Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

Unknown

Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

roman-kraft-434942-unsplash

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

2017 Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up!

All good things must come to an end. Before I head off bravely into a brand-spanking new year, I have to pause for a moment to say farewell to my last year’s reading challenge, the Year of Fun Reading.

This was a reading challenge that I found on the blog of Modern Mrs. Darcy (if you don’t listen to her What Should I Read Next? podcast, you should!). Each month I read a book that fit into the category she suggested, and, as the title suggested, it was actually a lot of fun.

To put my own spin on it, I tried to read books that fit into either speculative fiction or history, to complement my focus here on the blog.

As I went though the year I discovered authors I had never read before, which was great. I read good books, and not-so-good books, and rediscovered an old favourite. As I close up the series, I wanted to follow my previous pattern and do a wrap up of what I learned through this year of reading.

Just as a refresher, here are the categories, in order, and the books I read for each one. I didn’t do them all in the order that the “official” list suggested, and I borrowed one or two from the alternate list of “Reading for Growth” instead of “Reading for Fun”…which got me into a little trouble. I realized as I compiled my list I actually read two Books I was Excited to Read but Haven’t Read Yet because I has forgotten that I did this category at the beginning of the series instead of at the end, so I did it again. I also only read eleven books, not twelve, due to less time for reading that I thought I would have in the summer, and Way of Kings was a long book! Oops. Oh well.

Links included to each post, just in case you want to refresh your memory, or are visiting my blog for the first time (hi!).

January – Book I Chose for the Cover – Hot Lead, Cold Iron, by Ari Marmell

February – Book You Are Excited to Read or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

March – Un-put-downable Book – Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

April – Book Set in a Place You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

May  – Book I’ve Already Read –  Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

June – Book About Books or Reading – Ink and Bone (Great Library #1), by Rachel Caine

July – Book of Any Genre Addressing Current Events – Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

August/September – Book That Has More Than 600 Pages – Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

October – Book Recommended by Someone With Great Taste – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

November – Book in the Backlist of a New Favourite Author – The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers

December – Book You Were Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Kin of Cain, by Matthew Harffy

Without further ado, here’s my wrap-up of the 2017 Reading Challenge:

  1. The book I liked the least – Well, this was tricky. I didn’t hate any of the books, but unknownthere were a few that were definitely underwhelming. But, Queen of the Tearling has to be the one I enjoyed the least. The plot holes and thinly veiled hostility towards religion was just too much for me. Meh. A close runner-up would be Daughter of Ink and Bone. I actually gave that book two stars, and Queen I gave three, mainly because of the sexy angel element in Daughter. It’s plot is much tighter than Queen of the Tearling, though, so all in all Queen of the Tearling gets the dubious nod for the book I liked the least.

 

5139RwDhQDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

2. Book I liked the best – in contrast, it was quite easy to pick the book I liked the best, even though there were strong contenders for this one. But far and away the book I enjoyed the most was The Book of the Dun Cow. I love so much about this book, from the writing, to the characters, to the plot, to the beauty of the story. I read it under the category of  The Book I’ve Already Read, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it way back when, and my appreciation for it has only deepened with time. Fantastic and highly recommended.

3. Book/s I wished I had written – It goes without saying that Book of the Dun Cow would

Unknown fall under this category also. I can only hope to ever write that well, and it’s the kind of book that hits me in all the right ways. But in surveying the other books on the list, I would have to say Way of Kings would be my second choice for the book I wish I had written.  I do love epic fantasy, and found the world-building and concepts explored here interesting. It’s a great feat to build a world and characters as ably as Sanderson does. But I would try to trim that beginning just a wee bit, if I were to do it. But, hey, he’s a multi-best-selling author and I’m just a wannabe, so what do I know anyway?

27833670

4. Book/s I’m still thinking about  – again, Book of the Dun Cow. ‘Nuf said. But setting that one aside, I would have to say that the book that lingered with me the most was Dark Matter. Aside from being a terrific thriller and a fun read, it raised questions that lingered long after I finished it.

 

5. Book I was most disappointed in – the nod for this has to go to Company Unknown-2Town. I had high hopes for this one, and I really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t succeed in the ways that I wanted it to. Aspects of plot and characters were a bit too muddy, and the ending a little too out of left field. I want to support Canadian authors, and I was excited to read this one, which was picked as one of the Canada Reads books of 2017, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of it. Bummer.

225x225bb6. Book that pleasantly surprised me – This was a pretty easy pick. I had been avoiding Ready Player One because I really dislike the “teen hero saves the world” plot, AKA Wesley Crusher. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, but I saw the movie and just couldn’t get into it because of that very reason. I figured that Ready Player One was just the same. But,my book guru recommended it, and as she and I have similar tastes in books, I gave it a try. And I liked it! Yes, perhaps the author got a bit carried away by the 1980s references and relied on them too much to carry the plot along, but, whatever. I found it a fun read. Really looking forward to what Spielberg is going to do with this on the big screen. If ever a book was made to be a movie, this one was!

