Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale is a tiny book – less than a hundred pages – but author Frederick Buechner makes each word count, packing the text with literary beauty and a deep passion for the gospel story. The four chapters are comprised of material from four lectures originally given at Yale University, but they read more like impassioned odes to the gospel than transcribed speech. The book opens with a call to preachers – which we are all meant to be, in one way or another – a powerful call to honestly tell the truth of the gospel. This truth, Buechner writes, is more than mere head knowledge. It appeals to the very human parts of us that cry out for answers, the answers that might fill the ‘emptiness where grace and peace belong’ (p. 4). It is the heart’s cry of every man and woman. It is the darkness and the terror, what we feel and lack as much as what we believe or morally assert. And the answer to all of this, Buechner says, lies in the truth of the gospel which comes to us in the form of a tragedy, a comedy, and a fairy tale.
The gospel starts in silence, Buechner writes, the silence of no answers, the silence of the bleak realisation of our own filthiness. It is a tragedy before it is anything else. It ‘is bad news before it is good news’ (p. 7). The bad news is that goodness is entirely out of our grasp. We are consigned to an emptiness of existence; we cannot save ourselves. We are shown our inability to be the men and women we always thought we could be. We are Pontius Pilate, as he agonises over the man who calls himself the king of the Jews. We are Henry Ward Beecher, fearing he has destroyed the message he dared to preach because he did not remain faithful to his wife. The gospel starts here, Buechner writes, because it must ‘strip us bare in order ultimately to clothe us’ (p. 33).
Then, when the way is steeped in tragedy and we know that we are empty, grasping, futile, alone, then comes the twist, the great comedic surprise: that things can turn around and the whole messy situation can be reversed. Buechner calls it the comedy of grace, grace which ‘can’t possibly happen because it can only impossibly happen’ (p. 58). If ‘the tragic is the inevitable,’ then ‘the comic is the unforeseeable’ (p. 57). We cannot expect it and yet somehow it happens. It is a comedy which set Abraham and Sarah laughing in the face of the angel of the Lord. It is a comedy in which the bums living on the streets get invited into the kingdom of God. It is startling and laughable and Jesus tells us we will not understand it unless we become like little children.
Finally, the gospel is a fairy tale. Fairy tales revel in transportation into impossible worlds, making unreality into reality. Dorothy somehow found herself in Oz. Alice ended up through the looking glass. Lucy stumbled into Narnia. The appeal of these stories is universal, and the heart wonders if these worlds of magic and mystery are closer than we think. The gospel answers yes. Fairy tale worlds burst into the everyday lives of Dorothy and Alice and Lucy (p. 77) and in the same way, the gospel bursts into our everyday world. In the fairy tale the lowly one becomes the princess, and so in life it is not always the beautiful or the powerful who triumph in the end. Jesus was not the least bit kingly to look upon, and his manner was only humble. ‘But the whole point of the fairytale of the Gospel is, of course, that he is the king in spite of everything’ (p. 90). It is impossible but it is true. It happened and is happening yet. Darkness meets light, and though darkness might loom large and light looks feeble, it is only a charade: light wins and will always win. The fairy tale of the gospel is surprising. Everything gets turned around, and it takes our breath away.
The preacher’s job then, Buechner insists, ‘is to hold up life’ (p. 16) and to express the truth of the gospel through the truth of human experience. Buechner himself does this by drawing out the humanity of the people we know from Scripture. He is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and he pulls truth from many Bible stories, retelling them so that the reader becomes a part of the story, recognising the prodigal son in him or herself.
Buechner’s writing is vivid, beautiful, and evocative. Within his sermons-turned-chapters he quotes from Scripture throughout the Old and New Testaments. He speaks of the poetry of prophecy, and explores truth in the ancient origin stories, as well as in Jesus’ parables. He revels in the literary beauty of the Bible along with the classics of English literature, quoting Herman Melville, CS Lewis, Shakespeare, and others.
Telling the Truth is not only an exposition of the truth of the gospel, it is a celebration of story and of literature. Buechner’s text fully exploits the Bible as literature, recognising and affirming the power of the biblical literature not just as bare truth written down, but as truth powerfully communicated so that it resonates in the mind and heart of the reader. He examines symbolism in the gospel and draws attention to the great themes of the Bible, which are literary themes as well as expressions of truth. He praises the emotional connection that biblical literature provides the reader, discussing its power to evoke truth in a way that ‘can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry’ (p. 25). And of course, he couches the gospel in the three distinct literary genres of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale.
Buechner ends Telling the Truth with the earnest invocation that each reader strives to do exactly that. ‘Preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy,’ he writes, ‘of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary’ (p. 98). It is, he adds, ‘the tale that is too good not to be true.’
Telling the Truth