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Now and Then

Written by Frederick Buechner | Reviewed by Jenn Sauer

“Frederick Buechner” is a name I’ve been hearing for what feels like as long as I’ve been old enough to pay attention in church. He’s one of those eminently quotable, impressively prolific twentieth-century Protestant luminaries–in some ways, an American analog of Britain’s CS Lewis: a learned theologian-novelist who uses his art to witness to the unearned grace of God. But despite his 39 genre-spanning books out there in the world, I somehow hadn’t read a single one until I picked up Now & Then from Covenant’s library.

Allow me to begin by unburdening myself with a confession: twenty-first century slick packaging and social media have definitely affected my ability to sift and winnow with wisdom. The brown, tattered cover and the font that firmly situates this book in the 1980s (it was published in 1983) would have prompted me to walk on by in my browsing, had Buechner’s writing not come recommended to me by Eric Wendorff. That old adage not to judge a book by its cover just might be onto something… because what I discovered was an author whose companionship I wasn’t ready to let go of after turning the last page of this slim volume.

Fortunately for me, Now & Then is only one of four volumes in Buechner’s series of autobiographies. It happens to be the second, and it reads fine as a stand-alone slice of his adult life. He divides the book into three sections named after locations that shaped and defined him. He focuses the first section, “New York”, on his time at Union Theological Seminary, where his teachers were the towering giants of theology: Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber, James Muilenberg, and Robert McAfee Brown, to name a handful. Accordingly, much of this section feels rather like a who’s who of Christian religious thought. Buechner’s purpose seems two-fold: to describe the intellectual waters in which he was privileged to swim and to humanize those legendary men. I loved his delightful description of Niebuhr, “ a beret with the wind ballooning out his raincoat as he walks his poodle along Riverside Drive” (12).

Given the rarefied air Buechner breathed, both at Union and in his privileged upbringing (he was raised in a wealthy family and attended Lawrenceville prep school and Princeton University), his self-aware and even self-deprecating approach to telling his life story was a welcome surprise. In the introduction to this volume, he confesses that he couldn’t tell people he was working on writing his own life’s story “...without an inward blush. As if anybody cares or should care. As if I myself should even care that much–like showing my baby pictures to strangers” (2). In explaining why he put his life on paper, he articulates what emerges throughout this book as a central tenet of Buechner’s personal theology. He says, “If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think he speaks to us largely through what happens to us” (3).

The pages that follow are a window into how this core belief emerged out of his experiences as a student, teacher, husband, father, and artist. In his seminary years, those experiences included learning from the theological “greats”, but also from people he calls “saints”, who had dedicated their ministry to directly serving the poor–something he found himself unsuited to do. Instead, he was ordained by the Presbyterian church as an “evangelist”, and in the late 1950s was invited to start a department of religion at the exclusive prep school Phillips Exeter. Buechner uses much of the “Exeter” section of the book to reflect on how his work there was that of an apologist in a culture that was growing increasingly hostile to organized religion. He often used secular works of literature to make his theological points with students, which brought to his attention the paucity of books that he saw as illuminating the grace of God in the midst of darkness and human suffering. His goal as a writer was to add to the number of such books. A highlight of Buechner’s thinking in this “Exeter” section is his vigorous defense against critics who assume that a minister-novelist cannot produce real art, which includes compelling details about how the artistic process worked for him.

…and the artistic process was not always a smooth one, as he makes clear in “Vermont”, the third section of this volume. After leaving his job of nine years at Exeter and moving with his wife and three daughters to Vermont in order to focus on his writing, Buechner writes candidly and affectingly of the dark night of the soul that ensued. He endured what he names as depression, desperation, anxiety, and hypochondria. But in recounting that agonizing time, he makes us see how his life imitated his art: on the heels of Buechner’s description of his pain and depression, he writes with great detail and warmth of the many beautiful, ordinary moments–almost three full pages of them–that also populated that period of his life: “...children careening around, still too little for bathing suits, and balloons to blow up, and poppers to pop, and shameful numbers of presents to open” (82). For Buechner, God’s grace is always there–one only need pay close attention. He tells us, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that…” (87).

Reading Buechner, who died last August at the age of 96, feels as relevant in 2023 as I imagine it felt 40 years ago, when the font and color of this book’s cover looked positively on trend. I’m looking forward to seeking out one of his many novels next–and I don’t care what it looks like.

Note: this book is available in the church library!

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*Author's note: The photo of the book cover shown here is not the cover I'm describing in my review. :) It looks like the publishers must've reissued it with a spiffier cover.

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