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BuchananAn interview with John Buchanan

John Buchanan, who received the David Steele Distinguished Writer award for his contributions as a church writer, is a former moderator of the General Assembly and is widely known in church circles for his work as editor of The Christian Century. He is the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He responds to 3 questions asked by the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

  1. Whose writing has most influenced your work?

John Updike, more than any other. Over the years, I have read a lot of what he wrote. I was going to say everything, but he wrote voluminously and I doubt that anyone read it all. His novels caught me first. The Rabbit series will, I think, be read for years as a thoughtful portrait of American culture in the late 20th century. I used to wait eagerly for Updike’s newest book and have two shelves of them. Roger’s Version became a rich source of material and eloquent quotations for sermons and lectures and produced knowing laughter every time I used them to speak to clergy. Running throughout Updike’s writing is a strong current of orthodox Christian doctrine. It’s really quite close to the surface: creation as expression of God’s goodness, original sin, repentance, forgiveness, redemption. It’s all there, including the church. I loved his poetry as well, and his books of essays and criticism make for simply good reading. His influence was in teaching me to compose sermons carefully, choosing words intentionally, editing and rewriting right up to preaching time, even editing, scratching out, rewording between services. His selection of words is perfection.

Frederick Buechner has also been my literary companion and teacher along the way. I watched carefully as he crafted sentences, sometimes extending just a phrase or two beyond the natural stop. He did it in his preaching as well, very effectively.

  1. How has your work at the Christian Century affected your faith?

Working at the Christian Century for 12 years has been a wonderful reminder of several things a busy parish pastor is inclined to forget: the global community of Christian scholarship, for instance–the theological education, research, writing, translating, exegesis, arguing, contending that has gone on for 20 centuries and continues today. Augustine, I believe, attributed Christianity’s  success to out-thinking everyone else in the ancient world. There is still nothing quite like the sustained scholarly inquiry and work that continues in institutions of theological education all over the world. And working at the Century has reminded me of the depth and diversity of Christianity in our own contemporary culture.

  1. What Scripture passages do you think the PC(USA) most needs to listen to today?

Kurt Vonnegut said that the meek inheriting the earth was the best idea anybody ever had. I agree. So, Matthew 5:1-10 for starters. Then Mathew 25, when Jesus clearly says that we are judged on the basis of the love we extend to those who need us. Finally, the Last Supper discourses in the Gospel of John, when Jesus tells his friends that their love for one another will be the way the world will know God. I think about that a lot as we keep finding reasons to separate from one another. Every time it happens I wonder what the world sees of the gospel.

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