f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of <em>Godric</em> - Even Evangelical Fiction Authors Need a Patron Saint

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, April 19, 2004

Day 1 of Godric - Even Evangelical Fiction Authors Need a Patron Saint

In 1981, Godric was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and lost to a dead guy, namely John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces which is one of those books that I put in the category of “read it too young” along with Warren’s All the Kings’s Men, Austen’s Emma, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. These are all books of which I know I turned every page and yet remember only very little. But that’s neither here nor there.

Godric and its author, Frederick Buechner, are roundly hailed as being a shining example of the intersection of art and faith. Lots of authors and readers I know rave about Buechner and going in I was a bit worried. Very often, such hype only leads to disappointment. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with this novel. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it without reservation to all readers who journey here. In fact, I would recommend reading it sooner than later because of its high-ranking place in the canon of discourse on the topic of faith and fiction. It’s just one of those touchstone pieces of art that’s helpful to be familiar with.

What you don’t know about it perhaps is that it’s a 12th-century Tuesdays With Morrie. Take one very old hermit/holy man, add in one young monk writing down the man’s life and you have Godric. Only you have so much more.

The aspect I want to talk about today is the idea of hagiography.

Hagiography comes from the Greek word “agios” meaning holy and literally means a “story of holiness.” It’s the common term for any life of a saint and also has the connotation of being decidedly uncritical.

Godric is not a hagiography. Instead, it’s told, through flashback, in the first-person and seeks to tell the truth rather than let what the monk Reginald writes down become gospel.

The interesting part is that Godric was a real guy. Buechner picks a true life saint (see here for a encapsulated biography) and sees the man underneath the holiness. What we get in the course of the novel is both the path of one man’s life and also what amounts to his final confession. Godric has lived too long to be worried about false modesty at this point—he simply wants to unburden himself before death. To be free from the sins of his past he’s never been able to let go.

The last chapter of the book is the only told outside the first person. Godric is died and Reginald has picked up the story for what amounts to an epilogue. This is what he says:
“When at the instigation of Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, of blessed memory, I initially undertook to record this history, [Godric] made violent objection, reviling himself most passionately and reciting in multitudinous detail the sins of his youth. He aspired thereby to demonstrate his unworthiness of any such biographical endeavor, but his better judgment at last prevailed, and in the end he gave his blessing to this work. This I set it forth now in confidence that the world will be greatly edified by the example of this most estimable man.”
Reginald’s tact to do this is to simply smooth the rough edges, skip the saucier moments, and transform every sin into virtue. He’s one of those eminently smackable people who tells you that a “frown is just a smile upside down.”

And you know what? I can think of nobody better to serve as the patron saint of CBA. (Even if he’s a fiction of Buechner’s imagination.)

Our stories are not novels of true life. They are in their own way, hagiographies. We pretend our characters have blemishes or flaws, but they are cosmetic. Fixed up in a jiffy toward the end of the book without need for even Extreme Makeover or The Swan to intervene. We don’t have heroes however who are revealed as deeply sinful or willing to be shockingly honest. Which is strange, because so far as I know, each of us is deeply sinful. Our thoughts betray us, even if our bodies or words don’t. We’re just not willing as artists to hold up that mirror. (Which may say something about our own lack of awareness about the depths of our own sin. A troubling thought.)

So we have our choice. We can be content with the poor reflection in the dark glass. Content to pray to the statue of St. Reginald the Bland—who can turn Godric into Morrie—or we can pray that our dark glass goes clear for a moment and that we can truly see, no matter how painful, the truth of who we are. And then revel all the more in the grace afforded us through Jesus that such reflections don’t find their way to heaven.