Books: Heart of a Pagan, Chapter 1: The Spirit and the Flesh

by | Nov 10, 2002

Adapted from Andrew Bernstein's Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

Some say there are no gods; that all we have are fables and empty cant. Some say there was a god once but he perished, leaving true believers to wonder why the spirit of consecration had fled, emptying their lives. A few sneer at deity and celebrate its demise. Some desecrate their temple; some abandon it, let it run down and go to seed.

Some devote themselves to god, but conceive him beyond their reach, a pure being on high, with a swarm of followers on their knees, a horde polluted by the transgression of another.

Some say there are no heroes any more; some say there never were. Some say that dwarves deserve more consideration than giants. Some say that cripples should be coddled. Some are cynics, holding human nature unworthy of reverence.

But not all live their lives in such darkness, devoid of light.

— from the Prologue to Heart of a Pagan

Excerpted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

Chapter 1
The Spirit…and the Flesh

It started like any other day.

I got up at six, two-and-a-half hours before the start of classes. The library wasn’t open at that hour, so I spread out my books on the desk and immediately pored over their pages. It was the first day of classes in early September, but it was the beginning of my junior year, and one of the country’s top graduate programs would be my next step.

I knew the texts that would be used for this semester’s philosophy courses. I didn’t need to buy them, because they were already in my library — Descartes’ Meditations, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Plato’s Republic and Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government. Such books had been my only friends for a long time.

I looked up when the campus started stirring after seven. From my third floor dorm window I could see students walking slowly across the quad towards the cafeteria. You could tell the freshman by their halting steps, uncertain of the direction, their heads swiveling to take in the sights. Hoppo Valley State College was a small school in a town of the same name, a community of 30,000 tucked away in the southwest corner of rural Iowa — but with its respected programs in biology, music and religious studies/philosophy, it was the largest school, and town, that many of our farm kids had seen.

Morning classes were cake. Though they were 400-level courses, I had long since read the material and was already, in my head, writing critical essays. The professors knew what they had. They looked at me throughout the silent moments when they desired student participation, looked for input, insight and dialogue. But I kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t forgotten high school.

The afternoon routine was the same as it had been for the last two years. I got to the gym at two, an hour before the players. Even though basketball practice wouldn’t officially begin for another month, Coach encouraged his players to scrimmage regularly, to work at their weaknesses and to familiarize themselves with their teammates’ style. Since the Hoppo Valley Crusaders had gone 3-21 the previous year, and were the perennial doormat of the Iowa Valley Conference, the practice was needed.

I was in my little cubby — the trainer’s office — off of the locker room, unloading boxes of tape and inventorying medical supplies, when Freddie Zender entered.

“Duggan,” the captain said. “How was your summer?”

“Good. I worked in my father’s office and read philosophy. How about you?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders.

“Worked in the freight yards near home and tried to make time for my medical texts. Saw Kathy as much as possible.”

I turned away and tried to read the label on a carton of knee and ankle supports.

“Made enough money to pay my tuition this year,” he said.


Freddie’s family was poor, but he compensated by working harder than anybody else. Pre-med classes in the morning and early afternoon, basketball practice after class, Bible study following dinner, late nights studying with his fiancée — this was his day. If his work ethic knew any bounds, no one had yet discovered them. He was only six-three-and-a-half — small for the center position he played — but he was powerful across the chest and his legs were tree trunks. The heart and hustle with which he battled bigger men to a draw every night won him respect. The uncomplaining tirelessness with which he worked for the handicapped and weak made him loved.

“Prayer meeting tonight if you care to join us.” His voice, though earnest, sounded subdued, abashed, a diffidence based no doubt on the two years of contempt I had returned to his proselytizing. I turned to face him.

“Kathy going to be there?” I tried for an impish glitter in my eyes, but wasn’t sure I pulled it off.

He smiled sadly but respectfully.

“You know she won’t. Kathy’s God is different from everyone else’s.”

The players were coming in, and I could hear their raucous greetings after the months apart.

“Hey, you sorry lump,” one voice said. “How the bleep are you?” “Sorry lump?” came the retort. “Look who’s talking. You’re the one with a rear end so big, you can’t drag it down the court.”

I listened silently to the back-slapping greetings and good-natured raillery from which I was barred. Then I nodded at Freddie.

“I see your problem. A religious freethinker doesn’t fit in with a bunch of Bible-thumpers like your crowd.”

I didn’t wait for a response, but turned to a newly-delivered crate of medical supplies. Though I got a good grip, my right leg, weak since birth, gave out when I hefted it — and I staggered under the load. Freddie was on me in a heartbeat.

“Duggan, are you OK? Here, give me that.”

“No — ” I started, fighting to keep my balance and my hold, but he didn’t listen, just planted his sequoia thighs and lifted it from me like a toy.

“Where do you want it?” He turned to me, his eyes warm and solicitous, brimming with good will.

“How about planted on top of your groin?” I almost blurted, but bit it off.

“The top shelf,” I said sullenly.

When he left, I wrapped my hands around the shelves’ metal frame and shook it, wanting to feel as if my muscles, like his, could rip it from the wall. But before I could ask for the thousandth time the question of why a philosopher would be trainer to a team of muscle-bound ignoramuses, the locker room door flew open and a brash voice announced the dawn of a new day.

Excerpted from Andrew Bernstein’s Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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