What religious snake handlers want

As her momma lay dying, she zipped around the house taking seemingly random photographs of ceilings, corners, pictures and walls. She explained to me that other family members would gather to collect her mother’s soul and she was hoping to get a picture.

Pastoring a church has afforded me experiences like this one. If you’ve ministered to real people long enough, even something like religious snake handling doesn’t come as a surprise.

Snake-handling churches are often turned to for stock examples of crackpots, but they usually only make the news when someone dies, as happened recently in West Virginia. The image is refreshed by death.

We are frightened and fascinated by snakes. We have them as pets and visit them in the zoo. We watch scientists, zoologists, venom extractors and ecologists in action with them on reality television. Religious snake handling ups the ante.

What do Moses, the woman taking pictures at her dying mother’s bedside and the snake handlers have in common? They want to see the face of God.

According to the Bible, trying to see God’s face is more dangerous than trying to watch an eclipse or the transit of Venus directly, so we concoct filters, sacraments through which to view Him.

Snake handlers find their Biblical support for their strange sacrament from the long ending to the Gospel of Mark. Scholars will tell you that this passage, found in the King James Bible, is likely not part of the original text. The original ending of the story was likely lost, being at the end of the scroll, so a later editor furnished this conclusion. Some believe the snake reference in Mark might refer to the story of Paul in Acts 28:3. None of this matters of course when our hearts yearn for a glimpse of God or at least a chance to touch the hem of His garment.

Religious talk is cheap and so when people put their lives at risk for what they believe - people like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King or Marshall Applewhite - we pay attention. The danger of the poisonous snake culls the church of pretenders, the insincere and the half-hearted.

The snakes are a sacrament, they are God talking back to his people in an all-or-nothing, high-stakes trial. This is no mere damp fleece. This is hard-core.

Annie Dillard has one of the best quotes on church:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Do the snake handlers misread the Bible? Yes. Do the snake handlers play with an unauthorized sacrament? Yes. Are the snake handlers crazy? No more than the rest of us.

The problem with handling snakes in church is the same problem shared by God seekers of all stripes, from nice, church-going Baptists to new agers seeking enlightenment at some Indian shrine. We creep into that space between us and the Almighty looking for something dangerous and foreign, but not too much. Snakes are extreme and these people are serious, but it’s the same game.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you understand the spiritual motivation held by snake handlers?
  • What ways of encountering God do you have?

 

Comments (3)

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grace infused, thoughtful faith... what separates the servants of the good news from the snake oil salesman. thank you, paul, for deep words about the thin veil that separates us from the divine, and the thinner line that separates the "crazy religious whackos" from the mild mannered christian.
It seems like we are all just grasping a ephemeral straws in our search for the Almighty. If the snake handlers are crazy, so are we all.
I think the main thing that saddens me about the tragedy of the snake-handler and others of this persuasion is the way they have become so blinded by their quest for tangible encounter with the Almighty that they have, in a cruel twist of irony, completely missed what they were so desperately grasping after. And I don't think it's just the biblically misguided snake-handling population that's suffering: the whole church suffers spiritual casualties from all forms of reckless, ecstatic sensationalism in its many guises.

We all SHOULD desire meaningful encounter with God. But the ENCOUNTER is not what we should be seeking; what we should be grasping after is God Himself, and then He can dictate the terms of the encounter.

Friends, I hope that a news story like this elicits our deep, compassionate prayers on behalf of the souls who are desperately clinging after shadows. We who have encountered the Reality--whether in ecstasy of Spirit or quietude of reflection--can appreciate and mourn for what these seekers are missing. May He draw them each in His own special way.

 

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