Say I Am You
Art for God's Sake

Beginnings: The Book of Bebb

Bebb_1"Halfway down the subway stairs, he turned.  There was a smell of stale urine.  It was raining on Lexington Avenue.  He said,"'All things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.'  One Corinthians ten."

"He had his hand on the stair rail and was looking at me over his shoulder.  As he spoke, his right eyelid fluttered part way down, then up again, and I thought he was winking.  He was not.  It was involuntary, just a lazy eyelid that slid partly shut sometimes."

"He said, 'We'll be seeing you,' and then continued on down the stairs, a fleshy, scrubbed man in a tight black raincoat with a narrow-brimmed hat, dimly Tyrolean, on the top of his head.  Happy Hooligan.  We'll be seeing you.  I remember the way he said we when there was obviously only one of him there.  I remember the urine smell on the subway stairs and the rain and the way he turned and quoted scripture not as an afterthought but as though it was the main thing he had wanted to do all along."

(Frederick Buechner, from Lion Country, a part of The Book of Bebb)

Leo Bebb.  How well I remember starting in on this book, initially intrigued by the description of the preacher/flim-flam man, then wondering if I would read on after about a hundred pages, then persevering to grow to deeply appreciate this flawed individual named Leo Bebb.  I might tell you, by way of introduction, that Bebb is the founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and maybe you'd have me stop there, because maybe that says it all, and yet it doesn't.  Bebb is an enigma, an ex-con running a religious diploma mill, and yet, strikingly, a man of deep faith as well.  Flawed, you might say.

It's been said of Frederick Buechner that his work is too religious for the mainstream and way too profane (or better, earthy) for the religious market.  You won't find this Christian's books in Lifeway or Family.  You will find them in Borders, and yet his works have always caused some heartburn on the part of mainstream critics.  Buechner writes about people of faith, only they act like human beings, not lily-white saints.  One of the best sermons I ever read was preached by Bebb in one of these books, only it has some (well, a lot of) four letter words in it for emphasis.  He calls it like it is.  Critics don't like sermonizing protagonists, and religious bookshop buyers don't care for four letter words.  In his extremes, Bebb likely reminds us all too well of ourselves, traversing the same extremes of sacred and profane, and yet not as publicly and extreme as Bebb.  Thank God we're not like that Leo Bebb, we might say.

I just read that sermon again.  I won't repeat it here.  You may not appreciate the language.  But, if you want to read a book about a foul sinner saved by grace, a holy man who is wholly and woefully human, read The Book of Bebb.  There's some Bebb in us all.  It's good to look in the mirror every now and then.  And we can all wish we were a little bit crazy for Jesus, just like Leo Bebb.