Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. How Frederick Buechner’s books changed my life … Where to start if you’ve never read Buechner and you want to check him out … What’s next for our newsletter community … Plus, a Desert Island Playlist with proposed criteria for figuring out what’s worth listening to … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Frederick Buechner Helped Keep Me Christian

After I heard the news of the death of Frederick Buechner this week, I walked over to a bookcase that I visit more than any other in my study. These shelves are filled with what seems too small to say are my “favorite” authors. These are the writers who kept me Christian, who upended the way I think or feel about everything.

The Buechner section of that bookcase seems like a disorganized chaos. There’s no coherent genre. Here’s a novel, there’s a Bible study, here’s a dictionary, there’s not just one but several autobiographies.

And there’s no coherent chronology either. They are stacked not in the order that they were written but in the order that I was introduced to them. That’s because when I look at each of those books, I am retelling myself a story—of when I discovered it and what it was like to read that book for the first time.

When I stand in front of those shelves, I’m doing what Buechner asked us all to do. I am listening to his life—and to my own.

The first book on the shelf is an old copy of A Room Called Remember, a collection of essays I discovered as a teenager while rifling through the discard table of a public library. When I started reading that book, what caught my attention was a serious Christian who seemed to see what I could feel but couldn’t really articulate: that life is a mystery, a mystery that’s a plotline, a plotline that connects us with the story of Jesus.

These stories, he wrote, “meet as well as diverge, our stories and his, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that by his absence as well as by his presence in our lives, we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.”

A few inches down on the same shelf, I can find Buechner’s writings on faith and fiction, The Clown and the Belfry, and remember how I never read another parable of Jesus the same way after I encountered that book. For years, I had heard those stories preached just like the Pauline Epistles. The pastor would break them down for us—point by subpoint by sub-subpoint—telling us the interpretation and application of each part.
But Buechner had more to say. “If we think the purpose of Jesus’ stories is essentially to make a point as extractable as the moral at the end of a fable,” he wrote, “then the inevitable conclusion is that once you get the point, you can throw the story itself away like the rind of an orange when you have squeezed out the juice.”

That’s not how stories work, Buechner taught us. They’re meant to involve us—not just with our minds but with our affections and emotions and intuitions too. And all that points us to Jesus himself, who is the Truth, “the whole story of him.”

“So in the long run the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round.”

Thanks to another volume on that shelf—a collection of sermons called The Hungering Dark—I never say “Christ” without also saying the word “Jesus.” That’s because Buechner knew the phrase “Christ saves” wouldn’t make us nearly as uncomfortable as the phrase “Jesus saves” would.

“The words ‘Christ saves’ … have a kind of objective, theological ring to them,” he penned, “whereas ‘Jesus’ saves seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be.” The personal name Jesus reminds us that what we accept or reject is not an abstraction but a Person.

On down the shelf is Wishful Thinking, which, like so many of these books, prompted readers to reflect on how Jesus, that living Story, makes sense of all the other true stories—including the existence of God.

Unlike many evangelical apologists, Buechner did not turn to logic or other evidence to attempt to prove that God exists. “It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle,” he said. God is not data we can manage, he seemed to say, but is living and personal and the One who is writing the story in which we live and move.

A few spaces down on the bookshelf is Buechner’s The Alphabet of Grace, which even now startles me into paying attention to the miracle of the ordinary:

You get married, a child is born or not born, in the middle of the night there is a knocking at the door, on the way home through the park you see a man feeding pigeons, all the tests come in negative and the doctor gives you back your life again: incident follows incident helter-skelter leading apparently nowhere, but then once in a while there is the suggestion of purpose, meaning, direction, the suggestion of plot, the suggestion that, however clumsily, your life is trying to tell you something, take you somewhere.

Those words would come to mind when I held my newborn sons. They came to mind when I buried my father. They sometimes come to mind when nothing significant seems to be happening at all.

And they also emerge in my thoughts alongside words from Buechner’s Now and Then, a book a few spaces down the shelf, reminding me that nothing is too commonplace for God. He’s present in all of it: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

A few notches down the shelf is Whistling in the Dark, in which Buechner wrote more words that come to mind at unprompted moments: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”

Even before I pulled that book off the shelf this time, I thought of those words as I wiped away unexpected tears. How strange, I thought, to feel grief over the death of a man I never met, a man nearly a hundred years old. But then I wondered whether the tears were about something else—all the truths that Buechner taught me or reminded me of.

