The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Essays

The Witness of Literature

A Genealogical Sketch

Alan Jacobs

Joy Hulga’s Leg (detail) by Blair Hobbs; courtesy of the artist. Image inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People.”

How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith?


My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes Himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually. —Frederick Buechner1

Long ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing—an enormous biennial gathering of writers, would-be writers, and passionate readers, most but not all of them Christians—I had a curious and memorable experience. The featured speaker that year was Frederick Buechner, a novelist and memoirist whose general fame was greatest at the beginning of his career, in the 1950s, and who, since then, had produced a series of well-reviewed but not especially popular books. His 1981 novel Godric was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction; this is as close as he has come to winning a major literary award. Yet among those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing, Frederick Buechner was simply a rock star.

My wife and I had known Buechner for many years, and we arranged to meet him for coffee and a talk, before having dinner later in a larger group. But this private meeting proved difficult to arrange. So many people wanted to see him, to thank him, to get him to sign their often-reread copies of his books—it was more than Buechner, or anyone else, could handle, and he had to be kept out of sight. So we were ushered in cloak-and-dagger fashion to a small, out-of-the-way room where the author was ensconced, so we could recall old times and catch up a bit.

An awkward situation ensued. The kind and efficient people running the festival clearly expected us to have five minutes with the great man and then depart; Buechner equally clearly expected to spend some time chatting. So when another visitor came in and we rose to leave, Buechner insisted that we sit back down. As it turned out, then, we spent most of the afternoon there, having our conversation regularly interrupted by new visitors. Some of these were other festival speakers—for instance, Alfred Corn, the distinguished poet and critic, dropped by, and he and Buechner compared notes for a few moments on shared friends and acquaintances in New York—but most were simply lovers of Buechner’s work who had managed through some means unknown to us to gain brief admission to his presence. And almost all of them told the same story: Your writing has meant everything to my Christian faith. I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.

Throughout that afternoon—rising to greet strangers, then sitting down and striving to remain inconspicuous as they poured out their hearts—I couldn’t help reflecting on the sheer oddity of the situation. These were people, by and large, who knew the Bible, who attended church, who had the benefits of Christian community. Yet they testified, almost to a person, that Christian belief would have been impossible for them without the mediation of the stories told by Frederick Buechner. I know literary history fairly well, especially where it intersects with Christian thought and practice, and it seemed to me that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been virtually impossible even a century earlier. But I also knew that Buechner’s role was anything but unique, that other readers would offer the same testimony to the fiction of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor or C.S. Lewis.

How did such a state of affairs come about? How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith? It is a question with a curious and convoluted genealogy, one worth teasing out.

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