Novel reflects the spiritual journeys of many seekers

kautz_digger‘[Main character] Paul Gartin is neither the stereotypic pharisaical heavy of Hollywood movies nor the cardboard saint of conservative Christian literature.’

Is James Kautz’s novel, Digger, about your life? Probably not, unless you are a college professor and globetrotting biblical archaeologist. However, you might see your reflection in the spiritual journey of Kautz’s protagonist, Paul Gartin.

The novel tells Gartin’s story from his boyhood in rural Missouri to his retirement in the North Carolina mountains — where the writer now resides.

The reader has a front-row seat as Gartin struggles to reconcile the fundamentalist faith of his childhood with other scriptural perspectives he encounters through scholarship and in the sands of the Middle East.

The title’s metaphor is quickly apparent as Gartin digs into his beliefs with the same inquisitiveness and integrity that guides his archaeological endeavors.

Set in the time frame of the 1950s into the 2000s, contemporary historical events serve as backdrop to Gartin’s personal journey. Many themes are woven subtly throughout the narrative.

In addition to Gartin’s spiritual pilgrimage, author Kautz (who has participated in many Middle Eastern digs) describes the evolution of archaeological techniques central to Gartin’s professional life.

Obviously, geopolitics of the Mideast changed significantly during the years of the novel’s setting and there is an inherit sadness as biblical archaeology becomes more difficult and dangerous.

Stateside, the politics of Christian fundamentalism is ever present as preachers, professors and college administrators tangle in contests of will and ideology. (Kautz, who taught at two Baptist colleges as well as the University of Tennessee, has familiarity with those matters too.)

In his writings Kautz recounts a lifetime rich in relationships. However, Digger is not a romance novel by any means.

Instead, Paul Gartin experiences the same uncertainties and awkward missteps in love that most of us experience in real life — especially those who, like Gartin, spent their younger years as academic or professional vagabonds.

Early in the novel we meet the downhome, down-to-earth adults who shaped young Paul’s character. Kautz also aptly describes the deepening of both personal and professional friendships over a lifetime.

In later chapters Gartin watches friends and loved ones age. As in life, the path to death is sometimes heartbreaking.

Whether by conscious design or sub-conscious serendipity, archaeologist Kautz’s writing style in Digger is less lyrical than in his 2006 non-fiction work, Footprints Across the South: Bartram’s Trail Revisited.

Digger smacks of an archaeologist observing the life of Paul Gartin and his friends. We are privy to Paul’s thinking but, like Paul, we are left to infer the thoughts and motivation of other characters.

Throughout the novel Kautz alludes to theologians, theological movements, archaeological sites and other details without bogging down the narrative in exposition. Readers with appropriate academic background will immediately recognize the references; the rest of us might keep Google and a favorite translation of the Bible handy to chase down topics of interest.

Digger is an enjoyable read. It features a refreshingly realistic portrayal of a life lived in faith.

Paul Gartin is neither the stereotypic pharisaical heavy of Hollywood movies nor the cardboard saint of conservative Christian literature. Digger is the story of a man who already “knows Jesus” and is now seeking truth.

If his quest echoes yours, then Digger may well be a novel about your life. NFJ

Keith R. Nelms of Tallulah Falls, Ga., is professor of information systems at Piedmont College.