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Thursday, September 18, 2014

They Shall Take Up Serpents

“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.” These stirring words spoken by Jesus in Mark 16:17-18 have been seized upon by certain Christian [1]literalists who have been only too eager to proclaim their faith by following to the letter what this Biblical text recommends.

“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them…” ~ Gospel of Mark, 16:18. These words have been used to justify the practice of venomous snake handling as part of a religious service. But the words did not originally appear in this gospel, and who included them and why is unknown. The snake is the species commonly used in such services, the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). Photo by Tad Arensmeier.
Ah, but that is the problem with Biblical literalism. It apparently is not that big on scriptural [2]scholarship. It seems that these particular literalists have not been following original scripture at all. The last twelve verses of Mark, which include this text, were not originally a part of the gospel, but were added as much as several centuries later for reasons unknown, by a hand that is equally unknown. In short: we have no idea who added these words to Mark, or why they were added – except, apparently (and perhaps even mischievously), as a goading exhortation to reckless tests of faith. And in spite of their spurious authorship, these tests of faith have been, and are, practiced by various church communities, mostly in the Appalachian region of the United States.

The legality of snake handling – in this case, highly-venomous rattlesnakes – as part of a religious service is an involved one, which is why services which include this practice are sometimes held in the home rather than in a church. And although the whole point of snake handling is to demonstrate immunity through the strength of one’s faith, there have been many recorded [3]deaths from snakebite during these services, including that of the movement’s founder, George Went Hensley, and one of its most ardent practitioners, [4]Gregory James ‘Jamie’ Coots. That the number of fatalities nevertheless seems to be kept within [5]reasonable limits perhaps owes more to the condition of the captive snakes than to any supposed immunity granted from on high. The snakes would seem to be [6]lethargic through stress and undernourishment, and seldom live longer than a month in the confines of their boxes.

Rattlesnakes in their boxes await possible handling during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
Without crunching the numbers, I nevertheless am going to make the reasonable assumption that, given all factors, including the condition of the snakes, the proportion of total deaths would be the same whether or not the context were within a religious service. But whatever you might personally think about this practice, highlighting the practice itself is not what drives me to write this particular post. For its participants, serpent handling is about faith. But there is a sense in which I am aware that the reverse is also true: that faith is itself a form of serpent handling.

We take our faith out of the box, and the very power of the thing in turn gives us a sense of empowerment. Faith can be a powerful force indeed, and the more that force is felt and experienced, the more we feel strengthened by our faith. It is a classic positive feedback situation. But faith can bite. At any given moment it can twist around and sink its teeth into the very person who is handling it. This bite might be so subtle that at first we hardly feel it. It is that moment when we truly start to believe that our faith (whatever it might be) is surely the only ‘right’ one, and that all other faiths are in some way flawed, or even just plain ‘wrong’. Instead of tolerantly thinking ‘this faith is right for me, and for me personally’, we drift into the mindset: ‘this faith is the only true faith’.

“..And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” Bottles of lethal poisons lined up ready for possible consumption during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church.
The next step in the progress of this coursing toxicity is [7]proselytizing our faith. Indeed, proselytizing might actually be a requirement of our faith. We actually come to believe that we truly can improve someone if we can persuade them to believe what we believe, that we can ‘save’ them by getting them to follow the same faith as ourselves. We already have lost sight of the fact that, in human terms, this is a presumptuous conceit. 

So we already have come to think that our faith is the only ‘right’ one, and from this one dangerous thought flows all the misery, all the conflicts, which have so plagued and shamed religious belief through the centuries. It is dangerous because it breeds intolerance, specifically: intolerance for the beliefs of others. And unless we become aware of what is happening to us, our system becomes more toxic. Eventually the levels of toxicity might increase until we arrive at the fatal moment when we relinquish both the purity of our faith and our own humanity. We persuade ourselves that, yes, it is okay actually to take the life of someone who believes in something with which we disagree, which we consider is ‘wrong’.

The fortress of Montségur in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which was the site of the last stand of the Cathars. Branded by the Vatican as heretics, a [8]crusade was waged against them which saw the deaths by massacre and burning of one million pacifist Cathars and their local Catholic sympathisers, effectively exterminating Cathar beliefs. This religion-based Christian-against-Christian genocide remains one of the darkest and most shameful episodes in European history.
Faith can be empowering, certainly. But its very power can also make it a tricky and even a dangerous thing to handle. As soon as we imagine that we can improve someone by getting them to believe what we believe, or at the most extreme, when we actually are prepared to kill someone in the name of our faith, then we have abandoned our own faith in favour of a new and toxic god, and we follow that god into a dark and unknown territory.

And true assertions of faith are of course something else. They come in forms less sensational and more confronting than snake handling, and often-enough must be borne in the silence of the heart. Coping with loss and uncomprehending grief, contending with an insidious and life-threatening affliction, being helpless in the face of blind and bigoted injustice, can make taking up serpents as a test of faith look like so much misguided and melodramatic posturing.

[1] I have avoided mentioning a specific denomination for these literalists, as I understand that they prefer to shun denominational definition as part of their beliefs. 