I pulled off the shelf Godric, his novel about a 12th-century English monk, and found one of Buechner’s most famous passages: “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 the Buechner neighborhood of my bookshelf, there is some open space. I guess I subconsciously hoped that somehow there would be one more book to come. Those shelves don’t seem like a body of work. They don’t even seem like part of a library. They seem like a story he was telling me, a story I didn’t want to end. But if Buechner was right—and I think he was—the story goes on.

As I placed the books back on the shelf (until the next time I need them), I held back A Room Called Remember and noticed words that I’d read before but that hadn’t stuck in my memory:

At the age of one hundred the old man knows what at my age I am only just beginning to see—that if it is by grace we are saved, it is by grace too that we are lost, or lost at least in the sense of losing our selves, our lives, our all.

All’s lost. All’s found. All moments are key moments.

Buechner didn’t make it to 100, but he told the story at the heart of the plot behind all plots, where all our stories sit—maybe on a shelf in a room called Remember.

If You Want to Read Buechner, Where Should You Start?

Given the news of Buechner’s death this week, several people have commented that they’ve never read his writings and are curious where to start. I vaguely remember answering that question before, but I can’t locate it in the newsletter archives.

It’s complicated to know where to begin because Buechner’s work ranges across so many categories (sermons, nonfiction essays, memoir, novels, and so on), and even in the same category, some of it is so different. If you like fiction, for instance, you may well love Godric and hate the Bebb books—or vice versa. So here’s what I recommend.

I suggest getting a copy of the devotional called Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (Harper). Now, devotionals like this will often chop an author’s work into day-sized nuggets that are out of context—and the result is usually awful. But this one is helpful because you can sample various sections, organized by topic. When you find something that really speaks to you, it’s just a matter of checking the source list at the end to see what book it comes from and going from there.

One Moore Thing

Some of y’all have asked whether this newsletter will continue after I assume my new duties as editor in chief at Christianity Today. Yes, indeed—the newsletter will continue and so will The Russell Moore Show podcast, along with lots of new things I can’t talk about yet.

I will take a little break as I get some things ready for the fall. And the newsletter will be back the first Thursday in September!

As always, send me your questions and ideas (at I can’t answer most of them, but I read them. And a lot of what you all suggest ends up shaping my thinking here and elsewhere.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Andrew Myers, who writes that these were the criteria for his song selections:

1. Durability. I get sick of songs easily, but I keep coming back to these even after years of listening—decades, in some cases.

2. Variety. The 12-song limit doesn’t leave much room for mixing it up, but if I were truly stuck with a dozen, I’d want something for dancing, something for singing, something for reflection.

3. Sentimentality. Most of the songs evoke an important personal memory. For example, The Avett Brothers were nice enough to cut a track in honor of my wedding anniversary on January 28. :)

(Keep in mind, these are Andrew’s criteria, not mine. Don’t want folks thinking I might be guilty of dancing…)

Here are the songs he chose. (You can find his Spotify playlist for these here.)

  • “Baba O’Riley,” The Who

  • “Seasons (Waiting on You),” Future Islands

  • “Malibu,” Miley Cyrus

  • “En el Muelle de San Blas (Unplugged),” Maná

  • “No Rain,” Blind Melon

  • “January Wedding,” The Avett Brothers

  • “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi

  • “Old 45’s,” Chromeo

  • “Heartbeats,” The Knife

  • “Blinding Lights,” The Weeknd

  • “Take Me Home,” Phil Collins

  • “Jupiter (from The Planets),” Gustav Holst

Thanks, Andrew!

Readers, what do you think? If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

Eternity is not endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time.

If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, all its colors blend into a single color—white—which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined.

If you spin time fast enough, time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined.

As human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away—including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage —some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what “it’s all about” involves not just the present, but the past and future too.

Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15), “inhabiteth eternity,” but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too.

—Frederick Buechner, “Eternity”

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Jason Thacker, Following Jesus in a Digital Age (B&H)

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (New York Review Books Classics)

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (Norton)

Jonathan Gottschall, The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down (Basic)

Harry Blamires, Word Unheard: A Guide through Eliot’s Four Quartets (Routledge)

Neema Parvini, The Populist Delusion (Imperium)

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Russell Moore

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