As a psychologist I'm very interested in the way human experience and theology interact. For better or worse, I think theology is largely a sense-making activity. We are constantly trying to make sense of our experiences and weave them into a coherent narrative. And our religious experiences are no different.
So for me, the most interesting aspect of the snake handling churches is the experience of snakebite. How do these churches "make sense", theologically speaking, of that experience? Particularly when the snakebite leads to a death in the community?
To start, one of the best aspects of Hood and Williamson's book Them That Believe is their exhaustive phenomenological assessment, through hours of intensive interviews, of the experience of snake handling.
Simplifying, the core experience of snake handling is a Death/Victory motif. As the people in the church move toward the snakes and reach into the boxes they report a keen awareness of death. As their preachers repeatedly say, "There is death in these boxes." In short, the act of snake handling is an eschatological act, the demonstration of victory over death. Death is the real enemy being confronted. The snakes and the poisons are just manifestations of Death.
Pausing for a moment, I would like to note that in this emphasis--victory over Death itself--the snake handling churches have much in common with the Greek Orthodox. Latin Christianity has tended to focus on justification, being saved from the consequences of sin. Thus, in Latin Christianity salvation tends to be reduced to being saved from hellfire. But for the Orthodox Death is the soteriological focus. This is clearly seen in the Orthodox Easter icons which focus on Christ's Harrowing of Hell, his decent into hell after his death to free Adam and Eve (and those who died "in Adam") from Death. Snake handling churches are similar to the Orthodox in that they place victory over Death at the center of their soteriological experience.
But the trouble is, people do die in snake handling churches. How is "victory" experienced in those instances? And it is not just death. Many snakebites are extraordinarily painful and lead to lasting tissue damage. Practitioners survive but they may go through hours and days of excruciating pain. How do they make sense of that pain?
In Appendix 1 of Them that Believe Hood and Williamson document the number of deaths associated with snakebite in the snake handling churches. According to their tally, from 1921 to 2006 there have been 90 documented deaths associated with snake handling worship. That averages out to about one death per year. Which might not seem like a lot, but these are very small and tight knit communities. One death a year is pretty significant.
So how do you experience victory over death in the face of this experience when you, annually, witness or hear a report about a death within the church?
First, the snake handling churches fairly quickly abandoned a triumphalistic stance toward snake handling. An overrealized eschatology was quickly jettisoned. It quickly became clear that "the anointing", the prompt of the Holy Ghost to move forward in worship to take up serpents, did not confer immunity to snakebite or snake venom. People got bit, people suffered from the venom and some people died. So the "victory" could no longer be associated with miraculous immunity. How to make sense of this experience?
The first way of making sense is to blame the snakebite on some moral or spiritual failure. Common attributions are spiritual pride (being cocky in handling the serpents), disobedience, an unconfessed sin or a misinterpretation of the anointing.
But this route to sense-making runs dry after awhile. It is difficult to keep a congregation motivated if you keep blaming them for snakebite. Again, the experience to be preserved is one of victory. Not just individually, but communally.
In light of this the snake handling churches have centered their interpretation of victory upon the act of obedience. And, interestingly, their plain-sense hermeneutic helps them here. Examine the exact wording from the key text of Mark 16.17-18:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.Notice anything? There is no promise of immunity. All the text says is that them that believe shall "pick up snakes with their hands." That's it. That is the sign. It's not immunity. It is, rather, simply picking the snakes up. Even if you get bit. Even if you die.
The victory here is in the act of obedience. The sign to the unbeliever is the act of faith and obedience, the eschatological fearlessness in the face of Death.
In short, the miracle here isn't external, it's internal. It occurs within the heart of the believer, in the collective testimony of the community that death has no hold on them. They, in light of Christ, have no fear of death. And this isn't a theological abstraction, it's demonstrated in flesh and blood during every worship service. It is the sign of them that believe.
What I find very, very interesting about all this is that I can see parallels between my religious journey and the journey of the snake handling churches.
First, I resonate with the shift in the snake handling churches from metaphysics to obedience. The "signs" from God are experienced through obedience to the Way. This is, interestingly, a move growing more and more common within Christianity. Scot McKnight has summarized this impulse in the emergent church movement:
The emerging movement's connection to postmodernity may grab attention and garner criticism, but what most characterizes emerging is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out...
A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes...My second similarity with the snake handling churches has to do with their embrace of fearlessness in the face of Death as a sign of the church. Consider the words of William Stringellow:
Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfillment of life before death.The point that Stringfellow is making is that true life--deeply ethical humane life--cannot be experienced when we live in the thrall of Death. When we fear things like economic downturns or government imprisonment (think of Mandela in prison). Victory over Death isn't simply about life after death. Victory over Death involves eschatological fearlessness in this life. For it is only though such fearlessness that our humanity can be rescued and embraced. Otherwise our lives are pushed and pulled by our survival instincts, our needs for security or a pay check or protecting my place in the world. We become hoarding, aggressive Malthusian creatures.
[Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.
In short, although I'll never take up serpents, I resonate with the eschatological focus of the practice. I understand that the fear of Death is what cripples humane and ethical living. Consequently, in my own way I also try to "take up serpents" in my life, embracing victory in the face of Death. Maybe the serpent is a job, a professional reputation, a house, or a bank account. Things we strive to hold onto and protect because these things represent "life." But they are not life, they are, rather, manifestations of death and fear.
So when I pick up my paycheck or pink slip I have to take it up like the snake handlers take up their serpents. I have to say to the paycheck: "You are not life. And my fear of losing you is Death." I have to absorb the snakebite of the pink slip and say: "You are not Death. My fear of you is Death."
So the preacher calls to us to come forward. Fear rises in the heart. The preacher reminds, "There is death in these boxes." It takes faith to move into that eschatological fearlessness. To look Death in the eye. But there is victory in the fearlessness.
And it is a sign following them that believe.