NEW YORK, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- At the First Baptist Church of Texarkana, Texas (it's actually pronounced "Babtiss") those of us in the heretical pews assigned to boys who refused to stop smoking or swearing would always love it when the "eye of the needle" sermon came along.
First of all, the verse is funny just on its own terms: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle" (who would even THINK of that?) "than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."
Since these were the words of Jesus, and since the Babtist doctrine of the day held that the words of the Man were singular, unalterable, and meant exactly what they said, we knew the stiff-necked preacher was gonna have to tap dance till he wore out his shiny patent leather shoes trying to explain this one away.
There were, after all, bankers, soybean magnates and real estate moguls right there in the front row with their families, and all of them were writing checks for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, not to mention the new education building. I don't know how many education buildings we had, but I do know we always needed money for a new one.
There were sermons about "a true poverty of spirit." There were sermons about how it REALLY means that an "ungenerous man" can't enter the kingdom of heaven. There were references to the original Greek, and suggestions that the literal "eye of a needle" referred to a particular passageway in some Middle Eastern town -- Jerusalem? I don't remember -- that was narrow but not wholly impassable.
But the problem with fundamentalism is that, whatever the book says, that's what it MEANS. You're not supposed to futz around with it. These preachers were proud that they were NOT scholars, and they had a deep mistrust of theology school professors, even the ones at Southwestern Babtist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, because they thought you couldn't combine THEORY with the plain ole Word of God, complete and revealed, in King James English.
Sooner or later you were either gonna have to tell the rich men that they couldn't go to heaven, thereby ending your career, or else tell them they COULD go to heaven, thereby expecting God to strike you down at any moment.
Which brings me to The Prophet. We didn't have any Muslims in Texarkana, or at least not any that we knew of. The only Muslim we knew anything about was Muhammad Ali, and we assumed that was just a black thing. A few of us thought The Prophet might be a book by Kahlil Gibran. But little did we know that, halfway around the world, there were mullahs who believed that his words, complete and revealed, singular, unalterable, meant exactly what they said, in Arabic, no questions, no scholarly futzing around.
Which must be a problem for schoolboys throughout Islam when the Koran is opened to Chapter 9.
Chapter 9 is the "eye of the needle" problem in spades. Chapter 9 is all about how you have to "fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them." It's about how it's not enough just to go about your business, believing in Islam and submitting in your heart (the word "Islam" means submission). It means you have to go after the "Jews and Pagans." You have to make THEM submit, too.
And Chapter 9 is not a short chapter. I'll just quote a couple of passages here to give you some
"Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war), but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them."
At least it has a hopeful ending. Apparently during the early years of Islam, it was okay for the king of a conquered nation to repent and convert to save the lives of his people -- so, in theory, George Bush and Tony Blair could swear allegiance to Mohammed and the Taliban would lay down their weapons and have a party.
But listen to this one:
"It is not fitting, for the Prophet and those who believe, that they should pray for forgiveness for Pagans, even though they be of kin, after it is clear to them that they are companions of the Fire."
The pastor at First Babtist would definitely say "amen" to that one. I've heard the sermon. It doesn't matter if it's your sister, your mother, your father, your brother -- until they accept Jesus, they're "companions of the Fire" and they can't be forgiven for that. Change Jesus to Allah and you've got the same thing.
So here's the tap-dance problem for both Bush AND the Taliban. Bush keeps saying "It's not about Islam," and they keep saying "It IS about Islam." Actually we have at least two superstar -- one Christian, one Muslim -- who ALSO say it IS about Islam.
Paul Johnson, author of "A History of Christianity," writes, "Islam is an imperialist religion, more so than Christianity has ever been, and in contrast to Judaism. ... These canonical commands (in Chapter 9) cannot be explained away or softened by modern theological exegesis, because there is no such science in Islam. ... Islam remains a religion of the Dark Ages. The 7th-century Koran is still taught as the immutable word of God, any teaching of which is literally true. In other words, mainstream Islam is essentially akin to the most extreme form of Biblical fundamentalism."
And from the Islamic world we have Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born novelist, who spent many years under a sentence of death from the Islamic regime in Iran, who writes, "'This isn't about Islam.' The world's leaders have been repeating this mantra for weeks ... The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true. ... This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, 'infidels,' for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world. ... [T]his self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal."
What they're both saying is that it's NOT just the Taliban. It's pretty much the MODERATE part of the Islamic world.
I mean, you've gotta hand it to the Taliban on one level. When they read the Koran, they're not trying to win any popularity contests or avoid offending the soybean magnate.
"Strongest men in emity to the believers," they quote (from Chapter 5), "wilt thou find the Jews and Pagans." But there's a little good news here as well, because the verse continues: "And nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say 'We are Christians': because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant."
So Christians are in a sort of love-hate limbo, but Jews and Pagans are pretty much in for all the fighting and slaying and seizing and beleaguering they can handle.
As recently as one year ago, I heard a preacher at a Babtist church in New York go on and on about "the Islamic tide that's sweeping across Europe and will soon be at our shores." He was speaking of the rapid rise in the numbers of Muslims, of course, and calling on the faithful to get out there and proselytize so that some of those Muslims would come to Jesus. But he was quite worked up about it, and he was having a series of weekend workshops to get his spiritual army ready to troop into Brooklyn and fight the Islamic invader.
So, for him, it IS about Islam. And he was probably thinking the same thing that I was thinking when I read Chapter 9 and was reminded of my fundamentalist youth. It's one thing to say it. It's one thing to believe it. But when it's right there in the actual Holy WRIT, you sure as hell can't ignore it.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes columns for UPI and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his website at joebob-briggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)