Snake Handling

Every religion has odd things on its fringes, things that make most of its adherents cringe and wince, and which they are not eager to share with outsiders. These things are not so much dirty little secrets as examples of pathology, unwell people who express their psychological illness in religious terms. Every religion is keen to put its best foot forward and to present itself to the world in a way which will inspire credibility and confidence, and so these unwell people are never mentioned in public if it can be avoided. In Christianity snake handlers are one example of the dodgy things on our fringes which we prefer not to highlight.

Happily snake handlers represent a tiny fraction of the Christian population, and so do not often intrude into the public face of Christianity. It seems as if snake handling entered into the Christian world in the early twentieth century through the fundamentalist Protestant churches of the American Appalachians. Scholars often credit (if that is the correct word) Mr. George Hensley (1880-1955) as the father of American snake-handling, introducing it into the Pentecostal Church of God Holiness sect in Birchwood, Tennessee around 1910.

The inspiration for the practice seems to have been our Lord’s words in Mark 16:17-18 that those who believe in Him would speak in new tongues, and pick up serpents. This passage, which is not original to Mark’s Gospel, but represents an early addition, refers to the Church’s experience in the Acts of the Apostles. The speaking in tongues is of course a reference to the glossolalia mentioned in Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost and in other passages in Acts (Acts 2:1-4, 19:1-6). The bit about serpents refers to St. Paul’s experience of being bitten by a viper after his shipwreck on the island of Malta and suffering no harm from the bite (Acts 28:1-6).

This last event was clearly exceptional; Paul was not deliberately handling the serpent, but was bit by chance as he was gathering wood for a fire. Mr. Hensley normatized this single event and made it into a sine qua non for believers, a test and demonstration of saving faith. Mr. Hensley felt that if one had true faith, one could handle venomous serpents with impunity and not suffer harm. He died following a snakebite received during one of his services in Altha, Florida in July 1955. The number of snake-handlers in the Protestant world is (thankfully) statistically infinitesimal. Those wishing to eavesdrop on this tiny segment of liturgical insanity may watch the 1967 film about it entitled, Holy Ghost People, available here.

The temptation afflicting the snake-handlers is, sadly, not confined to the American Appalachians. It appears that the desire to presume on divine protection is a perennial one among religious people of all kinds: one hears of Muslims licking their holy sites in Iran during the Covid pandemic, trusting that Allah would protect them. And, closer to home, one hears of Orthodox Christians proclaiming that no one could become sick in church, since God’s divine energies there would shield them from the germs of the Covid virus since they were in a holy place.

What are the roots and motivations behind this kind of fundamentalism? Any question regarding motivation is bound to have multi-faceted and perhaps elusive answers. But it seems clear that at least one force driving such motivation is fear. The world is a big and often scary place, a place where tragedy, heartbreak, and perplexity abound and where the comfort of security and certainty is hard to find. The fundamentalist therefore takes refuge in imagined certainties and imagined securities. This gives him a sense of control, and a feeling that although others may be at the mercy of tragic and capricious fate, he is not. He enjoys an immunity to the forces afflicting other men, for he has access to special knowledge and power. The Holy Ghost People of the Appalachians handle snakes because this reinforces their sense of power, security, and immunity.

The price tag for such superstitious fanaticism is high, especially during a pandemic. Compared with the 100 or so people who died from snakebite during the church services of the snake-handling sects, many more people have died around the world from the Covid virus that they contracted while at worship services. Clearly God’s divine energies do not protect the faithful from germs if the germs are present in church.

What is at stake theologically is the contrast between faith and presumption, and between sacraments and magic. Too many people view their faith in God as a kind of magic which will somehow override scientific realities and save the person exercising such faith from harm. I remember a similar kind of pseudo-faith operating in charismatic circles of my youth, which encouraged the faithful to claim their healing, dispense with medical advice and medicine, and ignore escalating symptoms as a test sent from God or as the work of the devil. Some discovered such faith was misplaced, and they died as a result. On a more Biblical note, one remembers the suggestion of the Enemy that Christ fling Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, trusting that God would overrule scientific laws such as gravity and that angels would save Him from the consequences of such presumption. As one can read in the Gospels, Christ declined, saying that such a suggestion was impious and sinful, and that it amounted to tempting God.

Prideful presumption is what is involved in all such acts, whether the act involves trusting that God will nullify the power of germs in church, or that He will grant immunity to snake venom, or that He will overcome the force of gravity. Experience has shown that God will do none of these things, but rather that He expects His children to live wisely in the world He has made and not presume on His grace. The present Covid crisis will, God willing, pass away soon enough. The temptation to presumption, however, remains, and should be resisted whenever it raises its hoary head. We Orthodox rightly have contempt for the snake handlers, with their substitution of presumption for faith. We must not follow their lead now.

