It was a dark and howling night and I was sitting in the living room reading about the theological controversies that had crept into Bartow County, Ga. There was considerable strife between the Kingston Holiness Church, which believed that the truly faithful would handle poisonous reptiles, and members of another Holiness church, who thought the good Lord hadn't intended for them to go that far.

In an attempt to resolve this, a Snake Toss had been held; which is to say that members of the Kingston church went into the other church and flung rattlesnakes on its members; and after this there had been screams, scufflings, oaths, blows and some pretty substantial terms on the road gang dealt out by an unsympathetic judge who didn't want to hear the first thing about theology. These terms having since been served, the Kingston church had picked up where it left off, and was even prospering to the point where it could afford a cobra. Although, of course, as true believers, its members continued to be mocked by the world.

"Ever since I took up the snakes," a member of the Kingston church said, "Hatfield hasn't wanted anything to do with me. Before that, we were pretty good friends."

I was meditating on that -- the cost of discipleship, as it were -- when a suspicious electric murmury came from down the hall. And, tiptoeing to the place, I found my son and daughter, ages 9 and 8, watching a little bootlegged TV.

The picture on the screen was of a huge modern apartment house in Tehran; there was a bonfire on the roof and silhouetted, gesticulating figures shaking their fists up at the moon, while others hung by one hand out of the picture windows beneath. And these were also shaking their fists and shrieking upward something the television announcer said translated to "Praise Allah!" and "Death to world-devouring American imperialism!" Ayatollah Khomeini, the announcer said, had told them that saying and doing these things would attract the favorable attention of the Almighty. And from there the scene cut quickly to Tabriz, where 50,000 chanting, fist-shaking demonstrators, also Shiites, were bearing aloft placards with the photograph of Ayatollah Kazam Shariatmadari on them; a man who was, according to their belief, a keener interpreter of what God had in mind than that other ayatollah who had the people shrieking from the roofs back in Tehran.These had submachine guns and gave one the notion that it was fortunate they didn't have the bus fare to Tehran. "Bedtime," I said. "awww, Daddy, do we have to?"

"You bet you have got to," I said, and followed them to their adjoining bedrooms, where there was much tucking in and talk of what Santa was going to bring this year. As my son was finishing his "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," his sister spoke up and said, "You're 9 now. You are supposed to say the 'Our Father.'" "Am not!" "Are, too!"

"Hush up," I said. By this time of night, I could be as short about things like that as the judge in Bartow County.

Later, I sat in the living room smoking a cigar and looking through frosted windows out across the neighborhood to where the old, friendly Christmas lights were strung up on bushes or around the edges of roofs. It was strange, I thought, how religious strife grew more intense. as Christmas came on. The Moonies, Synanon members, Childern of God and Hare Krishnas, who were allegedly practicing brain-washing, were being chased around in ever-tightening circles by the deprogrammers, who were being paid to practice about the same thing. The Mormons were excommunicating a woman who'd opposed their stand on ERA. The Jews were jumping all over Rabbi Alexander Schindler for being so benighted as to suppose that the child of a Jewish man might also be Jewish. And some Islamic fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia had just got through shooting up the Holy Mosque over the issues of television and soccer. Only that night there had been a photograph of their messiah's corpse on TV. He'd borne a remarkable resemblance to Jesus. Presumably my children had had a look at that, too. O holy night.

Ten years ago, all this frenzied, international, ecumenical snake-tossing would have brought to mind Yeats' poem in which he wrote, "The center cannot hold." But where was the center now? Was it in the corporate offices of the National Council of Churches, whose representative had been on the "Today" show that morning contending mightly against a television movie on the life of Mary and Joseph? Was it in the board meeting room of the World Council of Churches, which had recently donated $115,000 to missionary-butchering terrorists?

Where was the center anymore, or even a reasonable man. The Moslems were killing the Christians in the Phillippines; the Christians were killing the Christians in Northern Ireland; television evangelist Jim Bakker, who was in town to be cross-examined by the FCC, was calling it the Gestapo, while the FCC was out to prove that Bakker was a fakir and a thief. And the Scientologists, who'd had enough of being investigated by the government and had turned around and tried to do likewise, had just been sentenced to long jail terms -- although the judge in that case had said he wasn't sure and might change his mind.

And I knew how he felt; it was hard to be any kind of a magistrate anymore with all those rattlesnakes flying through the air and with all the flingers bent on poisoning the world into orthodoxy, or killing it, whichever came first. Although I, who believed that the Bible was the word of God and that Jesus ought to be coming back anytime now, was hardly the one to look down on anybody whose religious beliefs might seem to others to be improbable.

Soon it would be time for my prayers, too, and I thought I knew what I would ask for. That God, if He caught me in theological error, would, in the words of Steve Martin, "Excuse me!" For there was, in the words of that old song, a whole lot of shakin' going on and, under the circumstances, no wonder that some of us were shook up.