Taking up sectarian serpents

In May of last year Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, died of a snake bite he received during an outdoor church service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia. ABC News reported that Wolford had even seen his own father killed by a snake years earlier.

Late last week, the community of so-called “snake handlers” experienced another such loss when a Kentucky pastor, Jamie Coots, met a similar fate. Coots rose to some acclaim as a regular on the reality show, Snake Salvation. It also bears noting that Coots refused medical treatment — an act common in many cases such as these.

Adherents of this American Pentecostal tradition take their directive from Mark 16:17-18: “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.”

In the face of these deaths, it is difficult to understand the whole milieu of snake handling as a testament of one’s faith. Their use of ritualized physical danger to express religious conviction stems from the teachings of early 20th-century clergyman George Wesley Hensley. Hensley led his congregation in acts that included handling of venomous snakes, lighting oneself on fire and drinking poison.

While limited to just a few hundred people in the United States, these corporeal mortification rituals are a regular part of religious practices all over the globe. We see similar things in the Catholic penance rituals as performed by members of Opus Dei, the Islamic ritual of matam that is performed during the annual Mourning of Muharram; and the more austere aspects of ascetic practice within Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

As a broad generality, Americans have difficulty accepting the validity of such rituals. At a time in history when so many popular Protestant sects claim a “literal” reading of the Bible, we find this to be an inescapable paradox — in light of the fact that snake handling and its kindred practices are largely relegated to isolated pockets of Appalachia. What we have then is a highly selective “literal” reading of the Bible. Such redaction is by definition not really a literal reading at all, but a narrow application of the canon as suits local social, cultural or political proclivities.

Therein lies the chief problem with any claim to liturgical absolutism. Such claims set a standard that is so multifaceted (and sometimes contradictory) that complete adherence to all the enumerated dicta is impossible. Ironically, that is also the point at which far too many holy wars begin.

On a certain level it is easier to understand why the Christian and the Islamic worlds have often collided. It is harder when the matter becomes not one of wholly divergent traditions, but of differences in degree. This then is the realm where Protestants and Catholics battle and where the Puritans persecuted the Quakers.

While few are naïve enough to believe in the potential for a broad ecumenical awakening, meaningful steps in that direction would likely make our nation a more peaceful, tolerant and attractive model for the rest of the world. Therein lies the greater challenge: embracing the content of another person’s character, irrespective of our differences.