 

15 comments:

  1. A fine piece of writing and a very timely reminder. Realizinghe distinction between faith and presumption is so important.
    Early in the covid outbreak I heard an Orthodox priest tell his congregation that to absent oneself from church attendance because of the fear of catching covid was a sign of weak faith. This was said at only one liturgy and the priest subsequently changed his message when the archbishop sent out an encyclical on the matter.

  2. Father,
    How far does this go? Is it just the space in the temple or does it go to the very Eucharist itself? I thought the Church was supposed to be our hospital and the Sacraments healing our bodies and souls. Are we not called to visit the sick? Don’t we have the experience of the saints?
    I am troubled by our response of closing our doors instead of opening them to all who suffer during these times. I am just a recent convert. Is there something that I am missing?

    1. One needs common sense: the way to slow the spread of disease in a pandemic is to avoid gathering in a crowd, which is why the bishops have closed the churches. Russia was slow to do this, to their great cost.

  3. Dear Father Lawrence, your blessing!

    I just wondered how is it you know Orthodox faithful are infected IN the church while IN worship? Do you have knowledge of exactly the point when a person acquires the virus?

    1. God bless you! Happy to provide the information; it is called “contact tracing”. It is why many churches and monasteries in Russia were closed.

  4. Father bless!

    Forgive me, but I don’t think the “fear” analysis is quite fair. From what I’ve seen, the critics aren’t afraid. They are appalled. According to them, closing the churches is the fearful response. After all, why are we doing it? At least partly it’s to avoid catching a disease. Why do that? Fear.

    If anything, the opposition comes from a zeal informed by certain strands of apocalyptic eschatological theology. According to this theology, CV-19 is understood as a fraud being perpetrated on everyone in order to pave the way for a one-world government that will be presided over by the Antichrist. The CV-19 vaccine is the mark of the beast, they say. There’s a strong emphasis on “signs of the times”.

    So I think your comparison to evangelical fundamentalism is apt. When I was a Pentecostal, I heard these kinds of things a lot. What I think many of us western Orthodox need is solid grounding in Christian eschatology. And not just vagaries about Christ one day coming to judge the living and the dead. I mean also concepts such as the Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast. It’s one thing to guffaw at the notion that a cv-19 vaccine is the mark of the beast, but it’s another thing to provide an alternative. WHY isn’t a vaccine a likely candidate for the Mark? Presumably the Apocalypse of St. John was intended to *inform* the church throughout the ages, so what should *we* be making of such passages? How do they in fact relate to world events? Or is relating them this way not what we are supposed to be doing? Or what?

    One of the shortcomings of the church’s response to the pandemic is the failure to go beyond general statements of “the critics are stupid”. The *specific* theological (and eschatological) claims need addressing, I think. At least, that’s what I’d like to see.

    1. I take your point. But I was delving into the roots of fundamentalism, not the stated motives of fundamentalists. My conviction is that the fundamentalists’ claim to special special immunity/ special knowledge is rooted in an (unacknowledged) fear of the complexity of the world. I also quite agree that a more in depth explanation of eschatology in general and the Book of Revelation in particular is much needed. Part of the problem is that when the fundamentalists say things like the spread of Covid is part of a Zionist conspiracy, it is too easy to simply write them off. Instead we need to answer such insanity properly.

  5. Father Lawrence,

    I’ve always been puzzled by Jesus’s comments to Nicodemus comparing himself to the bronze serpent that Moses raised for the Israelites – that if they looked upon it they would be healed from their snake bites. Also curious that modern medical symbolism, including the World Health Organization logo, features a serpent in Rod of Asclepius imagery, presumably a derivative of Mose’s bronze serpent. What are we to make of the symbolic relationship between Christ, eternal life, healing and the image of a serpent?

    1. Briefly, Christ compared Himself to the serpent on the pole because if one looked to Him on the cross with faith one would be saved from the curse of sin.
      The medical symbol of Asclepius has a different derivation: the serpent as a symbol of wisdom (compare Genesis: “the serpent was shrewder than all the other animals”).

