They Shall Take Up Serpents: On Snakebite, Fear and Love

My friend Andrew Boone is going to be playing the role of a snake handling preacher in the show Holy Ghosts. To help Andrew prepare I suggested that he read the book Salvation On Sand Mountain, a favorite of mine.

Andrew and I also revisited my blog series about the snake handling churches of Appalachia (see the sidebar).

Of course, the theology of the snake handling churches seems bizarre and esoteric. But in 2012 I tried to summarize some theological insights about how the snake handling churches handle the theological problem of snakebite and how that experience might have broader relevance. The point I argued is that the theological problem of snakebite is a problem that many Christians share, even if they don't handle snakes:

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 were 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.

Overall, then, 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 Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
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.
Salvation 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.

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. This is a point I bring up toward the end of The Slavery of Death. Fearlessness in the face of death isn't an end in itself. Fearlessness is a means to an end and if that end is lost then fearlessness can become pathological and quasi-suicidal.

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. Everyone is facing something, some "snake," where the fear of death is felt acutely. 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.

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17 thoughts on “They Shall Take Up Serpents: On Snakebite, Fear and Love”

  1. Exceptional piece! Brilliantly thought out and written.

    If I may, let me approach this as someone who has suffered the suicide of a child. Once suicide happens in your life, it is not of the past, it is always the present, always within the day you are facing; and there are no easy answers to the question that some may raise, "How can faith live in the same world where suicide is a power?"

    Suicide is the "box of snakes" many of us must reach into each day, because it is always there. Thank you so much for voicing so well the end of our "taking up the serpent", which is the love we continue to share with others who are facing the same day that speaks so plainly of death.

  2. Thanks, Richard, but a couple of things..

    First, an exegetical issue. I think it's a stretch to suggest that death-by-venom is not implicit in the Markan text, particularly as it's quite explicit in the immediate following "and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them". (And just picking up snakes would hardly be an apocalyptic sign in such a highly charged eschatological Christian community, would it?) Not that this point detracts from the major thrust and conclusion of your (as ever) fine post, but I think it's a fair point to make.

    Especially as, second, it raises two crucial psychological (rather than purely theological) issues "when prophecy fails" (the title, as you know, of a famous 1956 social-psychological study): (1) the issue of cognitive dissonance, and (2) its resolution by qualification, rationalisation, and special-pleading groupthink, i.e., by forms of self-deception (yep, your March 2nd post drove me to Amazon and got me reading Gregg Elshof's excellent I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life!).

    Third, the wonderful climax of your post in fear-jettisoning love, especially in "open[ing] ourselves up to the messiness and risk of welcoming others" -- that 's my $64,000 question (c. $562,845.24 in today's money!): that Appalachian community, or any I John 4:18a Christian community -- how does it relate to the outsider, by radical acceptance or suspicion and exclusion?

    Thanks again for oiling the cerebral wheels.

  3. A couple of things come to mind:

    Is fearlessness something that need to be cultivated? Does it strengthen with use? If so, rather than be an end in itself could snake handling be a sort of spiritual exercise so that you have it when you need it, something like fasting? Albeit in a more dramatic form...

    Considering that this practice originated in some of the poorest and most marginalized societies, how else would they practice fearlessness? When you are the bottom, what spiritual practices are meaningful? (I seem to remember you discussing something akin to this elsewhere but I can't recall exactly where atm)

  4. I'm no Dr. Beck, but here's what this post made me think of. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Total suckfest, actually. One of the worst parts was when I got pregnant again. Instead of excitement and wonder, most of what I felt was terror. I wanted to love the baby inside me, but I wasn't sure I could handle that loss again. Deciding to love anyway and risk it was the bravest thing I've ever done. Choosing to love in the face of loss and death is an act of courage that is available to everyone. Arguably especially the poor and disenfranchised, who can choose to love the world in the face of heartbreaks I can't even fathom. It's less controllable than fasting or handling snakes, but a spiritual practice nevertheless.

