Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Buechner’s concerns as a Presbyterian minister are not confined to one denomination; indeed, several times he bemoans the fact that like the early Church, Christianity has splintered into factions. The central thread that runs through these sermons and talks is Buechner’s conception of faith. Faith is not dogmatic, static, and blinkered: It is both dynamic—“a movement towards” as he calls it—and subject to doubts and hesitation. It is not something that remains unwavering, full of certitude; it is a constant struggle to realize that even though we may seem to be in a world bereft of God’s voice and presence, he is actually present and communicating with us, if we can only learn to be open and remember. Faith requires us to “pay attention,” to be receptive to the workings of God in the world, according to Buechner. Two epiphanic moments for Buechner (although he does not call them that) occur when a minister, in giving Buechner communion, calls him by his first name, and when a woman he passes by on the street tells him, “Jesus loves you.” These moments make Buechner understand that God speaks to everyone personally and that he calls us by our names.

An equally strong theme in Secrets in the Dark is the realization that the world is not our home; we are all longing for our true home with God. In “The Great Dance,” Buechner finds himself in tears at a performance of killer whales at Sea World. After learning he was not alone in his reaction, he comes to the conclusion that he was overjoyed because the show was a foreshadowing of the Peaceable Kingdom, the home we should have had and will come into one day. All human homes, no matter how dear, are only reminders of the hunger we have for our final home. With his literary bent, Buechner encapsulates salvation history as a version of the hoary plot summary “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” God creates the world, the world loses God, God saves the world. Buechner says that salvation story is our story too.