music or college football games blaring from the car stereos of the rednecks occupying the campsite at the center of the island – and I use the term “redneck” only because of the large rebel flag posted outside their tent with the word “REDNECK” superimposed in big white letters over the center of the flag, next to the confederate flag unadorned with redundant descriptors. Continue reading The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence

    Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 3


    Read part one here, part two here and part two point five here.

    This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

    “The greatest lie believed today,” my friend, and my pastor at the time, Tom, told those gathered that morning, quoting Larry Crabb, “is that one can know God without being known by someone else.” This statement, even if one chalks it up to hyperbole, is one way of getting at a truth we all instinctively know: we can’t do life alone. Whether one is speaking of life in general or of what we sometimes call the religious parts of life, as if there were a clear dividing line, we were not meant to be solitary creatures. In an attempt to explore reasons for spending time with fellow believers in a deliberate, structured context, Dr. Harold Best, in Unceasing Worship, writes: Continue reading Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 3

    The church and the problem of “simplistic call and response on complex issues”

    Some of the thinking I’m doing around the blog series I am currently writing, Why I Stopped Going to Church, has to do with the larger question of what the church is, particularly in its local expression, and out of that comes questions about the role it plays in public life. So it was with interest that I read a review of Jordan Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, written by Robert Joustra for Comment Magazine. (Robert and I have several mutual friends, and it was through them that I heard about his review.) Continue reading The church and the problem of “simplistic call and response on complex issues”

    Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 2.5

    Read part one here and part two here.

    This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

    I am still working on part three of this series, so in the meantime, I thought I’d post a passage from Frederick Buechner’s sermon Two Stories that a friend just reminded me of, from the same collection – Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons – as the Buechner sermon I mentioned in part two. I realize this means I’ve quoted Buechner four or five times in these posts so far, but one reason I do so is because I count myself among those who say they still call themselves Christians, at least in part, because of the writings of Frederick Buechner, and I’ll do everything within my power to convince others to read his work, especially his sermons and his memoirs – The Sacred Journey, Telling Secrets, and Now and Then are great introductions. Continue reading Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 2.5