A Seeker of Gospel-Shaped Stories

I somehow managed to earn a bachelor of arts in literature without ever encountering Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote until a high school production of Dale Wasserman’s 1965 play Man of La Mancha. I went as a rookie minister in the 80s because a 16-year-old junior from my youth group was playing the role of Aldonza, the scorned scullery maid Quixote keeps calling Dulcinea because somehow when he looks at her, all he can see is a princess: “I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea,” he keeps singing to this prototypical slut, with her dirt-streaked features and cleaning-woman rags.

My wife and I squirmed in our seats during Aldonza’s brutal rape scene. With admirable creativity, the director discreetly muted and blurred the obscenities of the scene. Still, there was our stunning, sweet parishioner suffering some modest bodice-ripping and unseemly groping by her male classmates.

Eventually, of course, Quixote’s deluded but relentless adoration of the abject Aldonza lifts her out of the scullery and into the palace court: Love’s smiling eyes redeem her degradation. Aldonza, a phonetically ugly name that stumbles awkwardly off the tongue, becomes Dulcinea, a musical name that is as mellifluous as one of Vivaldi’s dulcet harpsichord tunes.

At the end of that performance – admittedly with amateur, not Broadway, performance standards – I left that high school auditorium limp and weeping because I am a minister of the gospel and, at least the way Mr. Wasserman tells the story, Don Quixote becomes a retelling of the New Testament: When God looks at all of us scullery maids, all God sees is Dulcinea, all God sees is Jesus Christ in all his shining glory, and eventually, after long experience of God’s deluded but relentless adoration, we live into and up to God’s vision of us.

The next day I ran, not walked, to the corner bookstore to buy my first copy of Cervantes’ innovative picaresque and was instantly disappointed to discover that the New Testament is not featured in Cervantes; there, Quixote is more disdained buffoon than comic hero. That’s not a criticism of Cervantes, just an observation.

from Cervantes to Buechner

A few years after my moving experience of Mr. Wasserman’s gospel-shaped story, I met Dale Brown, who instantly became a fast, fond friend. Early in our friendship he told me – I forget why but it was without prompting – that the first time he saw Man of La Mancha – Arthur Hiller’s 1972 film starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren – he was so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the theater and couldn’t return; he only saw it through to the end when he finally recovered his composure and got brave enough to try a second showing.

We were companions in our incessant seeking after this kind of story, in which a Christ/Quixote figure looks at a prostitute and sees only a princess.

One reason Dale and I connected so infrangibly is that we were companions in our incessant seeking after this kind of gospel-shaped story, these latter-day retellings of the New Testament, in which a Christ/Quixote figure looks at a prostitute and sees only a princess, and, thereby, the prostitute becomes a princess.

I am always on a mad hunt for this kind of story because I have to scare up a sermon every seventh day, but Dale was always searching because he was a man of deep faith who loved Jesus and wanted to make sure that the world would rehear Jesus’ admittedly inimitable story from the voices and pens of sometimes charming, sometimes jarring but always compelling fictionalists who have faced down honest doubt and won through to earnest, realistic, authentic faith.

Dale begins his masterwork, The Book of Buechner, like this: “I have spent much of my career as a teacher of literature touting those writers who plow the stony ground in the shadows cast by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steele in the one field, and Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Frank Peretti in the other.”’

As examples of this middle ground between literalists and secularists, Dale lists John Updike, Annie Dillard, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, Joyce Carol Oates, Chaim Potok, Madeleine L’Engle and Oscar Hijuelos, along with lesser-known but equally accomplished writers, all of whom Dale brought to Calvin College during his years overseeing those Festivals of Faith and Writing; Dale’s Rolodex was enviable.
Among them, of course, was Dale’s favorite, Frederick Buechner, one of the few who were invited back to Calvin a second time for a reprise.

God-haunted heroes

As a youth minister in Springfield, Missouri, Dale went one day, as was his wont, to Shirley’s Old Book Shop, for a gaudy copy of The Book of Bebb, four novels about the preposterous preacher Leo Bebb, who remarkably turns out to be an odd vehicle of Jesus’ love to the sprawling cast of sad, lost, vividly drawn woebegones who surround him.

The Bebb novels are not easy books to read.  But Shirley the bookstore proprietor must have been an astute reader of both books and people, because Dale said that before he was finished with Lion Country, the first Bebb volume, “I realized that it might be my book – not the best book I had ever read, but my book nonetheless.” Perhaps Dale considered it his book because of what it featured: an unlikely saint; a brave and honest depiction of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that afflict us all; God’s unpredictable but ubiquitous and inescapable grace; lost souls redeemed, just barely, at the last possible instant.

Leo Bebb and his sidekick Antonio Parr are – like Godric, Brendan and Jacob the Son of Laughter after them – two of Buechner’s patented “God-haunted heroes” (Dale’s words) who stand at the center of a gospel-shaped retelling of the New Testament.

