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-by Philip Yancey


The Reverend of Oz

(Third of three parts; click here to read part 2)

A week later the young novelist was talking with Buttrick about what seminary he should attend. Buttrick drove him to Union Theological Seminary, and the following fall Buechner enrolled there as a student, to learn from the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, James Muilenburg, Paul Tillich, and John Knox.

At times Buechner has been tempted to interpret his conversion experience in Freudian terms as a search for a missing father, or in existentialist terms as a self-validating response to anxiety and failure. He resists that temptation. Instead, he sees in it an exemplar of the "crazy, holy grace" that wells up from time to time "through flaws and fissures in the bedrock harshness of things." As Buechner has noted, many modern writers have plumbed the depths of despair in a world where God seems largely absent, but few have tried to tackle the reality of what salvation, of what God's presence, might mean.

In his own writing, Buechner has never forgotten that Christ was crowned in the presence of laughter. Beyond the shadows in which we live and move there lies, in a phrase from Tolkien he often quotes, "joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief." Buechner writes of a magic kingdom, like Oz, of an end to our weary journey, of a home that will heal at last the homesickness that marks our days. "I have been spared the deep, visceral look into the abyss," Buechner says. "Perhaps God indeed saves his deepest silence for his saints, and if so I do not merit that silence. I have intellectual doubts, of course. But as John Updike put it, if there is no God then the universe is a freak show, and I do not experience it as a freak show. Though I have had neither the maleficent nor the beatific vision, I have heard whispers from the wings of the stage."

The Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon sketches two contrasting models of how God interacts with history. The traditional model shows a God "up in heaven" who periodically ...

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