In the student union at the University of Washington:
Two men sit talking. The older, in his early 50’s, wears a stained baseball cap with the word “Peru” embroidered on the front, grubby brown denim trousers. The sleeves of his wrinkled light blue shirt are pushed up to his elbows, showing deeply tanned forearms. His weathered, ruddy face suggests travel, road weariness, lonely miles. His blunt fingertips and callused hands hold a coffee mug. The younger man leans back in his seat. His body still wears the tags of adolescence – long limbs on a loose frame, pimples, fresh eyes. Their conversation begins amicably on the surface, talking about classes, schedules, missed recitations, common acquaintances. Suddenly, it takes a deep dive into questions of belief.
“I lost my belief in belief,” says the older one. “I’m more of an atheist than I was brought up to be, but I do believe in the unknown.”
The younger one is facile with language and argues for belief. That he knows many books is clear. That he thinks carefully and understands metaphor is reflected in the construction of his response. That he is passionate and overflows with eagerness is betrayed by his nervous hands, insistent tone. The older stands to go refill his coffee.
The younger man has a skateboard under the table with his book bag. He puts his feet on it and moves it back and forth, looks out the window. The older has left a worn blazer thrown over the back of his chair. A tired leather briefcase sags by his seat. It is black, fading to a greyish white at the seams.
“Speaking of the Apocrypha,” starts the older as he returns, “those books are as valid as the other books in the Bible. They were only tossed out because they didn’t match up with the Protestants’ story. Many aspects of Islam and Sufism appear in the Apocrypha. One of the books is Judith – such a beautiful, beautiful book. And then the story of Susanna is another one I’m thinking of.” He takes his hat off and scratches his head. He begins to recall the story of Susanna, in the book of Daniel, lamenting the loss of marvellous stories.
He mentions Wallace Stevens and looks up at the young man. He stops himself and asks the younger his major and year. Senior, psychology, pre-med. The younger brings up C.S. Lewis. Describes him to the older as “an extremely intelligent man who is not at all associated with the fundamentalists.” Recommends The Great Divorce and Mere Christianity.
The older man rubs his chin, chews at a hangnail on his left thumb. “Have you heard of the Gnostic Gospels?” Without waiting for an answer, he describes how they were discovered by accident in Egypt in 1945 when two brothers found an earthenware jar filled with thirteen leather-bound papyrus books. They brought the books home. Some of the gospels were burnt as kindling by their mother. Before all were destroyed, someone realized they could be valuable. They were saved, traded on black markets, smuggled to the west, translated, read by scholars. The oldest one was the Gospel of Thomas. He says he believes the gospels are not forgeries. He explains they must have been hidden by an early sect fleeing the Romans. “I figure there’s got to be a lot more of that stuff out there,” he concludes.
The older man drains his coffee, peers into the bottom of the mug, puts it down before speaking.
“Actually, right now I find people like Erich Fromm more useful – the great thinkers of our age,” he muses.
The younger nods seriously. “Oh yes, I’ve read Ethan Frome.”