Though the Darkness Hide Thee, by Susan Wise Bauer (Multnomah, 364 pp.; $11.99, paper). Reviewed by Annette LaPlaca, associate editor of MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP.

Through the dark glasses of personal sin, it's hard to see God's glory in a fallen world, but we're looking all the same. That is the topic at the heart of every "Christian" story, because it is the condition of every Christian soul. In some stories, such as Flannery O'Connor's, these moments of epiphany rip through the narrative and leave the reader gasping over truth. In others, like Susan Wise Bauer's Though the Darkness Hide Thee, the search for God's face is portrayed with gentle authenticity.

Bauer-whose first novel, The Revolt, was published by Word in 1996-unfolds a fast-paced mystery that involves dark-and-dirty crimes, old and new. The story line of criminal secrets should satisfy even those readers most inured to subtlety in Christian fiction (which will come as a tonic to those numbed by Christian-market offerings that are more propaganda-with-a-plot than literature).

Unobtrusively echoing the whodunit plot line, the heart of Bauer's second novel is the search for God's character and his will on the part of the protagonist and her minister husband. Amanda and Thomas Clement are attempting a fresh start in the small Virginia town where she grew up-leaving behind the big city where they were bruised in ministry and disillusioned by the world of business. Bauer's portrait of their flawed but tender relationship is so winsome and rings so true, it's hard not to guess that she has drawn herself, heart and soul, into this narrative. And she has: The Bauers themselves recently moved back to family property in a rural Virginia community, where he ministers to a small fellowship while she teaches literature at William and Mary.

There is a plainspoken naturalness to the prose, both in descriptive narrative and declarative passages like this one: "Thomas wanted a family, a home, a place to perfect his service to God; and I wanted something more elusive. I wanted reassurance, reassurance that I could still find a place where God was as real as the sunlit fields, as easy to hear as a hawk keening overhead. Somehow I'd lost that certainty."

Bauer captures an experience every believer encounters at some point: the silence of God. How many of us have prayed, despite the coolness of our own spiritual temperature and despite our doubts that God will act? Bauer writes, "I stood on the back porch and prayed for Thomas and the Sunday morning service and the Little Croft congregants; I put them all together and held them up to the God who lingered just out of sight and pleaded, Break through to us."

Thomas and Amanda are a believable pair. Whatever mistakes they make, in serving God or approaching each other, their intentions are so pure, their desire to see God's glory so wistful, that their errors in judgment are easily forgiven.

The young couple's search for authentic encounter with God has the unintended effect of turning them into searchlights illuminating Amanda's family and the rural community where they have transplanted themselves. "Darkness" is stripped away at community, family, marital, and personal levels, sometimes with frightening results.

Bauer draws strong personalities (and their secrets) with great finesse and with penetrating insight into family stories that cross generations. The perennial story of human sinfulness obscuring truth plays out powerfully among these characters. Beware, for example, the farmer who, despite the muck and mire of his workaday chores, insists on wearing dress shirts and bow ties every day of the week. Something's wrong here: Who is that farmer trying to be?

Christian writers often struggle with depictions of human sinfulness. Draw characters with too much earthy reality, and you will have to find a secular publisher. (Can anyone imagine Buechner's Bebb coming out of the Christian market?) Write a book that is overtly spiritual, and you'll find your work rejected as "too religious" to be marketable by secular presses. Bauer nimbly walks that fine line, depicting failure and evil compellingly in a book that overtly, realistically describes the spiritual seeking and setbacks of believers.

The darkness hides God's glory. The eye of sinful man God's glory may not see. But thank heaven for the distinct hopefulness in that simple word though! Though the darkness hides him, God is still holy, merciful, and mighty.

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