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Snakes and faith

February 19, 2014

This past weekend the news was full of reports that Pastor Jamie Coots, the star of the reality TV show “Snake Salvation,” died of a snake bite.  This immediately triggered an outburst of smug and sarcastic tweets, blogs and commentary where the writers used ridicule to conclusively prove that they are smarter than Pastor Coots and his fellow snake handlers.

A good number of Christians were among the critics, although I must say they almost always tipped their hat to being “saddened” by his death before weighing in.  It always came across to me that their primary goal was to distance themselves, and the rest of the evangelical world, from Appalachian snake handlers.  And the urge to make sure unbelievers knew “I’m not like that” struck many of us.  There has been some reasonable commentary on this story.  Here is one and here is another.  So what should we think?

Let’s start with the obvious.  Christianity has been around for 2,000 years.  In all that time the idea that snake-handling is an excellent way to prove your faith has taken hold only in Appalachia, by a tiny minority, and only in relatively recent time.  This does not represent mainstream faith.

Secondly, the snake-handler congregations are poor, isolated and live in depressing conditions of powerlessness.  I can’t help but think that the urge to prove both their faith and the presence of God in their lives is related to this fact.  When all around you screams neglect and abandonment there is a need to prove your significance.

Third, criticism of these people is called “punching down,” hitting those who are less able to defend themselves.  There is no honor, and should be no joy, in trumpeting that you are better than people living in abject poverty who have come to a distorted faith.

Forth, the core question is not whether a faithful Christian can safely handle snakes but why would they want to?  There is clearly no command in the Mark 16 passage that we need to or ought to let poisonous snakes bite us.  The view that we should prove our faith by doing this stands in stark contrast to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  It can be argued that Jesus was more than able to cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple but he simply refused the challenge.

For evangelicals however this story is a challenge to our faith in that Pastor Coot’s understanding of the passage is a “literal interpretation” on steroids.  Morton Guyton correctly asks:

“My question for the Biblical inerrantists is this: on what basis do you exclude this passage from being authoritative scripture? Because if you don’t, you’d better find some snakes to handle and poison to drink if you’re truly a believer. Is there really any basis for not handling snakes other than to appeal to common sense and scientific knowledge that doesn’t come from the Bible? If you say this verse doesn’t apply to your life just because it’s difficult and counter-cultural, then what will stop you from throwing the whole Bible out on that same basis?”

OK, I know we can try to weasel out by saying that these verses in Mark 16 are not in the oldest manuscripts.  This might let us breathe a sigh of relief but it doesn’t answer the core challenge.  It reminds us that, no matter what the stance we take, we are always doing what we think the Bible tells us to do.  Pastor Coots was doing the same and died.  The only sure way to distinguish ourselves from such a faith is not to say he was wrong but to admit with grace that, on our favorite interpretations, we too might be wrong.

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