Proud to be a Tennessean, Reason #692: A front-page story in the Sunday edition of our Great Metropolitan Newspaper is about snake-handling churches. The piece is not just a snippet but is a full five-page splash, with pictures of cretins fondling deadly serpents while yawping or praying and sometimes swooning from the sheer ecstasy of it. The reporter, with admirable journalistic integrity, refrains from editorializing in his in-depth coverage of the phenomenon.
Readers are treated to the testimony of yokels as to the spiritually invigorating effects of playing with poisonous snakes, as well as the inspiration and justification for it. (Mark 16:17: “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…”) Though the cultists are violating state laws prohibiting snake handling and possessing poisonous snakes, they say it’s worth the risk of punishment to experience the power of the Lord coursing through them.
The article quotes Wiley Cash, author of a “best-selling” book about a snake-handling church, who says that people want to believe they’ve been singled out by God, and “What better proof than to pick up a timber rattler and not have it bite or to survive a bite?” Can’t think of nary a one, but the good folks at the church in LaFollette can: drinking strychnine. (The passage in Mark continues: “If they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”) The reporter did not get to witness this at the service he attended, as “All the poison was drunk at a previous service and they’ve not had time to get more.”
He also noted that “Most serpent handlers think drinking poison is optional.”
Women are discouraged from handling snakes, and they’re also not allowed to preach in Pentecostal Holiness churches. They must wear skirts or dresses, and are not allowed to wear earrings or cut their hair. Snake handlers themselves can’t drink (under the theory that alcohol might make them crazy?), curse or have sex outside of marriage. (They can have plenty inside marriage, though: the preacher profiled, age 21, has four kids.)
The article reports that a pastor in West Virginia, the only state where snake handling is legal (thank God for small favors: at least we don’t live in West Virginia), died about a week ago from a rattlesnake bite. He was following in the hallowed footsteps of his father, who died at the hands (or jaws) of a rattler in 1983. The pastor of the church in LaFollette prayed that his congregation wouldn’t lose the faith.
“The only thing I know to do,” he said, “is to encourage the people of God to keep on, keep doing the signs of God.”
Maybe so; after all, life is always a hit-or-miss proposition.