Thursday, August 23, 2012

Snake Handlin’ and Poison Drinkin’

In late May a West Virginia preacher, Mark Wolford, died. Nothing unusual there – 'dust to dust' and all that – except that Rev. Wolford died from a rattlesnake bite he received while handling the reptile during a church service. Say what? Unless you're from the rural South, you've probably never heard of 'snake handlers,' but it is an Appalachian religious tradition with a hundred year history (claiming at least a hundred lives in that time…see more here and here.)

Snake handlers, a miniscule faction among Christian denominations, believe that God reveals his power and draws others to Christ through 'signs' and miracles. This portion of their belief system derives from two (questionably late) verses of scripture found in Mark 16:17-18:
"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." (KJV…their favorite)

I can imagine Jesus' reaction each time one of these poor souls reaches the hereafter – "Dude, what were you thinking? Go stand over there [pointing to the corner where the other 100 snake handling preachers and former Darwin award winners are congregated]. I love you, but…damn."
As wild as this type of 'church service' may seem to most of us, it is founded on beliefs derived from the Bible…the same Bible many of us have in our homes (somewhere…keep looking). What is clear is that Mark Wolford believed something about the Bible, its character and its contents. And that something led him to live and worship a certain, if extreme, way.

Likewise, all Christians believe (and/or don't believe) certain things about the 'Good Book.' In fact, the juxtaposition of those things which we accept and reject is telling. While many (including me) would be quick to sneer at snake handlers' literal reading of Mark, other such literal/facutal renderings are not uncommon in mainstream Christianity – a six day creation, the worldwide flood (Noah), Moses parting the sea, Jesus turning water into wine (among other miracles), etc. Some we take as historical events, others as the perceptions of non-scientific ancient people, and still others as religious metaphor.

Beyond historical events, the books of the Bible are chocked full of laws, rules, and prohibitions among other do's and don'ts – some we accept, some we don't. That's right…some we don't – snake handlin' and poison drinkin' for example. Which begs the question "why?"

For example (and to ensure I broach religion, politics and sex in this blog entry) Leviticus 18 prohibits homosexual relations (amongst a laborious list of sexual don'ts – which makes me think those ancient Hebrews were some serious sex-having folk). Interestingly you'll find in Leviticus 19, amongst the same law code, that wearing clothes with more than one type of cloth is also prohibited. Both are clear absolutes (without any sort of graduated scale, big sin vs. little sin) per the author of Leviticus. I just checked – all three garments I'm wearing at the moment are poly-cotton blends. Let's say I'm a bit nonplussed. I don't know a single Christian who accepts the latter, but I know scores who believe the former – with gusto. Which, again, begs the question "why?"

What is the something that we believe about the Bible? Is it a divine book transcribed from the lips of God? Or is it a collection of books and letters inspired by various humans' relationship with God at various times and in various places? Is it all true…or, as way of nuance, is it all truth? Is what's good for Adam good for Damon? Is this all there is of it or is the Divine still speaking? Did we miss anything? And how do we interpret and apply what we have?

Just a few questions worth critical consideration. Just ask Mark Wolford if it matters what we believe about the Bible…oh, that's right, you can't.
  • D. Christian Nix, 8/21/2012