Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book Review: Telling Secrets

"I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are your secrets. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human."

Recently I finished a book called Telling Secrets by Fredrick Buechner. It is a kind of spiritual memoir similar to Augustine's Confessions (though not nearly as good as Augustine's work). Below is my review of the book:

In 1992 a crime drama with Robert Redford called Sneakers hit the box office. It is one of my favorite movies. There is one scene in the movie where Redford’s character, Martin Bishop, a man with many secrets, is playing a game of Scrabble with friends when it hits him that a mysterious phrase whose meaning he has been trying to ascertain is really just an anagram. He dumps all the Scrabble pieces off the board and pulls out the letters of the phrase: “setec astronomy.” He begins to arrange and rearrange, and he goes through a number of iterations. Then, in one of the watershed moments of the film, he discovers the anagram decodes to “too many secrets.” This movie is about secrets and a mathematician’s computer program that allows him to decrypt any encryption protocol so that he can read anyone’s secrets, any of the “too many secrets.”

Buechner’s book is about the many, many secrets that we all carry. He tells us about our own secrets by telling us about his. In one of the most salient statements of the whole book he says, “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are your secrets. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.”  In the book, Buechner candidly talks about many secrets, but there are two main secrets that weave throughout this memoir—the secret of his father’s suicide when he was 10 years old and the secret of his daughter’s battle with anorexia. He turns to these secrets, particularly the secret of his father’s suicide, again and again to gain insight into who he is as an old man and what God is doing in his life.

The secret of his father’s suicide weighed especially heavy on his psyche because it was not just his secret; it was a family secret. It was not just a secret his family kept from outsiders but a secret they kept from each other. They never talked about his suicide and even avoided speaking of him. Soon, Buechner’s father was almost completely forgotten along with the secret. Buechner writes, “Our secrets are not hid from God… but they are hid from each other, and some of them we so successfully hide even from ourselves that after a while we all but forget they exist.”  The lies we tell to ourselves and others in order to cover up the secrets eventually begin to look more and more like the truth. Yet, the secrets are still there, buried far beneath the surface, and they define who we are (“I am my secrets”) in ways we cannot understand because we do not tell them. Not only do we not understand ourselves when we do not tell our secrets, but we also do not understand truly how God is shaping our lives. “[I]t is precisely through telling these stories in all their particularity… that God makes Himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally…. to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.”  In this book we learn of many of Buechner’s secrets, but it is especially in the telling of the secret of his father that we see Buechner begin to understand himself and God’s work in his life.

There is one section of this book that often returns to my mind. We learn early on that Buechner is an ordained minister. As he talks about this aspect of his life, he probes deep into the affect that secrets have on the ministry of a preacher. Pastors are supposed to be a witness to the presence of God in their lives as well as in the lives of their people, he holds—“a major part of their ministry is to remind us that there is nothing more important than to pay attention to what is happening to us….”  Yet, as ministers become more involved in the lives of the people they shepherd, they begin to neglect their own. They harbor secrets, for many reasons, which prevents them from seeing God’s work in their lives. Sadly “they tend to become professionals… who speak on religious matters with what often seems a maximum of authority and a minimum of vital personal involvement. Their sermons often sound as bland as they sound bloodless.”  I found this challenging as one who is an intern at a church, teaches regularly, and preaches on occasion. Preachers must not only convey the facts about the truth but show that it is active in their lives. Not to pretend that they have everything figured out but to show that they can feel it working in them, changing them, doing what they say it will do. In another work I read recently, The Pastor as a Minor Poet, the author Craig Barnes says, “As odd as it may sound, it's the scars on the pastor's soul that make it attractive.... What we pastors present with our lives is an incarnated version of the healing and redemptive work of the Gospel.... We simply speak to our congregants as a people who have existential knowledge of truth.”  Buechner and Barnes remind young seminarians like me that pastors need to tell their secrets. Of course they must be wise about when and what they reveal and to whom, but the truth they preach must be truth through their personality, which means telling personal things—telling secrets.

This book is a memoir similar to Christian classics like Augustine’s Confessions in that it is not just one man’s story. Certainly it is Buechner’s secrets that are being revealed but, as he says himself, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”  As we read Buechner keeping track of his story, we cannot help be drawn to the events that have shaped our lives. Some of the events we read in his book may be similar to experiences we have had, others may be completely foreign. All of them, however, will cause of to think of our story and I believe that is the goal of this book. By reading Buechner’s secrets we start to think of our own and we are encouraged to tell them. When we start to do that we begin to understand ourselves better and the great work of God in our lives.

By His Grace,

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