(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A Life in Sermons, the subtitle of Frederick Buechner’s collection Secrets in the Dark, is not strictly accurate. To begin with, not all the pieces collected in it are sermons. Some of the pieces were originally given as talks, such as “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” delivered at St. Paul’s School; “The Newness of Things,” given at the installation of Buechner’s friend Douglas Hale as headmaster at Mercersburg Academy; and “Faith and Fiction,” given at the New York Public Library. Some are essays: “The Good Book as a Good Book,” which appeared in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (1993), edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, is on the relationship of fiction and religion; and “Paul Sends His Love,” which first appeared in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament (1991), edited by Alfred Corn, is on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. However, the rest of the collection consists of sermons delivered over the course of Buechner’s life, ranging from those he delivered at Philips Exeter Academy beginning in 1959 (“The Magnificent Defeat”) to one given at Princeton University’s anniversary celebration, “A 250th Birthday Prayer.” Many of them have appeared in earlier Buechner collections—The Magnificent Defeat (1966), The Hungering Dark (1969), A Room Called Remember (1984), The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction (1991), The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (1996)—and their republication here indicates that Buechner considers them to be his best work in this genre. Also included are a few sermons that have not been published before.

Also, while many of these sermons contain autobiographical elements, they do not form a quasi-autobiography; they are more the sermons of a lifetime than a life in sermons. The portrait that they paint of Buechner’s life, aside from the richness given to observations that result from his life as a parent and his career as a writer, is a remarkably consistent one. Like many reflective minds, Buechner’s is always open to the possibility of revelation and epiphany, but the pilgrimage charted throughout these sermons is grounded in a few basic concepts that Buechner returns to again and again. The first sermons in this collection were delivered to a group of students who were resolutely resistant to any religious message, and this sense of preaching to the unwilling...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Buechner, Frederick. “Ordained to Write: An Interview with Frederick Buechner.” Interview by Richard Kauffman. Christian Century 119 (September 11-24, 2002): 26-33. A valuable retrospective interview in which Buechner discusses his ministry as a novelist and minister and his use of autobiography in his writing.

McCoy, Marjorie, with Charles S. McCoy. Frederick Buechner: Novelist and Theologian of the Lost and Found. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. A persuasive attempt to connect Buechner’s vocations as novelist and religious thinker by analyzing his themes and concerns: In his works, theology is transfigured into storytelling.

Wriglesworth, Chad. “George A. Buttrick and Frederick Buechner: Messengers of Reconciling Laughter.” Christianity and Literature 53 (Autumn, 2002): 59-75. Convincingly shows how Buttrick’s religious thinking in his sermons affected Buechner not only in his conversion but also in his art.