  6. Fr. Lawrence,
    The confusing thing about all these different opinions from Orthodoxy is that they are all confusing. Especially for someone new to the faith. You hear, God is everywhere present and filling all things. Or God is either everything or nothing. You can not be Orthodox without the church. The church is a hospital for the spiritually sick. The world has thier hospitals and medicine and the church has her medicine. Why does one stay open and the other close. St. Paisios was here he would flip to see the church close and not be able to give the sacraments. Do we shut it down from now on when there is a new virus and pandemic? What if there are more? Will people start to forget the church and worship and start thinking, Well it was a big hoax and lie all along.
    See, when something serious happened with this pandemic, the church folded like a lawn chair.
    Yes, they took precaution and followed some rules but at what cost?
    Then you here about the Spanish flu and other viruses, and priest went out in it to help people and yes died. The Churches remained opened, but people died. The preists became Saints and The Church survived.
    But now, we must use our brains and intelligence to fight this. I understand using my God given smarts, but how far do we take it and where is God in all of this? No, maybe not magic but what do you call the things the Saints and laypeople experience and talk about in their books. Weeping Icons, Theotokos literally coming out of a icon in person, Jesus walking thru walls, Resurrection, Ascension, etc…
    Are these fables? Yes, I’m not expecting this to happen everyday or ever.
    But does it mean we should close the church and rely on our brains and intellect for all of this? I don’t know.
    Sometimes i think this is exactly what the enemy wants and he is getting his way. Other times, This is God testing us. Very confusing times for a new believer as myself. How far do you go with the intellect and at what point do you trust God will show up and help?
    I thought the head can not function properly without the body? Forgive me if i quoted that wrong. or misinterpreted it.
    Thank you. God be with us.

    1. It need not be confusing. Obedience to our priests and bishops is fairly simple. A modern Protestant will take upon himself the authority to decide, with the consequent confusion as he tries to figure it out; a classic Orthodox will realize that humility and obedience form the foundation for everything.

  7. My great-grandfather died in his early 40s of a snake bite in a church service in SE Kentucky. Thank you for writing on this topic.

  8. Father without questioning the need for obedience I have to share my own unease at the closures. My father was a renown local community health leader during the 50’s and 60’s here in the states. So I have a background in the need for restrictions, quarantines and contact tracing. BUT….

    I am also deeply concerned about the extent to which governments will use even valid means to control the Church and her people. I suspect that the restrictions that are supposed to be “in response to a crises” will not be temporary. The hypocrisy from our politicians here in the states has never been more evident when political protests are encouraged in utter defiance of the COVID restrictions while in certain locales even singing in religious gatherings even with distancing is not allowed under the mandates.

    On top of that is the lack of clear and accurate information on the method and degree of communicablity of the disease, the extent of its actual mortality and the effectiveness of remediation measures, etc Such lack decreases trust and increases fear accordingly. Real obedience is based on trust. Merely calling for obedience in an environment where there lack of trust in both ecclesial and civil authorities is a tough sell.

    At what point, if any, should the Church consider defiance of state mandated measures restricting our gatherings and practice? How may Paschal celebrations must we cancel?

    I firmly believe that my late wife may very well have been saved by the gathering at her death bed by our priest and several members of our congregation to sing prayers and songs of repentance and intercession. Such a thing would be forbidden in present times. I know a man locally, a long time friend of my wife’s who died alone — his wife of many years forbidden to be there simply out of fear. To what extent are we to deny people the effective ministry of the Sacraments and blessings of the Church out of obedience to the state?

    The fear works both ways don’t you think? The state fears genuine faith in God. And it should.

    Oh and even while grammar is now official “racist” according to Rutgers University, your use of the word “bit” in your article is incorrect. It should be “bitten”. But maybe you were empathetically in tune with the folks about whom you were writing?

    1. Given the amount of divisive fury and passionate heat the topic of church closure is generating, I am reluctant to engage the added topic here. My only point was that those who deny that one can become sick while in church are engaging in the same kind of presumptuous fundamentalism as were the primitive snake-handlers. And thank you for the grammar check: I have corrected it accordingly. Alas, not so much empathy as haste in posting combined with careless usage. (I can imagine my wonderful grade 9 English teacher Miss Adlersparre shaking her head at me. Did I learn nothing from her class?)

  9. Father, bless!

    In Russia, most churches and monasteries were not closed in fact. Formally, yes, but informally, no. The priests I’ve talked with say that the churches stayed open during times that were much worse than this, but ultimately it’s still up to people’s own discretion as to whether to come or not. There’s no Sunday obligation in Orthodoxy, and you may participate in the service as you decide to do.

    Was that the right course of action? I don’t know. Contact tracing isn’t very reliable here in Russia for different reasons, but after big church feasts when the churches were particularly crowded, there wasn’t a noticeable uptick in the number of new infections in the following week, like you might expect.

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