At the age of 28, Richard Lischer, a smart, ambitious Lutheran pastor with a freshly minted Ph.D. in theology, was sent to his first parish, in the small town of New Cana, Illinois, where he would serve for almost three years. Open Secrets
is Lischer's memoir of that time, and it opens with a sharply detailed evocation of New Cana as he first saw it:
It lacked the traditional accessories that make a town picturesque--no courthouse, town square, or ivy-covered cottages. The few white picket fences I saw were in disrepair and were obviously placed to keep the chickens in the yard ... Nothing was awakened in me when I saw the place for the first time. No Grovers Corners in Our Town or folksy Mayberry beckoned to me. My first look at the town reminded me that I was from a city and probably belonged in a city.
As this passage indicates, Open Secrets
demystifies the often-idealized experience of small-town ministry. Lischer (now a professor at Duke University's divinity school) was often disappointed by his parish, and by his own resentment of his calling: the town never quite warmed to him, and he never quite cottoned to the town. But he did pay close attention to everything he experienced, and his anecdotes (what happens when, taking communion to a sick man, you forget to bring the Host to the hospital?) and observations (75 percent of his congregation had the same last name) are occasionally reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's stories of Lake Wobegone, or J.F. Powers's more astringent comedies of priestly life. --Michael Joseph Gross
From Publishers Weekly
This memoir explores themes of secrecy and privacy as Lischer tells two stories. The first chronicles his childhood and peculiar, sectarian preparation for Lutheran ministry that began when he was sent from his suburban St. Louis home to a Milwaukee boarding school at age 14. The second takes up years later, in 1970, when, with a newly minted University of London Ph.D., he accepted his first call to ministry in a troubled farming community in southern Illinois. Throughout, Lischer suggests that secrets need to be told and that "privacy is a smoke screen for a therapeutic model of ministry." Lischer's project involves the airing of these problems, whether he is unveiling the nihilism of his fellow seminarians or sordid and painful events in the lives of his parishioners. While his portraits of these events and people are masterfully drawn, Lischer's tendency to make himself the hero of his narratives (despite earnest attempts at self-deprecation) grows tiresome. Moreover, his willingness to vividly recount every humiliating detail of his parishioners' bouts with sexual sin, domestic violence and mental illness seems exploitative, especially when compared to his quick, vague, tidily resolved summary of his own marital problems at that time. Despite these flaws, Lischer's book is satisfying and worthwhile. Not only does he write beautifully, but he also tells the unvarnished truth about both tragedy and redemption in a Christian community.
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