August 20, 2022 Wayne Northey

Frederick Buechner, Popular Christian ‘Writer’s Writer’ and ‘Minister’s Minister,’ Dies at 96

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Emily McFarlan Miller

August 16, 2022

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WN: The brilliant novelist/theologian was a great discovery. I read much of his writings, and returned to them, with great appreciation.

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(RNS) — Frederick Buechner was asked on numerous occasions how he would sum up everything he had preached and written in both his fiction and nonfiction.

The answer, he said, was simply this: “Listen to your life.”

That theme was constant across more than six decades in his career as a “writer’s writer” and “minister’s minister”—an ordained evangelist in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who inspired Christians across conservative and progressive divides with his books and sermons.

Buechner died peacefully in his sleep on Monday (Aug. 15) at age 96, according to his family.

Listen to your life.

Born Carl Frederick Buechner on July 11, 1926, in New York City, he moved frequently with his family in his early childhood as his father searched for work, settling in Bermuda after his father’s death by suicide when he was 10.

His studies at Princeton University were interrupted by World War II, but he completed his bachelor’s degree in English in 1948. He quickly achieved fame with the 1950 publication of his first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying.

It was in New York City that he had an experience that changed the course of his life and work: He began attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Growing up, neither side of his family had a “church connection of any kind,” as he put it, but he went because he happened to live next door and “because I had nothing else to do on a Sunday,” he recounted in a video posted on YouTube by the Frederick Buechner Center.

One Sunday he was struck by a particular turn of phrase by the church’s pastor, the Rev. George Buttrick: “Christ is crowned in the hearts of those who love him and believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.”

He recounted: “I was so taken aback by ‘great laughter’ that I found the tears springing to my eyes.”

He later told Buttrick he wanted to learn more about Christianity, to more than simply join the church. The pastor pointed the young writer to Union Theological Seminary—with some misgivings. Buechner quoted Buttrick in his autobiography “The Sacred Journey” as saying, “It would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.”

Buechner graduated with a bachelor’s of divinity—he’d later receive nine honorary degrees—and was ordained as an evangelist in 1958 at the same church where he had been so moved by Buttrick’s words.

That same year, he launched the religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he taught for nine years before moving with his family to their farmhouse in Vermont. He later was awarded lectureships at Harvard and Yale universities and held teaching positions at Tufts University, Calvin College and Wheaton College.

Christ is crowned in the hearts of those who love him and believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.Rev. George Buttrick

Among his novels, “Lion Country” was a finalist for the 1972 National Book Award and “Godric” a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His short story “The Tiger,” published in The New Yorker, took third prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1955.

The Rev. James Martin, a popular Catholic author, said in a YouTube video posted by the Frederick Buechner Center to mark Buechner’s 90th birthday that the author was “instrumental in my early days as a Jesuit.”

On Monday, Martin tweeted, “I’m so sorry to hear of the death of Frederick Buechner, who led a long and fruitful life and was one of my favorite spiritual writers. ‘The Sacred Journey’ is one of the most beautiful spiritual memoirs ever written. May he rest in peace with the God he loved for so long.”

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