It's a shame, Newt Gingrich was saying the other day, that he and his fellow born-again pilgrims have to live “in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.”

I don't know what the qualifications or dues for paganism are, but I got the feeling Bro. Newt would number ol' moi among the swarming pagan horde that has him and his righteous buds surrounded. I'd guess you're a pagan too, in his estimation.

The word has a Latin root suggesting the ancients used it to describe simple rustics or country jakes like us — and I well recall Bro. Newt, himself lately off of Jeeter Lester's turnip truck, snarking the very idea that an Arkie clodhopper might barefoot into the American presidency in 1992. When one did, he must have felt similarly surrounded, and oppressed, and depressed.

The pagans that beleaguer him now like “I Am Legend” zombies, like Hitchcock birds, seem more of the religious type, or rather the irreligious type. Today's problem pagans aren't the spelling-challenged biker toughs (they add a perplexing apostrophe to their jacket insignia, making it Pagan's), nor are they teen Goths, Dragnet Blue Boys, Druid re-enactors, renegade Templar Knights claiming Jesus offspring, neo-Satanists, or standard-issue nonagenarian American Indian chiefs tripping on their happy cacti.

They're plain old you and me and a rainbow motley of our fellow travelers — lesbian budgeters, pussel-gutted surrender monkeys, tolerationists, mutts, working stiffs, pencil-necked geeks, many of the unwashed and unchurched, the Page 1 cast of “Cannery Row,” and hardened evolutionists who doubt that God really blocks out calendar time for confidential chitchats with Pat Robertson and his kidney.

If I weren't one of us, I might feel surrounded too.

Bro. Newt might actually be as dumb in this matter as he sounds. But in any case he has to assume the posture and walk the antinomian walk. He'll never get the sanctimonii's presidential nod if he can't out-imbecile Huckleberry, Palin, and wack jobs aplenty as yet chilling at Liberty University or the Heritage Foundation or interning in blusher application at Fox or CBN or EIB. So he does what he has to do.

And we pagans sympathize. Or empathize, as we prefer it. We feel his pain. And we know it must be wormwood, watching the lot of us running around paganizing, or heathenizing, hoisting the gilded calf and putting on the dog. It must be hard knowing that mess of trash, as Justice Jim Johnson once called us, is in charge for the foreseeable future.

The heaped indignity of it must remind Bro. Newt of Job. Or of the Preacher thinking he might rather have gone unborn than have to witness such. Or of Proverbs 26:1. “As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honor is not seemly for a fool.”

Or the more apt simile might be Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, where the numskull local pagans, having seen the two of them going about performing miracles, just wouldn't give up the foolish notion that they were Zeus and Hermes enfleshed and just down from Olympus.

Paul tried to explain that he and his companion were neither manifestations nor agents of those pagan deities; rather, they came representing the Living God, who, BTW, had previously enfleshed as a Nazarene carperter come down from Heaven not all that long ago.

This was beyond the pagans' ken, of course — we never do quite “get” it — and the upshot after considerable remonstrance was another midnight apostolic absquatulation to avoid another stoning. In the Biblical metaphor, the messengers shook off the dust and moved on. A sketchy account is in the 14th chapter of the Book of Acts.

Bro. Newt calls them pagans; here in the Arkansas rusticity we always called them heathens, with the Psalmist. There might be some minor historical differentiation, but both pagans and heathens fall into the larger category of “the lost.”

The lost are hellbound folk, mostly doomed for having been godless, wrongly godded, or hopelessly confused about the whole business — but it's a heavily populated phylum, with consignments galore of the simply luckless, or innocent bystanders, or unstained babes, or those who meant well, or those who were misdirected by jacklegs or mountebanks, or those who didn't get all the necessary papers signed, or the necessary rites mumbled in a timely fashion.

Bad clarinetists are among the lost, I've always thought. And practical jokers. Overly sincere Methodists are. And whoremongers and idolators, according to the Ephesians letter. And the angry and sullen, according to “The Inferno,” which might be bad news for Veep Dick.  Dante also unaccountably puts seducers, flatterers, simoniacs, diviners, barrators, hypocrites, and counterfeiters far down near the bottom of the pit. And usurpers.

And all jockeys are lost, not excluding the famous one (Oaklawn's all-time winningest) who claimed to have found Jesus through Jimmy Swaggart on a black-and-white TV that was playing in his motel room just outside the Gulfstream Park race track at Hallendale Beach, Florida, one day in 1984 when he was trying to sleep off a bender.

I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but that's just too much.


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