snake-handling for jesus

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. —Mark 16:17-18

So what’s the deal with the Holy Ghost? In today’s evangelical churches we talk a little about the Holy Spirit. We might hear that we should “listen to the Spirit” or that the “Spirit moved me to talk to someone about Jesus,” but generally we stick to the more tangible two of the Trinity. I just read this book called Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. The basic story: Raised as a Christian and ignoring his faith for years, New York Times reporter Dennis Covington travels to the backwoods of the American South to cover the murder trial of a snake-handling preacher accused of using the rattlesnakes to kill his wife. The story becomes a longer assignment to delve into the lives and religion of the poorest, rural, white folk in America whose relationship with Jesus includes singing, dancing, speaking in tongues, handling snakes and drinking strychnine from mason jars. With a couple photographers in tow, Covington rediscovers his faith and handles some snakes. From Salvation…

About that time, Brother Carl himself walked in with a serpent box containing the biggest rattlesnake I’d ever seen. Carl smelled of Old Spice and rattlesnake and something else underneath: a pleasant smell, like warm bread and apples. I associated it with the Holy Ghost. …Anyway, that is what I smelled on Brother Carl that day as he talked about the snake in the box. “I just got him today,” he said. “He’s never been in church before.” Carl looked over his glasses at me and smiled. He held the serpent box up to my face and tapped the screen until the snake started rattling good. “Got your name on him,” he said to me. A shiver went up my spine, but I just shook my head and grinned.

One of the big questions is what happens when the handlers get bit. Does it mean that they weren’t right with the Lord? Were they disobeying the Spirit? Regardless of why, snake handlers often get bit, some die and others keep doing what they feel the Lord is calling them to do. From Salvation…

Billy and Joyce lived in a neat little farmhouse behind a collapsed chicken farm outside Section. Billy was telling about a rattler that had bit Gene Sherbert on the foot. “Like to killed him,” Billy laughed. “He was so swollen he looked like a toad frog, and he was itching and the juice was running out of his hands and feet.” …That Gene Sherbert was a card. ‘And then he just got stiff,’ Billy said. He paused, real serious. “We thought he was dead. But then awhile later, he opened his eyes. He said, ‘I believe I need to handle that snake again.’ So he did.” And the Summerfords started cackling again.

Maybe the best book I’ve read this year. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in compelling stories and great writing.


ronpie said…
the holy spirit is the red headed stepchild of christianity; He/She is there, but nobody wants to really acknowledge them.
Matt Martinson said…
Honestly, I have more than a little doubt when it comes to snake-handling specifically. I just don't think Jesus wanted us to sit around playing with snakes and calling it worship. I would say that if that verse in Mark is even scriptural, it has more to do with something like Paul's experience with the snake in Acts, where he is involved in the mission of God and is bit in the process.

As for speaking in tongues, I have no idea. What I will say is that in Acts there is an account of Jesus' disciples being filled with the Spirit, which causes them to share the gospel with people who speak different languages. In other words, once again, it seems to have a lot more to do with them being involved in kingdom work rather than sitting together in a building feeling religious.

The problem with Matt, though, is that I live in a rationalized world, which seems to have very little room for mystery or the holy. The Spirit comes with more power than some weak form of Jesus-conscious, but I really have idea what that looks like... So frustrating!