By LeRoy Lawson
Diary of a Bad Year
J. M. Coetzee
London: Harvill Secker, 2007
The Ruby Ring: Tyndale’s Battle for an English Bible
Crosslink Publishing, 2013
Unwrapping Wonder: Finding Hope in the Gift of Nature
Greeley: Gladach Publishing, 2013
I suppose it is because “misery loves company” that books by or about other old people get my attention, but that’s not the only reason. Sometimes old people write very good books. And younger people sometimes write very good books about old people. In the case of J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, we have a good book by an old man who writes about another old man writing a book. And he’s a good old man (relatively speaking), which makes everything even better.
The protagonist in this unusual novel is a 72-year-old Australian writer who’s been asked to contribute to a book of Strong Opinions, essays on just about anything: the origin of states, the ethics of Machiavelli, Al Qaida, music, creationism, the mother tongue, counting, and much, much more. Like most of our contemporaries, of opinions this writer has no shortage. Unlike most of us, his are thoughtful and well articulated. Each of the essays is compelling reading.
There is more. From the first page we are introduced to Anya, a beguiling young thing who lives upstairs in his apartment building with her partner, Alan. She is unemployed; she can afford to be, since Alan makes her quite comfortable in return for favors. The writer, desiring to know Anya better, quite a bit better, cleverly, cautiously entices her to become his secretary. Their relationship is platonic.
Platonic, but not simple. Alan, her lover, is a conniver, surreptitiously worming his way into their innocent affair, hoping by his techy skills (he’s a computer nerd) to hack into the old man’s accounts and secretly steal his money. He has too much anyway.
That’s the setup. However, neither the setup nor the subsequent meager plot is what this novel is about. There’s little drama, no mystery, no chase scenes. What there is, though, is better. Most pages are in three parts: the narrator’s current brief essay, delivering the old man’s views on his various subjects, runs across the top third of the pages; the middle sections contain the writer’s secret monologue, disclosing his all-too-male interest in his beautiful secretary and the frustrating complications that infatuation sets off; and across the bottom, Anya’s and Alan’s ongoing observations about themselves, the writer, and their intertwined future.
Add it all up and you have an almost plot-less novel of unending fascination. Fascination, that is, for people who think, along with poet Alexander Pope, that the proper study of mankind is man.
Fighting—or Forgetting—to Read
The February 2014 front page of Christian Standard announced “Know Problem,” pun intended. The articles were all about “Teaching the Bible in a Biblically Ignorant Age.” The day that issue arrived at my house I was reading Karen Rees’s novel, The Ruby Ring: Tyndale’s Battle for an English Bible, about how William Tyndale’s translation fought its way into the English-speaking world.
The disconnect between the two worlds was unsettling. Here we Americans are, fat and soft, our homes boasting several versions of the Bible, all of which mostly just gather dust. Churches still tip a polite hat in the direction of Scriptures, but serious Bible studying is rare. Adult Sunday schools are disappearing, and topical sermons on practical living (with little biblical content) are the order of the day. Christian Standard does not exaggerate; ours is a biblically ignorant age.
So was William Tyndale’s 16th-century England; then, too, such ignorance was the church’s fault. The hierarchy liked it that way; knowledge is power, so the best way to retain power is to ensure the spiritual blindness of the masses. Reading the Bible was heresy, punishable by death. Copies had to be hidden; smuggling Scriptures was a life-threatening business. So was translating, and Tyndale paid the ultimate price.
That’s the historical environment of The Ring. On the edge of the action hovers Martin Luther, the heretic priest who ignited a religious firestorm on the Continent. Across the English Channel, Tyndale has been devouring Luther’s writings. Those writings convince him he must do for England what Luther did for Germany: his countrymen must have God’s word in their own language.
This is the novel’s backstory. Center stage features the risky romance of Owen Alton and Jane Horne, both converted (separately) to Wycliffe’s dangerous Lollard (Protestant) faith. They are prepared to sacrifice everything for their faith, including—they hope not—their own relationship.
Jane uncovers long-buried family secrets (including her own identity); Owen forsakes his love for her for his greater love for God. Around these would-be-lovers, Rees weaves fact and fiction in a novel enriched by details of the class-conscious, king-ruled, male-dominated society in which the church holds all the power, women hold none of it, and individual thoughts must conform or you die.
From the drama of this fight for the right to read the Bible in the 16th century to the near-disappearance of Bible reading in our century—the slide has been precipitous. Whether we’ve hit bottom yet remains to be seen.
Finding—and Freeing—Our Wonder
There’s another source of inspiration, though, that neither church police nor political dictators can stifle, and Carol O’Casey’s Unwrapping Wonder finds it in abundance.
I may have enjoyed reading her delightful meditations more than others would because she’s in my home territory, the Pacific Northwest. Her husband Terry, professor and pastor, inspires his students and parishioners with his brilliant exposition of the Word; she writes with equally compelling insight about the mysteries of spade foot toads and dragonflies and sand dollars and even the humble lichens . . . and much, much more.
As I said, I grew up in the territory of her roaming. I grew up there, but like many natives, I took everything for granted—the majestic Douglas firs, the rivers teasing with schools of dinner (my dinner—trout, salmon, steelhead), the woods hiding an abundance of deer and elk (also dinner), and berries of almost every description. I had to move far from home to appreciate what we had.
Carol O’Casey has stayed put, but she takes nothing for granted. Each chapter, generously illustrated, draws parallels between the phenomena she is observing and the life lessons Scripture teaches the spiritually alert. The scars left by falling leaves suggest we live at our best when we live scarfully. Hummingbirds, whose amazing navigational skills we wouldn’t believe possible if we hadn’t seen them for ourselves, are lessons in living thankful, balanced lives. Barnacles, those maligned builders so despised by owners who leave their boats too long in stagnant water, build for adversity and so, the author suggests, must we.
And so on.
Read at your leisure, the author advises, “whatever chapter catches your fancy.” Good advice, but I couldn’t take it. Every chapter by this sharp-eyed, spiritually sensitive field botanist lured into its pages this arm-chaired, vicarious explorer. She gets muddy and sore; I stay dry and relaxed.
Not a bad way to explore.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.