Whatever happened to the Gospel as fairy tale?

WhitfieldThe conclusion to Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth is breathtakingly beautiful, most of all its needful exhortation that all of us, the priesthood of believers, must ask God for the courage and imagination to proclaim “the Gospel in its highest and wildest and holiest sense.” He writes:

The preacher is called in his turn to stand up in his pulpit, as fabulist extraordinary, to tell the truth of the Gospel in its highest and wildest and holiest sense. This is his job, but more often than not he shrinks form it because the truth he is called to proclaim, like the fairy tale, seems in all but some kind of wistful, faraway sense too good to be true, and so the preacher as apologist instead of fabulist tries as best he can to pare it down to a size he thinks the world will swallow.

Too good to be true implies a view of truth, of course. It does not have to imply that the truth is bad but only that it is so vast and shapeless and random that it is beyond the power of any adjective to qualify. The truth, reality, is what it is. It is the TV news with the sound turned on and all the other sound turned on with it – the sound of the house, of the street outside the house, the town, the countryside, the world, the ten thousand times ten thousand worlds of outerspace, and the sound of the great silence and emptiness of space itself. The truth is all the sounds that well up within the preacher as he sits down at his desk to put his sermon together – the sounds of the bills to be paid, the children to educate, the storm windows to put up, the sounds of his own blunders and triumphs, of his lusts and memories and dreams and doubts, any one of which when you come right down to it is apt to seem more real and immediate and clamorous to him than the sound of truth as high and wild and holy. So homiletics become apologetics. The preacher exchanges the fairy-tale truth that is too good to be true for a truth that instead of drowning out all the other truths the world is loud with is in some kind of harmony with them. He secularizes and makes rational. He adapts and makes relevant. He demythologizes and makes credible. And what remains of the fairy tale of the Gospel becomes in his hands a fairy tale not unlike The Wizard of Oz.

* * *

For the sake, as he sees it, of the ones he preaches to, the preacher is apt to preach the Gospel with the high taken out, the deep mystery reduced to a manageable size. “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it will be moved and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). “Come, O blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 35:24). “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The wild and joyful promise of the Gospel is reduced to promises more easily kept. The peace that passeth all understanding is reduced to peace that anybody can understand. The faith that can move mountains and raise the dead becomes faith that can help make life bearable until death ends it. Eternal life becomes a metaphor for the way the good a man does lives after him. “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6), Jesus says, and the preacher is apt to seek to remove the offense by removing from the Gospel all that he believes we find offensive. You cannot blame him because up to a point, of course, he is right. With part of ourselves we are offended as he thinks by what is too much for us to believe. We weren’t born yesterday. We are from Missouri.

But we are also from somewhere else. We are from Oz, from Looking-Glass Land, from Narnia, and from Middle Earth. If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still. No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth. You pull the shade on the snow falling, white on white, and the child comes to life for a moment. There is fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die? The child in us lives in a world where nothing is too familiar or unpromising to open up into the world where a path unwinds before our feet into a deep wood, and when that happens, neither the world we live in nor the world that lives in us can ever entirely be home again any more than it was for Dorothy in the end either because the Oz books that follow The Wizard, she keeps coming back again and again to Oz because Oz, not Kansas, is where her heart is, and the wizard turns out to be not a humbug but the greatest of all wizards after all.

So let the preacher remember this and preach to us not just as men and women of the world but as children, too, who are often much more simple-hearted than he supposes, and much hungrier for, and ready to believe in, and already in contact with, more magic and mystery than most of the time even we are entirely aware of ourselves. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 18:3), Jesus says, and he is not just being sentimental as he says it. Let the preacher stretch our imagination and strain our credulity and make our jaws drop because the sad joke of it is that if he does not, then of all people he is almost the only one left who does not. Scientists speak of intelligent life among the stars, of how at the speed of light there is no time, of consciousness as more than just an epiphenomenon of the physical brain. Doctors speak seriously about life after death, and not just the mystics anymore but the housewife, the stockbroker, the high-school senior speak about an inner world where reality becomes transparent to a reality realer still. The joke of it is that often it is the preacher who as steward of the wildest mystery of them all is the one who hangs back, prudent, cautious, hopelessly mature and wise to the last when no less than Saint Paul tells him to be a fool for Christ’s sake, no less than Christ tells him to be a child for his own and the kingdom’s sake. 

Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depth of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I will laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth we have. 

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One thought on “Whatever happened to the Gospel as fairy tale?

  1. Wow……….What a Sermon. I didn’t know how much I was waiting to hear something like that until I heard it!
    Thank You!!

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