catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 5 :: 2004.02.27 — 2004.03.11


Listening to literature

Frederick Buechner knows how to listen. In a world of Christians who ban books or buy only books sold at a Christian bookstore or protest books they haven’t read (or simply won’t read), Buechner listens to the books he reads. In a world of Christians who condemn not only Harry Potter but also the writing of Madeline L’Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, and even C.S. Lewis, Buechner’s Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith is a book about listening to four writers: Gerard Manley Hopkins and G.K. Chesterton (who were certainly Christians), and Mark Twain and William Shakespeare (whose personal beliefs seem to be much more up for grabs.)

Buechner chooses these authors because of the message they conveyed to him. As Buechner puts it, “Take heart, I heard them say, even at the unlikeliest moments. Fear not. Be alive. Be merciful. Be human. And most unlikely of all: Even when you can’t believe, even if you don?t believe at all, even if you shy away at the sound of his name, be Christ.”

The book starts with Hopkins. Buechner leads us through a close examination of a couple of the poems, linking them to some struggles in Hopkins’s life. Loneliness, unrequited friendship, feelings that his life was futile, a lack of acknowledgement of his writing, and other problems seemed to weigh heavily on Hopkins. Knowing this adds new dimensions to a reading of lines from his poetry, like:

I say more: the just man justices; keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is: Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the father through the features of men’s faces.

G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Tuesday provides a way to look at how Chesterton encouraged his readers to be alive and be Christ. The novel, written during a particularly odd time in the life a particularly odd man, is a story of an undercover police officer who becomes involved in a complicated assassination plot. The wheels within wheels become more and more confusing until the end, when the veil is torn away and the plot dissipates in a puff of sunshine and laughter. I haven’t read the book yet, but after reading Buechner’s take on it, I will.

Chesterton, who has always seemed to me to be quite nearly Reformed in his theology, was a pathologically socially awkward, theologically uncertain art student when he began the novel, and one can see echoes of how Christianity provided a way to understand every part of the confusing world. One of my favorite passages of the book repeats a Chesterton poem about how prayer should be part of everything a Christian does:

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera And grace before the concert and the pantomime And grace before I open a book And grace before sketching, painting, Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never been fond of anything Mark Twain has written. Buechner did not make me want to sit down and reread Tom Sawyer. He did, however, get beyond the usual reading of Huckleberry Finn in which much is made of the notion that the river symbolizes life. Buechner suggests that Huck rejects society and the church, even if it means he will go to hell, because he recognizes the wrongness of racist attitudes toward Jim. For Buechner, this choice represents or manifests a kind of grace: Huck sees clearly what is right, despite the distortions of sin.

The section on Shakespeare thankfully avoids falling into a long discussion of the uncertainties surrounding Shakespeare’s life and authorship of the plays. He deals mostly with the character of King Lear. There are no surprises here: Lear is almost a parable of misunderstanding, broken relationships, and reconciliation, a kind of prodigal father story. But Buechner handles it well, and points out how Shakespeare draws truth from the mouth of the fool.

The best thing about Speak What We Feel, though, isn’t just Buechner’s new discoveries about particular authors. It’s the example he sets of how to read literature by Christians and others, and to see grace shining through.

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