Welcome, pagans!

 “Welcome to our home!” 

Last Christmas, a flute-voiced hostess on the classical music station laughed about her holiday decor, and the beautiful scarves her dogs wear for the season and for guests. “Welcome, Pagans!” she said, as if in their voices. “Welcome to our home!” 

The charming invitatory has stayed with me. Yes, welcome, pagans. 

Meanwhile. 

God has called me to work retail liquor when, after having a family, I expected to be a history professor and/or a famous novelist walking my dogs in the woods. Full disclosure, a real professor warned me when I was forty that the career of an adjunct is a scam on the part of the colleges. “You’ll earn $100 a week and there is no tenure. It’s immoral.” 

Further full disclosure, I don’t like writing novels. I have tried, but find M.F.K. Fisher was right. Storytelling, yes, fabrication — no. Granted it’s amazing how much paper you can fill up with word-painting about an imaginary scene. But what then? As the goofy blonde salon girl chatters in The Women, “How do they ever think up those plots? But I guess everybody’s life would be a plot if it had an exciting finish.”

My “plot” has included a spiritual adventure or two. I learned the tale — Christ’s tale — of the prodigal son is perfectly true. I thought I was called to be a pagan among other things. Since I am evidently not called, either to walks with dogs in the woods or to a grand place among scholars or missionaries, literary or actual, in the Catholic world, what then? Long ago I scribbled in my diary.  If I had stayed Catholic I could have had First Things eating out of my hand by now.

It is very startling but one of the first things one hears, bustling about getting oneself educated as a revert, is that one is obliged to “evangelize 24/7.” Even a smile while holding open a door spreads the Gospel, I learned. This seems odd. Any pagan can smile and hold open a door. In fact Christian theology is extremely complex. And when the sophisticated pagan world looks at you as a Christian, it sees you as merely having this weird judgmental hobby, like a piece of amber worn as an amulet around the neck. It’s got a million-year-old fly preserved in it that you’re interested in. It’s nothing to do with them. 

Of course real, heroic missionaries faced the same problem on a far more terrifying scale. Imagine St. Patrick, bribing the kings of Ireland for permission to walk their lands and preach. Imagine St. Francis Xavier in India and Japan. His body still lies in Goa, did you know?

So I’ve been thinking how on earth to make Christianity plausible somewhere along the continuum where I live: somewhere between holding open doors in retail liquor, and bribing kings. It occurs to me there is a kind of scaffolding of understandings around the complexity of the Christian structure; a scaffolding that is reasonable, and might help pagans get safely inside, and then start looking out from within. Remember back in the ’70s when the guy in the rainbow wig showed up on t.v. at sporting events, holding up a sign reading “John 3:16”? He thought he was reaching people without any need of scaffolding. Times have changed. Notice he doesn’t come around anymore.

One example of the scaffolding is, the Christian structure rests on an acceptance of God’s dealing supernaturally with the ancient Hebrews. Israel’s supernatural experience of God was real. It’s why Christ had to be born there, under the law and in the shadow of the Temple, not in ancient Korea, say. Now how many modern people think about that?

A second example is, the Christian structure — the Church — rests upon the historical fact of the Resurrection. It had to have happened. Bishop Robert Barron has hammered at this since the start of his Word on Fire ministry. No disciples would scatter out into the world preaching, and then go to their own executions, for a nice man who said pleasant things, got himself crucified, and then nothing. They must have seen him alive, repeatedly, as the Gospels testify, after Good Friday. It changed everything. 

A third example is, the Christian structure, the Church, rests upon the requirement of sexual morality. When St. Paul made converts from out of nowhere in Corinth or Ephesus, the everyday changes an Evodia or a Timothy made in their lives were not only internal. They changed their moral habits, based on Jewish law, especially the most private. It made them immediately different. 

A fourth example is, the Christian structure, the Church, rests upon St. Paul having understood Christ bridged the gap between pagan and Jew. We have no conception of what it was to live in a world where only the Jews knew God. Can you imagine trying to believe in Apollo, or some household totem? We are free of that now, thanks to St. Paul’s titanic grappling. Even if you just believe in a Higher Power, that’s still not Apollo, is it? But there’s a catch. The one God of the Jews is Christ. He has to be. 

A fifth example is, the Christian structure, the Church, rests upon the understanding that “religion” is not just a private taste or a human cultural tendency taking many forms. The story of Christianity is true; its earliest witnesses told the truth about bewildering events no one could make up, regardless of stale, local dying-and-reviving-god myths. They went to their deaths for it. It survived by being passed on, exactly as correct information on any science, like medicine, is passed on. 

So here are five pieces of scaffolding around the Christian structure, which we modern people might benefit from thinking about if we have always assumed being religious means being a bigot at worst, or embracing a mindless, pre-fab emotional crutch, at best. 

Yes, welcome pagans. Welcome to my home. You realize, one of the odder basic concepts here — perhaps we should say it’s a sixth example of scaffolding — is that our present life is not all there is. An eternal life will follow, for good or ill depending on how we act on all this information. It is not a question of dissolving into peaceful atoms. You will be you, I will be me, forever. Everyone who has ever lived is still alive. 


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