Well handled snakes, in the Tennessean

Dear Mr. Mattingly,

You have put me in a somewhat awkward position. 


“Bible Belt” Bobby

• • •

Generally, we GetReligionistas choose our own topics (for better or worse). Occasionally, however, our esteemed leader nudges us to consider certain posts.

In this case, tmatt was preparing the post on the massive Washington Post coverage of Christians who choose to handle snakes as part of their worship services. Honestly, he had all the snakes he could handle. So he asked me to take a look at Bob Smietana’s front-page feature in the Tennessean this week on young snake-handling believers. And I was happy to do so.

The only problem (and the one that puts me in the above-described awkward position): I just gave a glowing review to a Smietana story. In a perfect world, his snake story would bite, and I could balance the scales by stomping his journalistic head. (OK, I’m done with the bad puns. Maybe.)

But unfortunately, this is another nice piece of journalism by Smietana, so I’m forced to praise him. Again. I’ll drink the poison and resign myself to a post with no comments.

Let’s start at the top:

Andrew Hamblin’s Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.

Making a late-night run to Taco Bell.

Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids.

Handling rattlesnakes in church.

Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.

While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood — and illegal — version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.

What a creative lede.

But the real strength of the piece is Smietana’s willingness (like that of the Post reporters critiqued by tmatt) to let the believers explain their own faith, with no hint of judgment on the reporter’s part. The writer provides focus, context and precise, detailed scenes that take readers inside a snake-handling church:

Then he flipped the lid of a small wooden box by his feet and pulled out three Southern copperheads, all entwined together.

Golden lifted them about his head, then swung them back and forth in front of him before handing them to Hamblin, who took the snakes in one hand and lifted the other in prayer.

Other men took out timber rattlers, putting one hand by the midsection, the other by the head and neck. They held the serpents up in front of their faces, almost staring them in the eyes for a moment, then lowered them down and up in a gently swinging motion. The snakes began winding and unwinding in their hands, forked tongues tasting the air, trying to get their bearings.

Women standing nearby raised their hands in prayer and wept.

Mix in First Amendment experts (who weigh in on the illegal nature of such churches in Tennessee) and wildlife officials (who explain that the state forbids capturing wild animals or having poisonous snakes), and this is a story that covers all the bases.

Smietana even delves into the theological reasons the snake-handling churches give for their beliefs:

Since the early 1900s, a handful of true believers in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have practiced the so-called signs of the gospel, found in a little-known passage in the King James Version of the Gospel of Mark:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

While other churches ignore this passage or treat it metaphorically, serpent handlersfollow it literally. Their intense faith demands sinless living and rewards them with spiritual ecstasy — the chance to hold life and death in their hands.

All joking aside, this really is a fine example of a Godbeat pro practicing his craft at the highest level. Kudos to Smietana and the Tennessean. But maybe next time, they’ll leave me just a little something to hiss about.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    I’m glad your post was not hissterical, Bobby but I’m probably making an asp of myself with this comment. I’m glad that tmatt did not rattle your cage awfully much.

    What kind of snake keep its car the cleanest?
    A windshield viper!

    and more at http://www.yuckles.com/jokes.htm



  • http://www.davidathey.com David A

    If the basis of the story is Mark 16.17-18, then a third of the story should have been about drinking poison, and a third of the story should have been about healing the sick. “Snakes in a church” is perhaps the easiest angle to take in light of that passage. And “Healing the Sick on a Plane” won’t be coming to theaters any time soon, lol.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jon_wilke Jon Wilke

    I live in Tennessee, and the photography that accompanied this piece was equally well done. Also, Bob’s writing is always informative and structured for a smooth read.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I would like to stress that I never received the “letter” reproduced at the top of this post.

    It is a fraud.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.


    The letter is in the snail mail. Please look for it next year.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Short on time and long on ophidiophobia, I just caught up on reading all four snake stories. What great reads, all four of them. Real human characters, some good sociological and even psychological aspects displayed, not discussed. I’m not a professional journalist, but I know what I like. They reminded me of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, in that they offered real respect to an out-of-the-mainstream religious expression.

    One criticism: both Julia Duin and Bob Smietana mention that other Pentecostal groups eschew snake-handling, and I would have liked more information on why that is. Sort of like David A, I wonder why healing and not snake-handling? And if it’s so critical to the Faith, where was it for 1900 years? What is the history? But including that sort of counterpoint could have easily diverted the humanity of the telling.

  • Daniel

    At tmatt and Bobby: From the journalistic, not theological angle, I’m wondering when I’ll see headlines along the lines of man bites snake. I say this reading headlines that say both man bites dog and well-handled snakes in the same month. Wouldn’t be a big step to man bites snake.