  5. The theological framework they created provides a plausable rationale for the snakebites and death; these folks became a great example of faith by not wavering and holding onto their beliefs. Faith is not weakened; it is actually strengthened.

  6. Eli, you might not be a Dr. Beck, but this comment, and the story behind it, is better than anything I've ever written on this blog.

    I'll carry these lines with me forever:

    "Decidineg to love anyway and risk it" and "Choosing to love in the face of loss and death."

    Goodness, if I had a Twitter account I'd be hashtaging the heck out of your poetry:




  7. Not to plug a book, but The Slavery of Death tries to discuss practices.

    What has helped me the most, practice-wise, is simply worshiping and praying with the poor and imprisoned. And what I've witnessed is how--in prayer and worship--they come to see themselves as beloved of God and how that vision gives them courage. In the language of my book, they experience "an eccentric identity."

    I tried to describe what I was witnessing here:

  8. Yes, I read the book and recommend it copiously! But what I'm getting at here is these ARE the poor and marginalized. No one practices snake handling in suburban Philadelphia. We can call praying with the poor a spiritual practice, they call it Tuesday. If I am not mistaken this developed in Appalachia, one of the poorest areas in the country. I'm just wondering if the spiritual practices of those at the very bottom of the power structure takes on a different shape than for those at a higher position. Fasting is only a spiritual practice for those with enough. For the desperately poor it is simply life. Given that, what would their spiritual practices look like? How would they stretch themselves and exercise their fearlessness? It cannot be a coincidence that the charismatic movements (from which I hail BTW) flourish in some of the poorest and most marginalized areas. (I believe you wrote about this)

  9. I get where you are going, but let me reframe it a bit. In my grandmother's generation, and even more so before, families were large, she had 8 herself, and miscarriages pretty frequent. (I believe she had at least 3 maybe more). There was no question that she would not have any more children. Having large families was what you did, she came from a family of hog farmers, and miscarriages were a consequence of that. In our modern society, we have fewer children at later ages (I have 1 and my wife was 39 when she had him) and better access to and more advance healthcare, so miscarries are less frequent and far more traumatic. So for you, it was an act of fearlessness to try again. For my grandmother it was just life which differed very little from the generations that preceded her.

  10. I take your point, although I'm not convinced that miscarriages brought so little emotion even when they were so common. My own great grandmother had given birth to fifteen children and buried six of them by the time she was my age. That miscarriage was my own loss; that generation had plenty of opportunities to choose love in the face of loss as well.

  11. I did not mean to imply that they brought little or less emotion. Frankly, I have no idea. I only meant that it was more common place and so enduring it would also become commonplace. For me to run into a burning building to rescue someone looks heroic, and if I did it I would feel like quite a hero. For a fireman it is his job. As a fireman what you need to do to be considered a hero to other fireman is a much higher bar.

  12. You grandmother also probably didn't have access to reliable birth control, so she most likely had little choice in the matter of whether or not to have more children. Millions of women today are in the same position. In rural Ethiopia, the under five child mortality rate is over 10%. The loss is devastating, and yes, my life in America is much much easier than in many parts of the world, purely due to the accident of my birth. There is a staggering amount of injustice, poverty, and inequality in the world.

    Still, I'm not entirely sure of your point. Personally, for a number of complicated reasons, I found being pregnant and the prospect of being a mother terrifying. Marriage is terrifying for me on a regular basis, and choosing love in the middle of that is absolutely an act of courage - one I fail at on a regular basis. I have no doubt that if i were illiterate in Ethiopia spending hours a day just trying to access clean water, I would not have the luxury of such neuroses.

