The Book of Bebb, published in 1979, is composed of four short novels by author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner. Leo Bebb is a former Bible salesman and an ex-con, who then became a pastor and evangelist. He is a preacher and a schemer; a man who knows his Bible inside and out, and, one who is always trying to make a buck. Bebb is part huckster and part genius; he is sometimes an outrageous sinner and sometimes a powerful man of God.
In the piece that follows (pages 351-353), Bebb is describing to his nephew Antonio a conversation he had with his enemy Virgil Roebuck. Roebuck is a college history professor who has been opposing Bebb’s work on the college campus. Bebb’s spiritual leadership has led to a revival among the students, and Roebuck is trying to discredit Bebb’s Christian faith by listing the many sins of the church in history.
This is a terrific reading, so I hope you are not disturbed by the frequent use of a word that does not usually appear in Christian devotional readings. The word does, however, appear in the Bible—33 times in the King James Version, although there the more delicate word ‘dung’ is used.
Bebb said, “That man knows his history, Antonio. It’s his special subject, and he knows it inside and out. He reeled off a whole list of times and places where he said we’d met before. He told about the days they had children eight, ten years old and up working in mines like pack mules, twelve hours in a stretch till their pitiful little bodies were nothing but skin and bones and they couldn’t hardly see in the daylight, while people like me went on looking the other direction and preaching ‘thy kingdom come.’ He told about the days they tore the living flesh off people with red-hot tongs and broke their legs with hammers because they didn’t believe like they should about doctrine. He went on how those old-time crusaders used religion for an excuse to rape women and raise hell, and how back in slavery times there was ministers of the Gospel that owned slaves just like everybody else, and proved out of scripture it was the way things was meant to be. I don’t suppose there was a single miserable thing anybody ever did in the name of Jesus that Roebuck didn’t spell out chapter and verse before he was done. He enjoyed it. You could tell from the way he worked his face what a good time he was having.
“He said each one of those times and places I was there, Antonio, and that’s where we met before. He said I wasn’t the type that beat the slaves and raped the women and tortured the heretics because I didn’t have the guts for it. No, I was the type just closed my eyes to it and helped other people close their eyes to it by telling them a lot of fairy tales about Heaven. This trick eyelid of mine that goes shut on me sometimes without me even knowing about it; Roebuck said you didn’t have to be a expert psychologist to explain that. He said that eyelid was a dead giveaway how the only way a man like me can go on believing in Almighty God is by pulling that eyelid down like a window blind between me and all the shit in the world that proves there isn’t any Almighty God and never was or will be.
“You take a word like shit, Antonio. A preacher isn’t even supposed to know there is those kind of words, and Roebuck, he thought he’d throw me a curve just using it. I said, ‘Roebuck, you think I don’t know about shit? What you’ve been telling me about isn’t even a millionth part of all the shit there is because you’ve stuck to just the religious shit, and that’s only one kind of all there is, because piled up right alongside it there’s a million other kinds. You take your big business, your politicians, and your high-class colleges like Princeton. You take your haves and your have-nots both, your whorehouses and your W.C.T.U.’s. You take not just your red-neck nigger-haters but your N double A’s and your civil rights parades, not just your hard-hat flagwavers but your peaceniks and C.O.’s and love-ins. You take anything people have ever done in this world, and the best you can say about any of it is that it’s maybe one part honest and well-meant and the other nine parts shit. If I close my eyelid down on all the shit there is in the world, I’ve still got to face up to all the shit there is in me, because I’m full of it too, Roebuck. I’m not denying it. And you’re full of it. The shit in us is part of what makes us brothers, you and me.’ I used that word shit to him till it begun to sound like I invented it.
“He caught me by surprise. I caught him by surprise. A preacher talking about things like shit. Antonio, shit is what preachers have been talking about since Moses except the word they’re more likely to use is sin. Only Roebuck didn’t know that. It shut him up for a minute. Then he said, ‘If the world’s mostly shit, Bebb, where’s God?’ Just like that – where’s God? As if I could say, ‘Look, there he is, Roebuck, out there a zillion miles north-east of the Milky Way.’ That Roebuck was like a bird floating in the sky asking where’s air, only I didn’t say that then because I didn’t think of it till later.
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you about shit, Roebuck. Take it from an expert. There’s two main things about it. One thing is it’s stink and corruption and waste. The other thing is if you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God is where there’s seeds growing. God is where there’s something no bigger than the head of a pin starting to inch up out of the stink and dark of shit towards the light of day.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the shit with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.’
“Roebuck said, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about, Bebb,’ but I could see he knew more than he was letting on just like all of us do, Antonio. A man that believes in the Almighty knows worse than he’s letting on and a man that doesn’t believe in the Almighty like Roebuck knows better, but we all of us know more…”
“I said, ‘Virgil, the night is dark, and we are far from home.’ How come it was the words of that old hymn popped into my mind just then to say? I don’t know, but it did. I said, ‘The night is dark, Virgil Roebuck, and home’s a long ways off for both of us…’ “Who’s going to judge which of us has got the farthest way to go through all the shit and the dark?”
Psalm 113:7 — He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill.
Luke 13:6-9 — And (Jesus) told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Philippians 3:8-9a — I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ.
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom, lead thou me on;
the night is dark, and I am far from home; lead thou me on;
keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene– one step enough for me.
–John Henry Newman (1801-1890)