Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
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...
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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 underlies many of Buechner’s messages. His ministerial vocation is indeed a calling: he calls his listeners to come with him on a search for God and Jesus in their lives, on a journey to what he sees as their true home.
One must remember, however, that most of these pieces are sermons, not essays, and were written to be delivered and heard, not read. As such, they have a particular structure: title; introductory text(s), the vast majority of which are from the Bible; the sermon itself; and a concluding prayer in italics (although the italics soon disappear, and the conclusion transforms itself into the substance of a prayer). Because they are sermons, and Buechner is a novelist, the sermons’ organizational pattern is often more associational than logical; in a way, the movement of thought toward the central kernel of the message within reproduces the pattern of the journey the soul takes toward faith. For example, “A Room Called Remember,” one of the early sermons, begins with quotations from the Old Testament (from Chronicles about David’s worship of God before the ark) and the New (Jesus’ words on the cross to the good thief). Buechner begins by talking about dreams in general and how they sometimes reveal a profound truth about the dreamer, then recalls one such dream in which he tries to return to a hotel room where he was extraordinarily happy: The name of the room is Remember. Buechner then goes on to discuss different types of remembrance; the type of remembrance he thinks the room stands for is the type in which we remember our entire lives, and discover in that remembrance how God has touched our lives. A bald summary like this cannot transmit the flavor of the entire sermon: how the theme is introduced, modulated, and recapitulated; how the texts are interwoven into the fabric of the message, amplifying it and transforming it; and how the filaments of its development tie it together. The journey to the message is the message. In remembrance is belief.
Also adding to the sermons’ effectiveness is Buechner’s use of fictional strategies to bring his examples vividly before his listeners. He often describes a biblical scene as if it were a passage in a novel. In “The Magnificent Defeat,” he re-creates Jacob’s pretending to be his brother Esau; in “Birth,” he writes three dramatic monologues about the birth of Jesus (delivered by the Innkeeper, a Wise Man, and a Shepherd); in “A Sprig of Hope,” he describes Noah’s summoning by God and the release of the dove to find land; in “Air for Two Voices,” he shows what the Annunciation might have looked like; and in “The Truth of Stories,” he presents the parable of the prodigal son as a modern first-person narrative. Buechner meticulously analyzes the miracle of resurrection in “Jairus’s Daughter,” not only because of its religious meaning, but also because Mark’s narrative of it is so detailed, almost an eyewitness account, that it approaches the density of a scene in a novel. Buechner also analyzes his own fiction not only to discuss his own religious subjects (such as his portrayal of saints and sanctity) but also to show that an author’s receptivity to his characters is like the receptivity that people should have in their lives to God. Buechner points out that in a way that transcends symbolism and metaphor, the Gospels and indeed the whole Bible are based on an identification of the Word and God— in the Hebrew word dabhar, which means “word” and “deed” at the same time, and in the beginning of John’s Gospel: “The Word was God.” To read the story of Jesus is not the entire message; that Jesus is the story is equally important.