[2] This apparently not only applies to those who take Biblical texts literally. In my experience, Christians generally seem to have only a vague idea about how and when the texts which comprise the Bible were actually compiled, which to me is startling enough for those who use these texts as a foundation for their moral conduct, even for their very lives.

[3] Deaths by snakebite (during the course of a religious service) between 1955, when the movement’s founder George Went Hensley (left) was fatally bitten, and 1998 (of John Wayne ‘Punkin’ Brown, whose wife was fatally bitten three years earlier), are thought to number over seventy. Ralph Hood, professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, has documented over one hundred deaths. As I suggest in my closing comments of this post, such voluntary flirting with death must seem like a slap in the face to someone who is told that they have cancer. This is why, to me, shame rather than ridicule is the appropriate response to serpent handling as part of a religious service. 

[4] Gregory James ‘Jamie’ Coots (right), pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was fatally bitten while conducting a service in February, 2014. Three months later his son Cody, who took over his father’s ministry, was bitten while handling rattlesnakes prior to a service, but fortunately recovered. From: Months after snake-handling preacher's death, his son recovering from snakebite, by Bill Estep, Kentucky Lexington Herald, May 27, 2014. Retrieved on September 16, 2014.

[5] But are any such deaths ‘reasonable’? Surely any death caused by reckless misadventure is unreasonable and avoidable. Those who are bitten while handling rattlesnakes as part of a religious service refuse all medical assistance. If the bite is fatal, then their community does not blame them for lack of faith, merely concluding that it was ‘their time’. To me, and perhaps for you as well, this is fatalism in extremis

[6] It is tempting for this reason to speculate that the real test of faith would be in only handling rattlesnakes which either have been freshly-caught or which are in optimal condition. But for the sake of those humans involved I’m not recommending this, however stalwart their faith might be. Neither do I agree with keeping any animals in captivity unless those animals are provided with the best conditions possible for their circumstances. Animals cannot demand rights for themselves, which is why humans carry the responsibility to provide such conditions.

Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes in their boxes at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church.
[6 cont.] This includes the strident macho posturing of so-called 'Rattlesnake Roundup' events, which are actually causing the serious depletion of rattlesnake populations in the areas where these events are held. From: Rattlesnake Roundups Leading to Demise of Eastern Diamondback. The study was published in the August 2009 issue of Herpetological Conservation and Biology. Presumably this in turn will now mean a proportional unchecked rise in the number of rodents (which otherwise would have gone onto these snakes’ menu) in these areas.

[7] Taking such action in conversation with a close friend is already presumptuous. Doing so to a total stranger, as such door-to-door proselytizing as the Church of Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses practice, is both disrespectful to the beliefs or non-beliefs of others and a wretched example of being 'bitten' by one's own faith, as my post suggests. When Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking at my door (which happens often-enough) I am always half tempted to let them in to discuss what they wish to tell me. As yet I have not done so, which for their sakes is perhaps a mercy.

[8] Please see my post A Dark Crusade. The notorious Inquisition (left) run by the Dominican brotherhood was originally founded specifically to eradicate the last remnants of the Cathars and revert all their property to the Papacy once the crusaders' military campaign had exhausted itself. Instead of being disbanded as an institution of the Church after the campaign to eliminate the Cathars was over, the Inquisition survived into the 19th-century.

For the Record: "Rattlesnakes are also among the most reasonable forms of dangerous wildlife: their first line of defence is to remain motionless; if you surprise them or cut off their retreat, they offer an audio warning; if you get too close, they head for cover. Venom is intended for prey so they're reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50 percent of all bites are dry - no venom is injected."   Leslie Anthony: Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. Greystone Books, 2008.

A Dangerous List: In answer to someone who might think: what would he know, sitting safely in the Netherlands which has no creatures in the wild that are even remotely dangerous, I would reply: I was raised in Australia, which is home to some of the deadliest animals on the planet, both on land and in the surrounding seas, and as a state museum staff member I encountered quite a few of them, including tiger snakes (Notechis), redback spiders (Latrodectus), a stonefish (Synanceia), a cone shell (Conus) and a small blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena). So which one of these has a bite or sting that can be potentially fatal? All of them. 

The Choice of Species: This in turn invites further speculation that the practice of snake handling as part of a religious service is rather down to which venomous species are available in the region. It has to be said that there is something about rattlesnakes (or even copperheads) that is kind of cool, even mythic. And rattlesnakes are not regarded as an actively aggressive species. But supposing that the regional venomous species were instead Australian tiger snakes or the notoriously aggressive king brown? Would these deadly but less physically imposing species be handled during the service? A king brown (above) has been known even to attack someone who was quietly asleep. There is a sense that the choice of species would alter the game plan, and therefore the willingness to test one’s faith in such a reckless way. 


  1. Those verses in Mark was just a later additions. The original manuscripts didn't include Mark 16:9 - 20 . Why not study the Biblical doctrines of the Members Church of God International ?

  2. Why not? Because opinions voiced from a platform of faith do not necessarily produce reliable scholarship.


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