7. Best writing – our of all the books I read this year for this challenge, there were three that stood out to me as having writing that is better than the rest:

  •   Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. tops the list.  Wangerin’s poetic, yet5139RwDhQDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ simple style of writing here is a master class for writers. The voice of the book is distinct, with its folk-tale feel, and the reader falls under the story’s spell from the first page. But with the first introduction of Chauntecleer the Rooster and Mundo Cani Dog, you realize there is something more to this story than a simple children’s tale, depths which slowly unfurl along the way of the story’s slow telling. This book won the National Book Award for the U.S., and it is a deserving winner.
  • The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers. I fell in love with Youer’s writing when I read Weforgotten girlstlake Soul, one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple years and probably the one I have recommended to other people more than any other book recently. The Forgotten Girl didn’t have quite the same impact, but Youer’s skill in writing was still on display in this suspense thriller. I loved the way he wove a sweet love story into the midst of this story. I also love the portrayal of the main character and his father. Youers ability to write about love and relationships in more than just a superficial way is one I much admire, especially as he does it here in the midst of a super-charged plot. Very well done and a great read. Unknown
  • Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. As I mentioned above, it’s not easy to create a whole new world and make it believable, but Sanderson does that here. Although I love big, long books, it’s been awhile since I’ve read any, just because I haven’t had the time. But this book reminded me why they are so much fun. Even though the beginning was a bit tough to get into, once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I understand why Sanderson is so very much admired for his epic fantasies!

All in all, I really enjoyed this year’s Year of Fun Reading. Thank you to Ann Bogel, the Modern Mrs. Darcy herself, who inspired this challenge. If any of you are wanting to do something similar, she has her new challenge for 2018 up on her blog right now.

However, I’m going to do something different for 2018. Come back next week for the reveal of my new Reading Challenge for the New Year!

 

A Year of Reading Lewis

There are writers who challenge you, confound you, entertain you, puzzle you, encourage you, or teach you, and then there is C.S. Lewis, who can manage to do all of those things in one piece of writing.

This musty Oxford don, whose academic speciality was Medieval and Renaissance Literature, was, according to Wikipedia, a “novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and Christian apologist.”

When I first took my steps into faith, by happy accident (no accident at all, of course), one of the first books I read was Mere Christianity. This book, with its robust defence of the Christian faith using philosophy and reason, gave short shift to any idea I might have had that the Christian faith is only for simpletons or naive people who simply accepted their view of the world as “faith” which could not be questioned.

I have since read most of Lewis’ works, both fiction and non-fiction, and I have to say he is very much one of my top three of my all-time favourite writers.

But it has been a while since I have read much of his works, so I thought I would dive back into his writings this year, and share with you some of the delights I find along the way.

I will not be reading all of Narnia, however, it would probably take me all year to read through all of the series. But I might dip into one of the books, because you can’t cover Lewis without venturing into Narnia at least once.

I’m going to start with his other speculative fiction books, his Space Trilogy, consisting of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Throughout the course of the year I will also read through some of his non-fiction as well as some of his little-known short stories.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Lewis; in so many ways he feels like an old friend. I hope you enjoy my visits with him, too, and if I can encourage any of you to read some of his books as well, I will be very delighted.

Meet me here on the last Friday of the month, and we’ll talk Lewis together.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you,  you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

                                         – C.S. Lewis

*********

What about you? Have you read any C.S. Lewis? What is your favourite book? Which ones would you like to see me cover? Anyone want to read along with me? First up: Out of the Silent Planet.

Movie review: The Hobbit, Part Three: Battle of the Five Armies

Over the Christmas holidays the family and I took in Peter Jackson’s final take on The Lord of the Rings saga.

Just to give you some background, let me state that I have been a fan of Tolkein’s LOTR since I first picked up the books in high school. I have read those three books, as well as The Hobbit, many times. Like many other fantasy authors, Tolkein’s work had a huge influence on me both in terms of subject matter and inspiration to write a tale of my own. I suffered through previous attempts to being these movies to the big screen, so when I saw the first LOTR movie it was an absolute delight. It was astounding to see Middle Earth brought to life in a credible way by someone who obviously loved the books as well. So, hats off, Peter Jackson!

But this post is about The Hobbit, pt 3. I have to confess that when I went to the first Hobbit movie, I actually hadn’t clued in to the fact that it was going to be a trilogy (not sure how I missed that). When I got to the end I thought…what? How on earth is he going to stretch the story out for three movies?

And we saw how….padding, background stories for some of the LOTR characters, and more padding. I enjoyed the first two movies, but…well….I have to say I found Pt. 3 a bit tedious. Not a lot of story, and a whole of sturm and drang, as they say.

The parts I enjoyed the most were any scenes with Bilbo (Martin Freeman, how I love you!) and any scenes with Smaug (“Magnificent” special effects, just, wow). Unfortunately there weren’t many of either of those. The rest of it seemed like a series of attempts to make one exciting video game sequence after another.

But I can’t diss it too badly. I have great respect for what Jackson has done in bringing these beloved tales to life. I just wish he hadn’t lingered so long on The Hobbit, it felt like a bit of a money grab rather than an attempt to tell the story faithfully to the original.

Please, Mr. Jackson, get to work on those Temeraire stories! I can’t wait to see what you do with a whole movie (or mini-series!) about dragons…..

*****

My rating for this movie: 3 stars. What do you think? Did you like it? How many stars would you give it?