And thus in Shirley’s Old Book Shop in the mid-1980s, Dale was launched on a lifelong crusade of Buechner interpretation and promotion. At first, it was a moonlighting sideline to his day job as an expert in 19th-century American literature – Twain, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, among others – but the Buechner mania kept expanding to fill his days and occupy his energies.

Dale spent much of his career unbusheling the light of Buechner’s books for a wide readership, the faithful and the unbelieving alike. You can’t quite say that Dale single-handedly pushed Buechner to his deserved perch among the lofty pantheon of spiritual writers who are neither literalist nor secularist, because Buechner has an army of capable admirers, but I doubt there are any as important to the Buechner canon as Dale Brown, nor any more insightful in the critical analysis of that canon.

In Buechner’s novel Godric, the titular medieval saint loathes his irksome biographer Reginald for many reasons but mostly because Godric thinks Reginald keeps trying to slap a coat of shiny but false paint on a mottled life that in reality is, like all others, “a broth of false and true,” to use Godric’s and Buechner’s apt and immortal phrase. Buechner is most fortunate that his Reginald is far less irritating and far more charming than Godric’s, although if you slip me a glass of wine or two and promise not to tell anybody, I could possibly admit that Dale might be almost as hagiographic toward Buechner as Reginald is toward Godric.

Dale invited Fred to Calvin – twice. He interviewed his hero many times – publicly, privately and in print. He buried himself in the Buechner archives. He taught Buechner to thousands of college students on campus, and to post-college adults in churches, tucking Fred occasionally even into courses where his appearance might have been odd or unexpected.

Last-act adventure

In 2004, after he’d been teaching at Calvin for 16 years, Dale took a sabbatical at King College in Bristol, Tennessee, situated among the Appalachians that he so adored, to work seriously at what would become The Book of Buechner: A Journey through His Writings. He poured everything he was and everything he had and everything he knew into that book; it is beautiful, comprehensive and humane. Dale was a passionate guy, rarely uncertain, with intense disapprovals and high standards, so those of us who knew him were struck by how kind and gentle he turns out to be in this book, even when he is taking a shot at what he considers to be mediocre spiritual fiction or a critic-colleague’s erroneous analysis of the Buechner canon.

In 2007, Dale was casting about for something different to do with the rest of his career, and he was delighted when King College, who’d welcomed him so warmly as a visiting scholar during his sabbatical, received him again with open arms and helped him establish the Buechner Institute, named for his hero but designed with a more comprehensive mission.

It was to be sort of a recapitulation of the enormously successful Festival of Faith and Writing he’d built at Calvin beginning in 1994. He wanted to bring the best spiritual writers in the English-speaking world to the off-the-beaten-path folk of Appalachia: writers with Buechnerian purpose and talent who occupy, as my friend Jennifer Holberg put it, “that middle ground between abject secularism and shrill sectarianism.” Fred himself launched the new institute, breaking a bottle of champagne across its bow, by showing up at its Inaugural Conference in 2008, and like Calvin’s festival, King’s Buechner Institute has been a smashing success.

Faithful companion

I should have known from the beginning that Dale would be a good friend. He was, after all, an expert on the novel Godric, which is about friendship. Some people think it’s about sainthood and repentance and redemption, but it’s really about friendship. “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.”

I should have known from the beginning that Dale would be a good friend.

Near the end of his days, looking back upon a life of harrowing and technicolor adventure, Old Godric remembers the five friends: Mouse, Ailred, Gillian, and the two snakes. He imagines them all joining him there one last time at his monastic retreat on the banks of the River Wear. In Godric’s vision, each of the friends is perched on a separate rock in the middle of the river, and the water races between them with strength enough to kill.

“But we all reach out to touch each other,” says Godric, “and our friendship holds us up and lifts us high above the flood, no matter what the turbulence of life throws against us.”

“Praise, praise!” croaks Godric to the river. “Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise God for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise God for stillness in the wake of pain. Praise God for emptiness. And as you race to spill into the sea, praise God yourself, old Wear. Praise God for dying, and the peace of death. For what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

In his foreword to The Book of Buechner, Frederick Buechner – at 80 years old almost as ancient as Godric – looks back, too, on his last day, at the life he has lived. And Fred thinks: “I picture myself appearing before Saint Peter pretty much empty-handed except for the books. Were they worth all the time I spent on them, all the other things I neglected for them? Did they leave the world any better for having been written? What moved me most in Dale Brown’s book was that he seemed to think so, and I can only hope that when the time comes, he may put in a good word for me at the fateful gates.”

Dale was my friend, too. He was my faithful companion on our wandering quest for gospel-shaped stories, for ever-fresh retellings of the Bible’s original message about God’s expansive, lavish love for God’s sometimes lost and broken children.


William A. Evertsberg is senior minister at Kenilworth Union Church in suburban Chicago.