Them Snake Handlers Are Crazy, Right?

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by Matt Sheedy

It is rare that a blog post materializes late at night, the night before posting, as this one did, though a fit of creative energy with a dash of serendipity made it so. Just yesterday I came across a blog post in my Facebook feed with the headline, “Snake Handling Christian Bitten By Rattler, Refuses Treatment, Promptly Dies,” which was accompanied by the tags, “Kentucky, weird news, and WTF?” I had not heard of the website before, liberalamerica.org, and cannot attest to its popularity, though it is described under the “About” tab as follows:

Liberal America is the only place on the web that is devoted solely to all things liberal. We’re not just news and politics. If it interests liberals, we write about it.

Do you live in Liberal America? If not, welcome home! We’ve been saving the U.S.A. since 1776.

Upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to see that the article was from July 29, 2015, making it one of those (not uncommon) occurrences where an old item is reposted on social media as though it’s a new story. I quickly reminded myself, however, that the Bulletin blog is not about reporting current events per se, but rather theorizing about religion in the contemporary world. Adding to this temporal disjuncture is the image that accompanied the post (pictured above), which is not of the man who was bitten, John David Brock, but of the late preacher Mark Wolford, who died of a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia in 2012. The fact that most other sites reporting on this story included an actual image of Brock suggests to me that this was not a mere oversight, but a deliberate attempt to create an affective-political response toward those who engage in snake handling.

The article details how John David Brock, aged 60, was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at Mossy Simpson Pentecostal Church in Jenson, Kentucky, and goes on to remark that death is “often the result when you are bitten by a dangerous snake and rely on faith to heal you.”

It is also pointed out that Mr. Brock was a coal miner for 36 years and an adherent of the Holiness faith, which includes some congregations that engage in snake handling based on a passage from the Gospel of Mark:

(Believers) 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 (Mark 16:18).

The piece concludes by stating that Holiness congregations believe that God will prevent the snakes from biting them, and will intervene to make them well if they are bitten. The article’s author, Andrew Bradford, goes on to state, “no one bothered to tell Mr. Brock that medical science beats a Bible verse any day of the week when it comes to highly venomous snakes,” while noting that snake handling is against the law in Kentucky and that “legal officials tend to look the other way for those who are dumb enough and wish to dance with serpents or sing directly into their hissing faces.” This latter remark may help to explain the appeal of going with Wolford’s image over Brock’s.

Having recently reread Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995), I was particularly attuned to problems with Bradford’s narrative, especially coming from a self described Methodist on the Christian Left, who has worked in academia and journalism and should thus be aware of Covington’s book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been widely discussed in academic and journalistic circles. But perhaps this is a moot point?

Salvation on Sand Mountain, described as a journalistic assignment turned ethnography and “spiritual quest,” is the story of Covington’s immersion in a variety of snake handling Holiness churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, where his investigation included close personal relationships with members of the congregations, participation in services, and even handling a rattlesnake on one occasion, which he describes in ecstatic terms, likening it to the kind of adrenaline rush he experienced while being under fire as a journalist in El Salvador (102).

I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. It was moving like it wanted to get up even higher, to climb out of that church and into the air. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared. … I knew then why handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self (169-70).

What struck me most upon reading Bradford’s article yesterday was how devoid it was of any type of analysis and how its partisan leanings not only reveal a particular instance of a contest over “legitimate” Christianity, but also a good example of the difference between analytical scholarship and political commentary.

Bradford’s assertion that death is what happens when you “rely on faith to heal you” and that such practitioners believe that God will protect them from being bitten misses the most basic points that one can glean from Covington’s firsthand descriptions from handlers themselves, where the rhetoric of “faith” and scriptural injunctions to take up serpents is tempered with a careful attention to process, such as deliberately repeated rituals and musical accompaniment, familiarity with seasoned handlers who pass you the snake, not taking a snake from the wrong person, etc. These are all discussed as enactments that bare a certain empirical method in order to minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. Beyond the purported spiritual requirements and the sheer rush of staring death in the face, Covington described how practitioners would discuss their bites and brushes with death as “war stories,” which gave them prestige within the community and an identity beyond the congregation that helped to distinguish their (typically) white, rural, and poor outsider status in American culture.

While I don’t want to lean too heavily on Covington’s descriptions, which are less analytic than they are personal reflections, his narrative is a good reminder of the difference between critical scholarship and journalistic commentary. The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgements. What is more–and here I may be stepping out on a ledge–the critical scholar must also recognize the importance of going out into the field (virtual or in person) to test how theory butts-up against embodied practice, and how attention to such details will always change our knee-jerk, affective-political responses to “weird news,” pushing us beyond “WTF” toward an open-ended question in need of method and theory.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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