A few weeks ago, spending time teaching graduate students in a missional ecclesiology class, I was talking with one of the students about the relationship between fear and faith. As we were talking about this I'd mentioned the experiences and theology of the snake handling churches of Appalachia.
I've done a series about the snake handling churches which can be found on the sidebar. The bit I was sharing with the student involved the last post in that series where I reflected on the experience of snakebite in these churches.
Snakebite is a theological problem in snake handling churches. Even more so is death by snakebite. The point I was making to the student was that the theological problem of snakebite is a problem that many Christians share, even if they don't handle snakes.
Let me unpack that.
To start, some background.
Sometime around 1910 George Went Hensley walked down from White Oak Mountain in Tennessee convinced, because of his experiences on the mountain, that one of the signs accompanying believers baptized in the Holy Ghost was power over deadly serpents. Since the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 the main sign of Holy Ghost baptism had been speaking in tongues (along with other miraculous signs such as healings). But because of his literal reading Mark 16, Hensley became convinced that handling poisonous serpents should be added to these signs. Mark 16.17-18 from the King James Version of the Bible:
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.Hensley descended White Oak Mountain, snake in hand, and launched his first snake handling revival meeting in the community of Grasshopper Valley. So powerful were these revivals in their demonstration of the Holy Spirit that snake handling began to spread throughout the Appalachia region and, for a brief time, was endorsed by the Churches of God.
In the early days of the movement the message was triumphalistic. The Holy Ghost would allow "them that believe" to handle serpents and not be bitten. But over time people were bitten. In the face of snakebite the witness shifted to protection from death by snakebite rather than from snakebite itself. But people eventually also died from snakebite. In fact, Hensley himself, having survived 446 snakebites, eventually succumbed in 1955. Hensley died at the age 75 after being bitten on the wrist by a five-foot rattlesnake during a revival in Florida.
According to researchers Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson (see Appendix 1 in their book Them that Believe), 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.
All this presents the snake handling church with a theological problem. But the problem has less to do with snakebite than it has to do with a victory over the fear of death.
The central theological experience of snake handling is a victory over death. 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." Snake handling is an eschatological act, a demonstration of a victory over death. Death is the real enemy being confronted. The snakes are just manifestations of Death.
The practice of snake handling, then, sits within a Christus Victor frame where a victory over death is at the heart of the soteriological experience.
But the trouble is, people do die in snake handling churches. How is "victory" experienced in those instances? And it's not just about 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? More, how do they experience victory over death when they annually witness or hear report of a death within the church? That's a theological puzzle.
In response, the snake handling churches eventually abandoned a triumphalistic stance toward snake handling. It 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. So then where was the victory to be found?
Perhaps surprisingly the answer was found in a close reading of Mark 16.17-18. Go up and read that text again. 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. And that, it was concluded, is the sign. The sign is not immunity. The sign is in simply picking up the snakes. Even if you get bit. Even if you die.
The victory here isn't immunity but fearless obedience. The sign to the unbeliever is the act of faith and obedience--the sign is an eschatological fearlessness in the face of Death.
This was the point I was making to the student. The theological evolution of the snake handling churches is an interesting illustration of how the fear of death is revealed to be our primary spiritual predicament, the predicament described in a text in Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15Salvation is found in being set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Snakebite is a symbol of this fear in the snake handling churches. Thus taking up snakes becomes a "sign" of salvation.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Does that mean we should take up serpents? Well, feel free to bring that up at your next worship committee meeting. Holler back about how that works out.
For my part I think snake handling, though well intended, misses a critical point about fearlessness. The problem of fear is how it handicaps our ability to love, how fear inhibits our willingness to open ourselves up to the messiness and risk of welcoming others. The goal isn't simply to display courage, but to display a courage for. A courage for love. "Perfect love casts out fear."
So there are "snakes" out there. And they are everywhere. The world is snake-infested, filled with fears large and small that inhibit our ability to love others. Thus "taking up" these "snakes" is an act of courageous faith. Loving others sacrificially and fully is an act of eschatological fearlessness in the face of death
It is a sign of them that believe.