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Book Review

Secrets in the Dark:
A Life in Sermons

By Frederick Buechner
HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.


READING Frederick Buechner can be as startling as hearing the sound of your own voice on a tape recorder. In his sermons, I recognize with unsettling clarity the impish part of me that sits through church muttering and taking issue: “How can I be expected to believe that?

Usually I am mortified when I hear this voice in church. I tell it to shape up, to have more faith, that church is no place for naysayers. But I find that the skeptical part of me is not easy to switch off.

That’s why the sermons collected in Frederick Buechner’s new volume, Secrets in the Dark, are so necessary—and so disconcerting. The book includes an assortment of them from the late fifties on, as well as a handful of lectures and essays, including several previously unpublished pieces. The sermons say the things you’re not supposed to say in church. And in speaking up, they reassure us that faith is more than a matter of bullying ourselves into being the people we think we ought to be.

In the church where I grew up, the sermons I heard did not put me in the habit of thinking. The special music would end, the singer gazing moistly out over the crowd for a few moments before the minister mounted the steps to the pulpit, pulling his tie firmly into place. After reading the scripture, he’d lean earnestly into the pulpit, squinting through a prayer asking God to bless his words. That’s when the trouble would start.

My denomination’s conviction was that scripture loops through our experience like a broken recording. You could pick any passage in the Bible and find it playing out, at any moment, in your own life. Believing that the verses set before him were foreordained to hit somebody in the gut that Sunday, the pastor would move swiftly from exposition into a spiritual strip-search, taking stock of the sin we had been storing up throughout the week. I remember one story in particular, of Achan who hid the Babylonian treasure under his family’s tent. By keeping it secret, he turned God’s favor away from Israel and put his community in mortal danger. Achan and his family had to be stoned to appease God’s wrath. Then came the question: were any of us the bad seed of the congregation? What festering sin needed to be brought to light so we might again be “right with God”? Secrets like Achan’s, the pastor said, required immediate, decisive change. We were to confess, accept forgiveness, and rededicate our lives to Christ. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Sermons like these would leave me feeling raw and worked-over for days. A feverish certainty would fall on me that I was the one the pastor’s words were meant for, that I was in need of a full disclosure—though what a ten-year-old had to disclose was less obvious.

It’s only now, full of recently acquired collegiate wisdom, that I see something different in those sermons: a desire to root out a darkness and uncertainty that threatened a particular idea of holiness. A profound discomfort with ambiguity kept unpleasant topics safely tucked away, unless they came attached to a victorious testimony. The handful of sermons I’ve heard in other traditions makes me suspect this is more than just an affliction of the evangelical movement I happened to grow up in. Whether seeking redemption through the sacrament of the Eucharist or the idea of being born again, in practice a good number of us resist bringing our whole selves into our experience of faith.

That’s why we need the sermons of Frederick Buechner. It’s not that my old pastor had it all wrong; scripture can act on us prophetically, making hard contact with our lived experience. But Buechner achieves that contact through infiltration, not assault. His purpose is not to lay down the law and eradicate sinful, unruly thoughts, but to draw us out of hiding. The Bible, Buechner says, isn’t a book of lessons, but a grand story that envelops our own ragged histories and beckons forth our truest, uncensored selves—deep calling to deep. The Bible is our lived experience. If we hear words like “Love God” and immediately snap to attention, ready to follow orders, we’ve missed the point. Phrases like these, Buechner says, “are too loud to hear, too big to take in…. We take the words so much for granted that we hardly stop to wonder where they are taking us.” Hearers of the word are encouraged to sit still and let it occupy them before they claim to understand it.

That’s what Buechner helps us to do. In a sermon called “Love,” he lets the phrase “Love God” unwind rhetorically for pages, leading the reader gently into a meandering exploration of his own personal encounter with it. It’s here that I begin to hear something that sounds an awful lot like my own noisy inner voice, the one that raises objections that can seem so unsuitable for church. How do you love God, Buechner asks, when everything else is “confusion and emptiness”? It’s like “being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.” What he says would draw uncomfortable stares in some Bible studies I’ve attended, but it’s also what I’ve often needed to hear. We quail at the directive to love God, and for this Buechner has compassion—not just as a minister, but as a man. He tells about being scraped clean by the sorrow of watching his daughter starve nearly to death of anorexia nervosa before he was able to catch a glimpse of what it is like to be desperate for God, not for comfort, but “for [God’s] own sake.” Buechner is able to coax the most private doubts from his listeners (and readers) by revealing his own. He gets under the skin of our most human responses to scripture because he has felt them himself. He knows how the revelry of Easter Sunday at times only reminds us of our own inward-looking gloom. He knows that we often despair of whether the light we have been promised can really break into a dark, bewildering world.

