In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.
— Frederick Buechner
God must have loved words in the beginning because he made so many of them. I envision some of my favorite Christians in a parade — they march proudly down the streets of my mind beating the drum for Jesus, um-pha-phaing the good news of the Gospel, making merry music out of words. Some of them are novelists: John Updike, D. Keith Mano, Peter DeVries, Walker Percy, John L'Heureux. Others are political or literary commentators: Garry Wills, Nathan Scott, John Killinger. And one of them, Robert Farrar Capon, is unclassifiable. They are all enthralled with both the Word and what makes words tick, hum, dance, and sing. They give Christianity and imagination a good name.
We've been told by various authorities that theology is basically a serious word game. Yet there is the widespread feeling abroad nowadays that story-telling is the most viable and revealing way to make theology. If this is true, then the merry-makers in my parade are the best hope we have to unravel the mystery of creation and discover the meaningful revelations of the Word. Frederic Buechner belongs in my parade. He's a rare one, this writer-poet-theologian. This is his eighth novel and I am still — to quote the psalmist — drinking the wine of astonishment. Mr. Buechner has helped me to see that one dimension of the religious quest is to discover by means of words and images how tricky the Holy One can really be! In the midst of cold toast, bad dreams, small triumphs, and the seemingly catastrophic disasters of everyday life, we are sustained by the miracle of Grace. After all, this turf is not only the killing ground — it is the clown's arena!
Leo Bebb — the inimitable lead character in Lion Country, Open heart, and now Love Feast — is one of God's most colorful handkerchiefs. In the first two novels, we follow the zany escapades of this ex-Bible salesman, ex-con, evangelist, founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc. and the Open Heart Church, and International President of Gospel Faith College. Now the sixty-five-year-old Bebb has rejuvenated his ministry by setting up "love feasts" at Princeton University. He preaches the Gospel to the Pepsi Generation with exuberance: "Dear hearts, we got to love one another and Jesus or die guessing." But despite the brief success of his fellowship dinners (replete with confession, testimony, and "transubsustantiated Tropicanas"), our preacher has some monumental problems. He's wanted by the law for income tax evasion and insurance fraud. Besides that, Princeton wants to close down his parable-inspired banquets.
The narrator of Love Feast, Antonio Parr, has his difficulties too. His wife, Sharon, Bebb's daughter, and he are having trouble in their marriage: "It wasn't exactly a pain but it wasn't a picnic either." In Buechner's fictional world, life's separations are God's way of drawing people close together. Antonio confesses at the end of the book that he has achieved "a capacity if not for rising above irony like the saints, at least for living it out with something like grace, with suspicion if not the certainty that maybe the dark and hurtful shadows all things cast are only shadows." Fleeing from the law, Bebb and his faithful friend Mr. Golden hide in Bull's International Fireproof Storage where the preacher sums up his ministry:
"All I've done up 'till now, it's all been small potatoes. A soul here, a soul there . . . I reached out far as I could. The unchurched millions I tried to catch with the mail order ads of Gospel Faith College, the great whore of the North I set up Open Heart to wean away from the cup of fornication, the Pepsi Generation, how I made them stay with flagons and comfort them with apples."
Buechner delights in being with the children of his imagination. And we do too. This stylish and witty writer makes the faith seem both expansive and mysterious. Reading Love Feast gives one a marvelous sense of joy in being.