    But I'm not in Ethiopia. I'm in Los Angeles, and my job is to, as Eli put it, "choose love in the face of fear and death." This is actually really hard, which is why most people don't do it. I have no business telling that mother in Ethiopia (or a snake handler in Appalachia) what her spiritual practice should look like, and it's not my job to tell them how they should or shouldn't approach the Divine, although I think it is important to listen to and learn from what the Ethiopian mother might have to say to me. I can only figure out how to live ethically and well in the middle of my own complicated mix of privilege, trauma, and loss.

  13. But we aren't talking about you. We are talking about snake handling churches in Appalachia. That is the point. You have the privilege of your neuroses and feeling heroic for doing things that in other parts of your city, much less the country or world, are commonplace. When you live in poverty you pray with the poor every day. If you live in scarcity you may fast as a matter of course. When your friends and relatives are in prison, you visit people in prison. When you live in a place without adequate access to healthcare, you minister to the sick. Things that stretch us, due to our context and relative privilege may be of little consequence to someone in a different context. So my question was whether snake handling, albeit a little strange, may be a response to that? The widow gave her mites, and it was all she had. Perhaps they are offering the only they have, their bodily health and life.

  14. I think I missed a part of your reply, to wit: they come to see themselves as beloved of God. That is fine, but snake handling churches also see themselves as beloved by G*d, and I think they would say they demonstrate that by defying pain and death through the exercise of snake handling. How does the inmate do that? By not retaliating? By protecting a fellow inmate from another? Or a CO? These might be considered even more dangerous than handling a rattlesnake, right? In a closed, tight-knit community where everyone already takes care of everyone and death is a daily reality, might snake handling be a natural way to exercise and express your fearlessness?

  15. I think we probably don't disagree, really - except the part about my feeling heroic. (I can assure you that feeling heroic is a tremendously rare experience for me. Struggling with basic relationship stuff that it feels like most people figured out long ago is not super inspirational. ) I was more responding to your comment to Eli that sounded to me like you were saying that her loss and her response to it was inconsequential in light of what other people experience. Loss is loss, and it all matters, and I decided quite some time ago that I was tired of minimizing my own because somehow that made Jesus happy.

    People come up with all kinds of weird shit in response to their experiences and social context, and if you're in the middle of it, it totally makes sense - I grew up in a Calvinist pre-millenial dispensationalist environment, and I'm not sure snake handling is any weirder or more destructive than that. On one hand, I kind of get the snake handling thing. It's compelling and dramatic and a way to take control of your own fate a bit, face death and fear on your own terms, instead of just enduring the beat down end of the way things are. On the other, I maintain the right to have reservations about any practice that causes more death and pain than strictly necessary. Maybe snake handling is good, maybe it's bad - most likely, whether or not it's good or bad is the wrong question.

    I stand by my statement that i am entirely sure that it's not my job is to come to a final conclusion about the snake handlers or poor women in Ethiopia or tell them what they should be doing instead - precisely because our contexts are so different. My opinion about the validity of the choices of people who I have never met in a region with which I am not terribly familiar just isn't required. If my experiences with marginalized people has taught me anything, it's that the focus of my spiritual practice should be on what path I need to follow, not on how anybody else is walking - unless that person or system is abusing their power.

  16. 'I was more responding to your comment to Eli that sounded to me like you were saying that her loss and her response to it was inconsequential in light of what other people experience.'

    Ouch. That was not at all what I had in mind. I apologize (to Eli especially) if that was how it came across. Thanks for pointing that out.

    'most likely, whether or not it's good or bad is the wrong question.'

    Wow, I would like to have that posted over my door. I couldn't agree more.

    'I stand by my statement that i am entirely sure that it's not my job is to come to a final conclusion about the snake handlers or poor women in Ethiopia or tell them what they should be doing instead'

    I stand with you. I am not beyond judging (in fact I medaled in it in the 92 Olympics!), especially if actions cause unnecessary harm, but even then I try to understand why people make the decisions they do. It doesn't excuse their actions, but at least helps we to not write them off a bat-shit crazy or the satan.

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