Writings by Cole Huffman

They Shall Take Up Serpents

A famous line from a Monty Python comedy sketch announces, “And now for something completely different!” The book I just finished qualifies, although it isn’t a comedy: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington.  Covington, a Birmingham journalist, covered the trial of a snake-handling preacher convicted of attempted murder of his wife. He forced her at gunpoint to put her hand in his box of rattlesnakes. She survived the bites. He got ninety-nine years in prison for it.

Covington found himself intrigued by this community of believers (“hard, angular women and men with slicked-back hair and unfortunate teeth”) who do not take the concluding verses of Mark 16 as hyperbole. Their churches, small and rural, stretch from northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia up to West Virginia in a serpentine line of fiery spiritual fellowship. Along with handling poisonous snakes they also drink strychnine, acts of faith and obedience when the Spirit moves on them to do it.  

It would be easy to lampoon them: poor, white, ignorant hayseeds engaged in retarded worship. But Covington is no yellow journalist cynically consigning every snake handler to irreparable kookiness. A believer himself (from a Methodist heritage), he entered their fellowship not as infiltrator but friend. He even “took up serpents” in his own hands in one service, not out of curiosity but in reverence to the moment. He wasn’t just observing the action as a writer but participating in it as a worshipper.

I couldn’t put the book down although I could never take up serpents. Covington’s theology on the merits of snake-handling is a whole Cottonmouth more open than mine. It’s the biting part I remonstrate! There have of course been deaths through the years in snake-handling churches. They consider it God’s will when it happens and an honorable way to die even if the person wasn’t sufficiently “in the Spirit enough” to survive the venom.

I like my snakes with their heads detached from their body, compliments of my hatchet—a fate I last doled out on a small Copperhead too near our campsite in Arkansas a few years ago. I find in Genesis 3 all the cause I need to take such herpetologically aggressive measures. Still, I found myself in qualified admiration of my snake-handling brothers and sisters. I say qualified because Jesus wasn’t directing us in Mark 16 to take up poisonous snakes or drink poison in worship. What happened to Paul on the island of Malta (Acts 28:1-10) is more along Jesus’ meaning. No one needs to reach into a hissing box of vipers to prove their faith any more than they need to actually gauge out their eye or lop off their hand to fend off lustful Kaa (Matt. 5 and The Jungle Book).

And yet, I admire the snake handlers’ implicit recognition that the worship of God is not a humdrum exercise of rote cerebral tameness. Poisonous snakes can get docilely used to being handled amid singing, shouting, and banging tambourines. But they cannot be tamed. They remain wildly dangerous and can strike at any moment. And they do. This is why the snake charmers in India defang the cobras in their baskets. But the Appalachian snake handlers do not defang the rattlers and moccasins in their boxes. Covington’s insight on this: “Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all” (p. 177).

I wonder if we really believe that. When does our faith ever require danger? When do you have to exercise courage to obey God? But we protest: The snake handlers aren’t courageous they’re crazy! Maybe. But they are convinced that God is undomesticated and requires these proofs of faith from them, and they give it willingly even though they imperil themselves in doing so. So we fault their means, yes, but let’s not overlook their end: complete self-giving to God. The worship of God is not a self-protective venture but self-giving.

As Annie Dillard put it memorably, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so 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 out to where we can never return” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk).

For the record, I have no interest in going to a snake-handling worship service unless I am permitted my herpe-hatchet. But I am intensely interested in untamed faith that expresses simple and absolute confidence in Jesus even at the risk of my health or life. Thank you, snake handlers, for demonstrating that though your way is not mine. Some groups we consider “on the fringe” of the church may have some things to teach the rest of the Body of Christ.

(This piece appeared in the March 2010 issue of the First Evangelical Church's FOCUS newsletter)

Posted by Cole Huffman at 8:29 AM
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