I think of faith as a kind of whistling in the dark because, in much the same way, it helps to give us courage and to hold the shadows at bay… to demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that not even the dark can quite overcome our trust in the ultimate triumph of the Living Light. (From the Introduction)
If I could take a second spiritual book to my desert island, it would be one of Frederick Buechner’s, and quite probably this one. It’s subtitled A Doubter’s Dictionary, and where Godzone was written for spiritual hitchhikers, Whistling in the Dark is directed to ‘doubters both as those who are more or less outside the Church and also as those who are more or less inside but still wonder every once in a while if the whole religious enterprise has anything to do with reality.’
Born in New York in 1926, Buechner has been a poet, a Pulitzer-shortlisted novelist, a lecturer and a Presbyterian minister. I was first put on to him by Philip Yancey, who repeatedly cites Buechner as a major influence, and I found in him a writer and above all a human being I both like and admire.
What attracts me to Buechner, as also to Riddell, Rollins and indeed Yancey, are the qualities of kindness, humanity and honesty, coupled with an ability to write searingly incisive, richly poetic prose. You sense that he understands. That he has known – perhaps daily knows – pain and frustration, darkness and doubt and the terrible gravitational tug of sin; yet that he also has faith, knows as well the upward pull of grace. And he knows that it is not just in the sacred, the religious and theological that this grace is to be found. It is in the ordinary and the everyday.
So Whistling in the Dark is a book of short, wise, wry and kind entries about everyday phenomena as diverse and familiar as Adolescence and Anorexia, Beauty and Boredom, Comedy and Christmas, Depression and Dreams; Earth, Faces, Goodbyes, Hate, Innocence, Jobs and so on through to X-rated, You and Zero. Despite himself, he can’t help slipping in a number of more religious terms, and showing them up in a new light: Conversion, Communion of the Saints, Easter, Heaven, Lent, the Lord’s Prayer.
The one and only thing that might make me hesitate before lending it to friends is that the first entry is ‘Abortion’, which might incline them to reject it without looking any further. But on this subject as on all others, Buechner is entirely non-judgemental and non-partisan, not coming down on one side or the other. He simply acknowledges that either option – having the child or aborting it – involves incalculable risk of human harm and tragedy; that ‘in an imperfect world there are no perfect solutions’.
Buechner then is no straightforward evangelical. In the entry ‘Comedy’ he hints obliquely at universalism. He’s not too keen on self-styled ‘Born Again’ Christians. He is liberal on the subject of homosexuality. He has no formulas or techniques to improve your spiritual life or your quiet times. But throughout the book – and through all his writing – there is a deep abiding awe and love for the majestic and merciful God, and an equally deep compassion for fallen and broken humanity.
Buechner’s other works include the companion piece Wishful Thinking, where he takes ‘shopworn’ religious words like sin, faith and grace and attempts to show the realities they point to; and the Pulitzer-nominated novel Godric, an earthy fictionalised ‘autobiography’ of a very human and flawed Celtic saint. Altogether he’s written over 30 books, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend anything by him, but Whistling in the Dark isn’t a bad place to start.