We might have thought that the next meeting of the Historical Sleuthing Society would be a little less talk and a little more action. But unfortunately, when Xenia, Vanessa and Mr. Murphy arrive at Ms. Weeks house on Wednesday afternoon, it turns out that that’s not the case. Bobbi Weeks starts complaining before they’re even quite out of the car. Apparently her husband has put the brakes on her idea of getting into the secret alcove by just swinging a sledge hammer at the wall. (Maybe she has watched too many episodes of house makeovers on HGTV?) And she and Dennis Rogers are banished back to the main house while he preps the area more carefully.
So chapter 17 ends up being a bit of a run-up to the period of discovery that we know is ahead. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happens. Xenia brought Vanessa along and would’ve liked to get a look into Ms. Weeks’ garage, since that’s what the clue in chapter 16 told her to do. But that plan is thwarted as well, and instead, there’s nothing much to do but get to know the rest of the Society a little better. And they seem a bit on edge, so they may not be at their best.
“…But it seems like having to wait is making everyone a little testy. Are they always like this?”
Xenia hadn’t been paying attention, and she observed the room thoughtfully. Her father and Mr. Rogers had taken a seat at the table and were sharing beers while the two women stood and talked. It should have been an amiable domestic scene. But there was a kind of nervous energy evident in the raised voices and forced laughter. Bjark had noticed the tension and was trotting aimlessly and barking his discontent from time to time. (page 283)
And the picture doesn’t get tremendously better when the girls finally manage to get close to the garage. Charlie is parked in the driveway, drumming a basketball endlessly against the backboard. He seems to be just as restive and keyed up as everyone else. And even for Charlie, he’s in a foul mood.
“Isn’t that supposed to go inside the hoop?” she said irritably.
Without breaking his relentless rhythm, Charlie told her to go to hell.
“Hey!” Vanessa barked. “Don’t you talk to her that way.”
Noticing Vanessa for the first time, Charlie pulled off the headphones and stuffed the basketball under one arm.
“Who are you?”
Vanessa returned his haughty look and answered coolly, “Maybe I’m her guardian angel.”
He snorted dismissively and lifted the ball again.
“Yeah? Well, you can go to hell, too.”
“I can see you’re unclear on the whole angel thing,” she answered lightly. (page 287)
It seems obvious that Vanessa isn’t going to have any more luck getting through to Charlie than Xenia has. But it’s the conversation that Xenia has after everyone has had a light meal that is really the biggest point of chapter 17. In fact, it’s what a lot of her “research” has been preparing her for. And maybe what the spiritual journey has been about.
Finally, on that sultry afternoon, when Charlie has known Xenia for a few weeks, and when he obviously has something on his mind, he brings up her faith. He seems to want to talk about it, and so they do.
My observation about these things in my life is that you never know when they will occur. So often, these days, they just don’t. As I said in an earlier post, the opportunities for real evangelism have been dwindling with every passing decade in our secularized and faith-challenged culture. Church membership has been dropping, and less people self-identify as Christian all the time. It’s very rare that you encounter a person whose mind isn’t already made up.
But IF you did, would you know what to say? Would you know how to answer their questions, or at least give them a reason to re-examine their own skepticism?
What would you say?
One of the advantages I get in these ETC books is the chance to at least rehearse what I would say, if I were ever given the chance. In Vanessa the Wonder-worker, I got to try out a little of this in Vanessa’s conversations with her scientific-minded brother. In this chapter of Xenia, I brought together the things I think I would say, if I ever had a conversation with a doubter who had even a scintilla of actual curiosity.
It’s not at all hard to see/hear/read the issues that skeptics have with us. Their imprint is all over the internet and throughout our shared culture. They seem to have solidified their opposition to religion in the strange declaration that believing in the Christian God is roughly tantamount to believing in known superstitions and fantasies like the Easter Bunny. There isn’t any argument a Christian can give to this. Probably none we should even try to give to this, since it’s actually so insupportable that it’s not worth dignifying with an answer.
But what happens sometimes, if you are just around a person like that long enough for them to get to know you, is that they begin to question the supposition themselves. I don’t think they quite start out by knowing that’s what they’re doing. But in the face of evidence, a weak hypothesis tends to need revisiting. If your idea is that Christianity is more or less the same as believing in the Easter Bunny, then time spent with a Christian who doesn’t act as if what they believe is weak and impossible begins to mess up the idea. That skeptic may or may not feel like having it out with me — most people don’t like to be so confrontational — but I may notice them begin to send out little trial balloons. They’re trying to find out if I’m a superstitious person generally (– I’m not — ) or if there’s something a little bit wrong with me ( — perhaps, there is). They may try to find out if I really do believe “all that stuff,” or if I was just saying I did.
For believers, two questions
It seems to me that if you pass this part of things, and if any actual conversation about what you believe happens, for most skeptics, it all comes down to two things. Non-believers imagine that they are 100% right, and unfortunately these days, most of them assume that their position is 100% motivated by intelligence. But really, skepticism is rarely as perfect as that. And it’s certainly not original or profound. In most cases, there are only two questions that they have.
- “How can you believe that?”
- “What about pain?”
And so if you re-read Xenia’s conversation with Charlie in the kitchen, you’ll realize that those are basically the two questions he asks. And her answers are the best that I’ve been able to figure out by way of a response, in all the time I’ve considered it. This is not at all to say that these are the best answers, or the most intelligent or airtight. I’m not sure that there are perfect answers to the questions.