He also gets under the skin of scripture itself, diving into stories full of the grit and untidiness of human experience and emerging with the hope that is hidden within—not apart from—the mess. The most appealing strands of these sermons are the flesh-and-blood retellings of biblical narratives. Challenging the notion of biblical figures as distant, superhuman saints who cluck their tongues at us sinners from on high, Buechner the storyteller makes sure we feel their foibles. Saint Paul is allowed to be as brash and slipshod as anyone—glowering over the failures of the Corinthians, sniping at their petty troubles with marriage and the role of women in church—yet, in the end, ecstatic in his love for his flock. Buechner hears the opening of John’s Gospel spoken with a curiously nasal twang, a human voice anxious to get everything right even as it becomes entwined with the unearthly voice proclaiming the eternal Word enfleshed. Mary feels real terror “squatting there in the straw with her thighs wrenched apart.” Noah is sent into a daze by the revelation of the task at hand, a mission that “rose up in him like a pain in his own belly.” Jacob is the ladder-climbing opportunist everyone secretly cheers for—until he finds himself locked in combat with one who demands he give up his will in exchange for blessing.

In many passages, Buechner’s prose rises into lyricism, as in his sermon “Hope”:

I think if you have your ears open, if you have your eyes open, every once in a while some word in even the most unpromising sermon will flame out, some scrap of prayer or anthem, some moment of silence even, the sudden glimpse of somebody you love sitting there near you, or of some stranger whose face without warning touches your heart, will flame out—and these are the moments that speak our names in a way we cannot help hearing.

Buechner revels in the beauty of the ordinary. Any fragment of experience is worthy of his attention. Christ’s indwelling seizes us in the kindness of a friend who sits with us for a while, the return home after a long journey, the smell of breakfast, a weathered tree, rush-hour traffic. Even a betrayal of friendship, the failure to be Christ to one another, can reveal Christ in some mysterious, apophatic way.

Those flashes of second sight, coming on suddenly and gone as soon as they came, are Buechner’s testimony to an understated kind of faith. For me, Buechner’s sermons are impossible to dismiss, first of all because he does not hold them hostage to their own obviousness. We are free to see or not. He confesses that moments of unveiling often slip past us, obscured by our own distraction and worry. In the title sermon, he says that revelation comes in a barely audible whisper. No wonder we miss it. Secondly, I know that when I have been awake enough, in my own secret betrayals and visions, I have experienced just what he describes.

Sermons, delivered in the house of God, heard by a more or less captive audience, given week after week by the same speaker to the same listeners, and with the daunting mission of calling human hearts to a reality that can and should break them apart, are a form of writing that seems to bear a heavier load than others. Frederick Buechner, formidable as a novelist and memoirist, breaks our hearts softly, calling us to fullness of life without the furious activity of self-correction. Although several of the sermons in Secrets in the Dark become lackluster in their final sections—they simply dry out toward the end, or the language reduces to cliché what was expressed more beautifully earlier on—and some of his more formal lectures and essays that are spliced into the book here and there tighten into analysis that seems mismatched to the collection, at their best, Buechner’s sermons are a poetic breaking out into a wild and uncertain territory.

In “The Truth of Stories,” Buechner explains why he resists distilling sermons into “points” to digest and apply. The story of Jesus is not “merely something we can draw on for moral guidance perhaps or spiritual comfort or religious truth.” He calls his listeners and readers to participate in “the terrifying game of letting him enormously move us as the story of him lives and breathes and converges on us beyond all our ideas of him; as it bids us, moves us, to do and to be God only knows what, which can be a very bloody business indeed if we do it right.” With Buechner as guide, we feel the story bearing down on us, leading us gradually, and not without some discomfort, into our whole selves.

—Reviewed by Julie Mullins

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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