Themes and Meanings
The Bebb novels well illustrate the wry comment of one critic, who suggested that Buechner’s art is too religious for the secular reader and too secular for the religious reader. Secular readers, in the end, find the religion of Bebb and Parr preposterous; religious readers, in the end, find the bawdy and profane lifestyle of Bebb and his followers equally reprehensible. In The Book of Bebb, Buechner thus portrays the paradox of “holiness”; Bebb is every would-be religious person: part hypocrite, part devotee, part human, part divine. The novelist’s task is thus to hold these seeming dichotomies in tension, demonstrating how each can be true in a single person.
Buechner’s view of narrative is evangelistic; he believes that storytelling reveals the form of human life, its direction and its meaning. Each human life contains a hidden agenda, a pattern of events that bears close attention. As most people are blind to it, it is up to the storyteller to reveal that agenda. The Book of Bebb is intended by Buechner to offer such a revelation, a “love letter” to that “beloved stranger,” his reader, who might, for a moment, entertain the reality of the author’s colorful cast of characters and recognize in their oddness and in their ordinariness that life’s meaning is mediated and God’s presence is confirmed. The principal themes of The Book of Bebb are those which undergird most of Buechner’s fiction as well as his theological works: the religious nature of all human endeavor, the ability of God to speak to humankind in the ordinary, mundane affairs of human existence, and the necessity of faith and vision against the despair of the modern world.