What I keep finding online are some form of Christian apologetics, or arguments that depend on the other person being willing to entertain some amount of theological rhetoric or Biblical exegesis. Maybe it’s just me, but these aren’t the kinds of people that I encounter. I encounter people much less “scientific” on the subject, and much more inclined toward common sense and easy-to-understand answers. And most of all, I encounter people who know the difference between what’s authentic and inauthentic — rehearsed and unrehearsed. There’s no point in saying things that sound like they came from someone else’s 3×5 cards.
Xenia’s answers aren’t like that. It’s one of the times that it’s handy that Xenia really isn’t very good with words. But she is always a very forthright and frank person. So her answer to both questions comes from that place. And it comes from being a scientifically-minded believer who has had a lot of time to think these things through. It turns out that something good came after all from her association with the odious bunch at school called the Loser Jerks: Xenia has been questioned this way more than once.
Her answer to the question of how she can believe all of “that crap” is that she finds evidence for it all the time. Intellectual evidence — rational evidence. Because that’s the kind of person that she is. If you remember the discussion that she had in the story “About a Baptism” in A Year of Every Tuesday, you’ll remember that she has already told the ETC of this confirmation for God’s existence. She tells them about Fibonacci numbers — the sequence of numbers that recurs constantly in nature. So maybe it’s no surprise that she also tells Charlie of the proof she finds in the “real world”:
“I believe in it because it seems impossible not to. I see Christianity in effect all the time, all over the place. I see it in the order and harmony of the physical world. The God that made all this has to be the Christian God or one just like Him. All of this didn’t happen by accident. It was created.”
Her eyes had drifted out the window as she spoke, where the gusting wind was billowing a pillowcase on the clothesline.
Energy encounters matter. Mobility and immobility. Wind resistance, oscillation, flexibility.
“It’s very beautiful,” she finished dreamily. (page 293)
But the bigger point — the problem of pain — is always the harder one to deal with. If there is a God, and He is all-powerful and all-good, then why do such terrible, unjust and wicked things happen? Sometimes to the most innocent of us, those least deserving torment and violence?
What answer could we possibly give to that? It is THE question. Any Christian who hasn’t at least asked it is behaving quite strangely — either living a very compartmentalized existence, or else perhaps being afraid to pose the most basic question to a God they say they love and worship.
And having thought about it at length, my “answer” — which might not even rise to the level of being an answer — is that it is a question that everyone must ask God themselves. When Charlie accidentally scalds his hand and blurts out this question, Xenia is helpless in the face of his rage and can only say what she wanted to tell her friend Jason.
“That you have to ask God yourself,” she replied with warmth. “It doesn’t matter what I would say — you’d never believe me, anyway. Devout people aren’t devout because they’ve never suffered, or because they’re dumb. It’s not like we’ve never thought about what you’re asking. But I know other things about God as well. I’ve seen miracles — never mind what, I just have. I’ve seen the goodness of God, and even the power. So of course that informs my answer. If you take that out of the equation — if you’re missing that data — whatever I say would just sound wrong to you. Or stupid. I know it always did to Jason. There are some questions that you have to ask for yourself. So, do it. God is pretty much everywhere. If you talk to Him, I can guarantee He’ll hear you.” (page 296)
Because it’s no good asking that one question — especially in the demanding, “Answer me!” way that most skeptics want to pose it. How would you ever get to know the Person, if that’s all you did? And if you never get to know Him, how could He possibly reply, in any way you’d be able to understand?
I think one of the reasons this is such a scary idea to unbelievers is that they have a sneaking suspicion that if they were ever to address any question at all to God — as if they actually expected a response — they might begin to get some awareness that He was not, after all, the Easter Bunny. That He did exist. And was somehow all-powerful and all-good, even if the problem of pain continues. That can be a very frightening thing, if your entire model of the universe is that it is godless. But if you don’t say something — if you never in your life form a single syllable that would qualify as prayer — then how will you ever know?
That is what Xenia manages to communicate to Charlie.
Did he hear her?
We don’t really know. Before he can make any kind of response, something else happens. What it is, we don’t exactly know. But it’s obvious that inadvertently, Xenia brought him to a place of such torment that he plunged his arm into boiling water, as some kind of animal response to intolerable distress.
With Xenia, we have to ask him in horror, “What … is wrong with you?”
Because clearly, something is. But just as clearly, we’re not going to find out the answer right away. Charlie’s wounds get tended. Vanessa’s attempt to confront Mr. Rogers is fruitless. Charlie isn’t talking. We’ll just have to wonder for now, and move on, as the Society does.
But let’s not forget the conversation that Xenia had. It really turns out to be much more meaningful than she knows.
By the way, I finally got back my lab results yesterday, and I tested positive for coronavirus. Hardly a surprise at this point, because I had all the major symptoms of it. But I’m glad to report that after a rocky couple weeks, things have finally begun to ease up in the past four or five days. The fever and aches have gone away. The cough and pneumonia will take a longer time to heal, but the doctors tell us I’m on track to recover, and that it just takes a while. I haven’t been too uncomfortable and am incredibly grateful to friends, family and my fans for their prayers and support. I’m telling anyone who will listen that this really is a nasty bug, and all the lockdown/distancing stuff — annoying as it is — is probably worth it. It all makes for the strangest Lent any of us have ever seen. But at any rate, we will still see His glorious Pascha, whether inside or outside of our churches. And for that, too, I am very grateful. Glory be to God!
Chapter 17: Back to Ms. Weeks’ farm, where we may finally uncover Jessam’s secret
Chapters 18 & 19: An important answer revealed, and an important clue solved