“Telling the Truth” by Frederick Buechner

Buechner (pronounced Beek-ner) delivers an honest, simple, and all the while profound book with Telling the Truth.

With the intriguing subtitle “The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale,” it is clear Buechner approaches this subject from the tradition of a Christian preacher.

Buechner regularly addresses “the preacher” and does not shy away from the stories and poems of the Bible, but there is a much broader chord being struck here. At its core, this is a book written for storytellers and artists.

We are all of us in it together, and it is in us all. So if preachers or lecturers are to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves, 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 goods dreams and our bad dreams

They must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and to 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.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

For those skeptical that this book is really just for preachers, it’s worth noting Buechner’s affinity for quoting Shakespeare just as much as the Bible.

I read Lear my sophomore of High School, but this book brought a life out of those words that I had forgotten. The soul of this book is summed up from it’s first quote – Edgar’s final line, “stammering the curtain down” in Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Lear [5.3.324-352]

Shakespeare’s Lear serves as a guiding star for the strange, wild, conflicting levels of truth that shapes Buechner’s book.

Insofar as the truth is tragic, (Shakespeare, in Lear) told a tragedy of men and women suffering more than even their own folly and wickedness seem to merit.

Insofar as the truth is comic, both in the sense of terrible funniness and of a happy end to all that is terrible, he told a comedy of madmen and fools.

Insofar as the truth transcends all such distinctions and points beyond itself, he told a kind of fairy tale where everybody is disguised as something he or she is not and only at the end are all the disguises stripped away so that finally all are revealed for what they truly are, and like the beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” the old king, with Cordelia in her beauty dead in his arms, is finally turned into a human being.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

His movement through Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale is simple and profound. Buechner doesn’t skim past Tragedy to the wonderful platitudes of Comedy.

Beuchner beats you down with brutal honesty in his Tragedy chapter, and even when he begins the Comedy chapter spends time to surely remind us of the Tragedy.

As he writes in the very beginning,

The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

By preserving the Tragedy Beuchner carefully preserves the depth and meaning of the Comedy.

It is perhaps as important to look closely into the laughter of Abraham and Sarah as it is important to look closely into the tears of Jesus

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fair Tale

If you want a book that looks closely, Buechner will not disappoint. Telling the Truth is wise and incredibly deep. I could pine over this book and find a million beautiful quotes, but I’ll restrain myself so you can read it first hand.


(If you’re interested in this concept, ‘Telling the Truth’ is also cited in my post ‘Meeting Climate Change with Art: Hope’ and this tension between Tragedy and Comedy plays a key role in my Medium story ‘Art and the Emotions of Climate Change’).

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