‘Snake handling pastor dies.’
That headline was enough to get my attention and also make me thirst for more information. My first thought was, “Oh my God, a snake handling pastor died! I wonder what killed him — car accident, heart attack, stroke?” Upon reading the rest of the story, I learned that he was killed by a rattlesnake he was holding as he preached. Who would have guessed that? It is kind of like the movies — “Titanic” and “Grizzly Man” — there wasn’t a surprise ending.
Of course it is easy to denounce Pastor Jamie Coots as a zealot who practiced dangerous behavior and got what he asked for. But most of us engage in various behaviors that could hurt or kill us. Driving in dangerous conditions, backcountry skiing, drinking, wearing Birkenstocks to a gun show are all things I’ve been guilty of. The difference is I did and do that stuff out of necessity and fun. Pastor Coots danced and nuzzled snakes because he believed God wanted him to.
For over 300 years various sects of Pentecostals have followed teachings in the Book of Mark: which reads in part “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.”
Some Pentecostals have taken that to mean that God wants church services to include nuzzling venomous snakes, drinking poison, placing fire against bare skin, all the while speaking in a language that only God understands. (I can relate; I communicate in an accent only folks from Massachusetts can fathom.)
I’ve watched many videos and read a few articles about the world of religious serpent cavorters, and I’m of the mind, if it works for them, why not?
I will say they seem like a happy bunch. The videos show them dancing, praising, blissed-out on God and otherwise practicing what they preach in terms of a willingness to suffer or die for their beliefs.
Would I do it? No. But I own four bicycles and several pairs of skis; I have other interests.
And when you consider taking up serpents in terms of some of the other aspects of religion — virgin birth, resurrection, healing prayer, everything Pat Robertson says — it doesn’t seem as implausible.
Some of man’s greatest evils (and all around stupid behavior) have been committed in the name of God. Wars, genocide, Jihad, book burning, slavery and polygamy, to name a few. Personally I take some comfort knowing that at least snake handling only hurts the zealot and not the population.
Now, for my disclaimer, I believe snake handling should only be done by consenting adults and those people who don’t owe me money; and never while operating a motor vehicle. But for the rest of you, I liken it to the ski-resort lifestyle of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “If it feels good, do it.”
But all that said, I do question the divine direction theory. Why would the same God who said feed the poor, love your neighbor, forgive your trespasses, would then add, oh, and after that, drink poison, burn yourself and cuddle deadly things. The short answer is he/she would not.
That reminds me of my old friend, Slick Murphy. (I realize this change of topic is a gross non-sequitur so bear with me.) Skinny, bad hair, mouth like squirrel and always broke. Somehow, Slick met a really nice gal whose dad owned a grocery store. They dated for about a year and got engaged and her dad gave Slick a job. All were amazed by Slick’s good fortune but most of us also voiced the same sentiment, “Slick will find a way to screw it up.” He did. He ruined his relationship and left a space heater next to a case of paper towels and burned down his soon to be ex-father-in-law’s grocery store.
When it comes to spirituality, humans and Slick Murphy have a lot in common — we always seem to find a way to mess it up. Rather than take the pureness of spirituality — love, compassion, devotion and fellowship — we use it to justify doing everything from suicide bombing, denying equal rights, to snake handling.
But since the Bible has been written and rewritten, translated and retranslated many times, it is possible that this “take up snakes” thing written in the Book of Mark, is just a gross misunderstanding. Perhaps God is up in heaven right now saying, “You stupid humans! I said, bake up CAKES! Not take up SNAKES!” Now that’s a faith I could get behind ...
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.