Tag Archives: Buechner

Son of Laughter

The Son of LaughterThe Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

The beautiful always surprise us. Everything else in the world we expect as we expect weariness at the day’s end and sun at waking. (171)

I’ve read a bit of Frederic Buechner, though not nearly as much as he deserves. Godric remains a favorite. In that novel, I especially love the way Buechner writes the prose with a cadence that makes it feels like I’m reading a poem or a song.

This latest, Son of Laughter, was recommended by a good friend, and it tells the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac (whose name means laughter), the son of Abraham, who was a friend of God. The story is familiar—or at least the bones of the story are—to anyone who has read the Old Testament account. But what is truly wonderful about this book is the way Buechner takes the familiar Sunday school account and restores the foreignness and the strangeness that our familiarity with the story has worn away.

Buechner takes the reader back to the earthy, alien, near-savage, almost pagan reality of a dusty tribe of desert nomads who have a peculiar relationship with an unusually singular deity. And he does this while remaining true to the source material yet simultaneously resisting the urge to color the entire account with an obvious Christological teleology (as would no doubt be the case in your standard Family Christian Bookstore retelling).

Instead Buecher tells the story of a tribe learning about this deity they call only “The Fear,” trying to understand (in the midst of great pain and violence) what the Fear’s promise that they will grow to be a great “luck” to all the people of the earth means to them. Along the way, Buechner’s perspective continually reverse-telescopes the view of Jacob and his situations, reestablishing distance between our world and theirs. Surprisingly, this helps explain some things (like circumcision) that seem inexplicable to our modern sensibilities.

The moon is a shepherd with a pitted face. He herds the stars. (56)

The narrative becomes strained in the second portion of the book, where the reader moves from the perspective of Jacob/Isreal to follow Joseph’s time in Egypt. Buechner still tells the story through Jacob’s perspective, which enhances the dream-like distance. Yet this portion remains integral to the story, because the consummation of the promise is so wrapped up in what happens to Joseph in Egypt.

The book ends without any sentimental reassurances about God or his promise to Israel. In fact, in one conversation Jacob admits to his son that the Fear’s promise is only for the living and that Jacob does not know what the Fear has in store for the dead. Buechner leaves the reader with only the glimmer of a greater hope on the horizon. Along the way though, he expertly shows the story of the patriarchs through eyes that make them simultaneously incredibly alien and richly alive.

The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless. (184)


GodricGodric by Frederick Buechner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The life of a saint is a peculiar thing. As I mentioned in a recent review of the writings of St. Seraphim, hagiography can make me acutely uncomfortable. Time and distance tend to polish the contours of anyone’s life, and a saint viewed through the lens of their own writings is often more comfortable than one in the flesh or even one depicted by contemporary accounts.

Frederick Buechner brings a saint to life in Godric, but it’s a real life, and in more ways than one. Buechner took an account of a historical saint from medieval England and built a life with the pieces history had provided. The skill with which he accomplishes this alone makes the book worthwhile, as England is a land with a rich and deep history entwined with Christianity. Godric would pair well with something like the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede. Buechner’s Godric is born the year before the Norman invasion and provides a Zinn-like “people’s history” view of the rise and fall of monarchies through the eyes of a merchant, a pilgrim, and finally a monk.

Then there is what the book says about sanctity, and this is where Buechner’s genius really shines. The book is not plot-driven, not riveting in the sense of chapters ending on cliffhangers or some over-arching mystery to solve or eminent peril to resolve. It’s something much more real: it’s a life. It’s about how Godric tried to find God. There are brushes with the supernatural, but they are merely hints and shadings. What Buechner drives home is Godric’s own, very human, search. There is no dramatic conversion. There are instead seemingly aimless wanderings as Godric tries to come to grips with his own fear, his own selfishness, and his seeming inability to do true good to those around him. It is in some respect an account of everyone’s life.

What makes Godric a saint? For Buechner it was two things: the perception that people formed of his sanctity, as he lived out the final half of his life in a hermitage beside the River Wear, and something much harder to define. It wasn’t his miracles. Those could be explained away. It wasn’t his holiness or sinlessness, as Buechner makes abundantly clear. As an anchorite, Godric is crotchety, impatient, and sometimes despairing. Moreover, the single more or less constant theme in his life is a relationship that provides the impetus that sends Godric wandering in the first place and which is ultimately culminated in incest and murder.

The thing about sanctity that Buechner might be telling us (and he is indeed saying much, and saying it very well in this book) is that Godric is a saint because he is desperate. He desperately wants to divorce himself from his own sinfulness. He desperately wants to know the love of God, and he’s crazy and stubborn enough to become one of those people who live out this desperation not enmeshed in the relationships within which most of the rest of us live out the struggle but in isolation, discipline, and constant prayer.

There is something else that makes this book wonderful. This is the voice Buechner creates for Godric; it is what makes the novel truly come to life. There’s not only the tone and the style in which he speaks, nor the harsh clarity that makes you know there was a real, breathing person behind these thoughts. There’s also the rhythm. The entire novel reads like a prose poem, with the flow of each sentence and phrase running with a steady cadence, fitting for the life of a saint who is credited as the first English lyric poet. It is almost intoxicating, carrying the reader along like the River Wear must have whispered constantly to Hermit Godric. Godric is a beautiful book beautifully crafted, and I’d love to find an audiobook version by a talented reader.