My Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: Frederick Buechner is a well-known author and preacher. One of his most well-known works, Godric, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The Sacred Journey tells the story of Frederick Buechner’s younger years as he becomes slowly, subtly acquainted with God over more than two decades of his life. He says, “Something in me recoils from using such language, but here at the end I am left with no other way of saying it than that what I found finally was Christ. Or was found. It hardly seems to matter which” (110). I appreciate this expression because I’ve come to believe that the Christ of my own finding, actually found me first.
The Sacred Journey is a short, well-written account that highlights certain moments in Frederick Buechner’s life from birth till his later twenties. From his non-religious upbringing, it tells of his spiritual journey, and the people and circumstances, often not seeming important at the time, which rose to the surface in reflecting upon that journey. Using chapter titles inspired by Dylan Thomas’ poem, Fern Hill, The Sacred Journey contains three chapters: Once Below a Time, Once Upon a Time, and Beyond Time (9).
“Once Below a Time” is childhood time when time itself seems endless. He brings to life his mother, father, and grandparents with vivid descriptions. They moved around many times in his childhood which leads him to say, “In any case…home was not a place to me when I was a child. It was people (21). But our “Once Upon a Time” ends often before it should have ended. Buechner’s father committed suicide when he was ten years old. Of that day, Buechner says, “The world came to an end that Saturday morning…” (41).
“Once Upon a Time” starts the clock running. After his father’s death, his mother took him and his brother to Bermuda for approximately two years, which provided a time for some healing to occur although Buechner indicates that it was not really until his thirties when he really grieved his father’s death (54). Unfortunately, Nazi Germany forced them back to the states to live with his mother’s parents in Tryon, North Carolina until he was sent to Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Throughout The Sacred Journey, Buechner reflects on many divine moments such as: Da Vinci’s drawing of Jesus’ face, or when he, his brother, and cousin, for no real reason, requested to be christened at the local Episcopal Church (62).
Lawrenceville School seems to be one of the most significant times in Buechner’s life. He not only discovered friends with whom he made much in common, but also found new fathers in his teachers, which significantly influenced him. He discovered his vocation as a writer there. He says, “But if a vocation is as much the work that chooses you as the work you choose, then I knew from that time on that my vocation was, for better or worse, to involve that searching for, and treasuring, and telling of secrets which is what the real business of words is all about” (75).
Finally, there is “Beyond Time”. This chapter covers Buechner’s time at Princeton, two years in the Army, finishing Princeton, and returning to teach at Lawrenceville. During this time, he reached out to the younger brother of his father, his uncle, when he was in need of financial support. His uncle gladly helped him, but committed suicide soon thereafter like his father had done. Additionally, he gained further direction for his vocation. He discovered “the great elegance and power” of several preachers “of the seventeenth century” (92).
Buechner continues, “It would be too much to say that I was converted by those men, but at the very least they made me prick up my ears…” (92). Even more, the Reality behind their words spoke to him. While Buechner published his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, which met with both popular success and critical acclaim, his spiritual journey progressed significantly when he began regularly attending George Buttrick’s church in New York City (108). The Sacred Journey ends with Buechner’s conversion and decision to attend Union Theological Seminary.
Evangelical Assessment: Regardless of theological disagreements, one can appreciate Buechner’s great gift for words. With his literary and comedic as well as philosophical and skeptical approach to the Christian faith, he often reminds me of Kierkegaard. He portrays the struggle of faith and understanding of theology existentially, in the reality human experience. I appreciate this feature of The Sacred Journey, but of course, this would not be much of an Evangelical Assessment if we do not unearth some of his theological statements for examination.
First, he begins with a general observation, “… all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can the rough-and-tumble of his own experience…” (1). His definition of theology departs from the evangelical perspective of theology. Theology is the study of God, and while some Evangelicals value experience, more than others, as a source of theology, Scripture is the only authoritative revelation of God, and all other sources of theology must ultimately bow their knee to the Holy Scriptures. Thus, we primarily base our theology on the exegetical and systematic study of God’s Word. The context of theologians does matter, but the importance of it must be kept in balance with an objective understanding of Scripture. In Buechner’s view, personal experience seems to be the primary source of revealing God, not Scripture. His is a philosophical position that looks to “the beauty of Beauty itself,” and the “Being itself,” which seems influenced by Tillich (52).
Second, while Buechner does not talk directly about sin and atonement, his story does show an awareness of sin and the need for atonement through his experience (93). Once again, it is an existential sense, a feeling that drives his discussion of it. It is experiential, not objective. While I agree that the experiential recognition of sin is important, sin is more than a subjective feeling. It is an objective offense against God, whether an individual feels it or not. In other words, we do not have to feel that we have sinned to have actually sinned. I can appreciate his subjective understanding of sin and atonement, which may lead to repentance and faith, but it seems to be based on the shifting affective sands rather than on God’s Word.
Lastly, Buechner disdains speaking of conversion and being born again although it appears that this is what occurred in his life (110-111). Evangelicals do affirm the need for evangelism and personal conversion. Some evangelicals have a particular perspective on evangelism and conversion, such as: dramatic experience versus growing awareness of trust in Jesus Christ, which sometimes creates difficulty for those who do not adhere to the same methodology, but all Evangelicals recognize the need for evangelism and personal conversion. If Buechner’s understanding of Evangelicalism were broader, his disdain for these may not be as distinct.
There is much more that could be said concerning Buechner’s philosophy, theology, and use of Scripture in this work. Kept in perspective, The Sacred Journey is a well-written, edifying book of one man’s spiritual journey from a non-religious background to faith, but I would not construct my theology from it.
Buechner, Frederick. The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (New York: HarperCollins, 1982).