1. “There are some who call me … Tim,” says the powerful enchanter in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Tim’s great power is evident — he can summon up fire without flint or tinder. But he’s also, of course, ridiculous, standing alone in a vast wasteland, randomly blowing up rocks and trees for no apparent reason.
“You’re a busy man …” King Arthur says, bewildered by this display, which was initially impressive, but quickly became less so due to the utter pointlessness of it all.
That’s kind of how I feel about the faith of snake-handlers. Their level of commitment is undeniably impressive, but it’s also wholly pointless. And it doesn’t take long for the pointlessness of it to outweigh the impressiveness.
I share some of Brother Wendy Bagwell’s take on the practice, as expressed in his folksy, funny account of his unexpected encounter with a snake-handling congregation in a well-polished story unearthed by Ed Kilgore:
“I’m not knocking these people,” Bagwell said. “They had a whole lot more faith than what I had.”
After surviving the service, he says, one woman from the congregation challenges him: “You mean to tell me that if the Lord commanded you to take up the serpent, you wouldn’t take him up?”
He replied, “Yes, ma’am, I surely would. But He didn’t and I ain’t.”
2. Snake-handling is an Appalachian phenomenon. That requires three conclusions, I think.
First, it means that we’re not dealing with wealthy, powerful people here. This is a practice that is found almost exclusively in poor communities — places that have had their land and their people strip-mined, exploited and poisoned for generations. So we need to be very careful here about punching down (see also Ari Kohen on this point).
Second, we have to ask why out of 2,000 years of Christianity all over the world, this practice arose in only one place during only one relatively brief span of time. All those millions of Christians elsewhere and elsewhen also had access to that one odd verse in the dubious epilogue to Mark’s Gospel, yet none of those other millions of Christians understood that verse to mean what these folks take it to mean. That doesn’t prove their interpretation is wrong, but it suggests that they must shoulder an enormous burden of proof if they want to demonstrate that they’re right and that, therefore, every other Christian who ever lived is or was wrong.
So let’s put those two things together. This weird, unique distortion of the Bible is distinctive to one time and place. It is most likely thus also a product of what it is that makes this time and place distinctive. I think it demonstrates an attempt to demonstrate power and divine validation on the part of people whose lives are otherwise desperately lacking those very things. If that’s true — if that’s the condition that produces their idiosyncratic and dangerously wrong interpretation of Mark 16, then this isn’t an error that can be corrected with better exegesis. Their interpretation will likely only change when those conditions are changed.
3. Having said that, snake-handlers are just flat out wrong. They are wrong about this specific “sign” from (some dubious versions of) Mark’s Gospel. And they are wrong about “signs and wonders” in general.
Brother Wendy was right. If this was something we were told, advised or commanded to do, then we ought to do it. But it was not. “He didn’t and I ain’t.”
Mark 16:18 says, “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.” This is a promise of divine protection, not a command to run around deliberately endangering ourselves. It is not a command to pick up snakes any more than it is a command to guzzle Drano or arsenic or any of the other toxins dumped into Appalachia’s water supply by generations of despoilers like Freedom Industries and Patriot Coal.
But the larger point is the lack of a larger point. Why would anyone want to drink any deadly thing? The answer seems to be so that one could show that God will protect you from harm. We’ve heard that before:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
As well as extravagantly violating Jesus’ admonition there, snake-handlers miss the bigger point too. Signs are supposed to point to something else. A sign that exists for its own sake does not signify — it doesn’t mean anything.
There’s a sense in which snake-handlers are impressively stepping out in faith just like the tightrope walker in the hackneyed sermon illustration. But to what end? They’re putting their faith to the test, but never putting it to use. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” the book of James says. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
James isn’t talking about parlor tricks or daredevil stunts.
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
It’s no good at all. Just as it’s no good if you see their need and respond by saying, “Check this out. This is a deadly poison. I’m gonna drink it.”
4. Here’s a roundup of the recent reporting and commentary following the sad, but all-too-predictable death of snake-handling preacher and reality TV victim Jamie Coots.
• Bob Smietana, “Jamie Coots, co-star of ‘Snake Salvation,’ dies of a snakebite”
• Daniel Burke, “A faithful death: Why a snake handler refused treatment”
Never forget that the truth of the matter is you’re not simply doing what the Bible says to do.
You’re doing what you think the Bible says to do.
And that’s a really, really important difference.
Because it can kill you.
And destroy the lives of those around you.
• Mark Silk, “Should public safety trump snake salvation?”
Tennessee’s longstanding anti-snake-handling law, upheld by a 1975 decision of the state supreme court, was passed to protect citizens from just what happened to Coots. And the protection of life and limb would seem to be just the kind of compelling state interest that, under the strictest legal standard, allows the government to place limits on constitutional rights.
Why the grand jury didn’t see it that way is worth pondering. Maybe the jurors thought that TV celebrity has its privileges, but I’d say that we’re living at a moment when religious liberty claims enjoy special support, at least among some Americans. That’s thanks to the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which opponents have sold as part of a wide-ranging governmental assault on religious liberty.
• RMJ @ Adventus highlights a report from last fall by NPR’s John Burnett, “Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling”:
“The animals that I’ve seen that have come from religious snake handlers were in bad condition,” says Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, a facility in the town of Slade that produces venom and promotes the conservation of snakes. “They did not have water. The cages had been left not cleaned for a pretty long period of time. And the other thing we noticed is there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large.”
What’s more, she says there was no fecal material in the container, which indicated the snakes were not being fed. Riley says a snake that may be dehydrated, underweight and sick from close confinement is less likely to strike than a healthy snake. Moreover, the venom it produces is weaker.
She says snake-handling preachers who don’t take care of their snakes are “setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with.”
One of the pastors they level criticism at is Jamie Coots, who regularly takes up serpents in his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky. Coots was featured in NPR’s story as well as a National Geographic reality series called Snake Salvation.
When we visited the snake room behind Coots’ house, there were about 30 snakes — mostly timber rattlers and copperheads — crowded into glass cages. He says he waters them regularly but that his supplier of live mice and rats moved away. And many of the snakes won’t eat anyway.
In a follow-up call, I asked him how long his snakes usually live.
“Average is probably three to four months,” Coots says.
The Kentucky Reptile Zoo reports that well-cared-for snakes live 10 to 20 years or longer in captivity.
Set aside whether these sick, lethargic animals may be less dangerous to handle. This is animal cruelty, plain and simple. That’s a sin.