Snakehandlers, Pentecostals, Raconteurs, and Religious Narratives: Is Extremism in the Defense of Religion No Vice?

by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh

When the Washington Post covered the death, by snake-bite, of a West Virginia pastor, Rev. Randy "Mack" Wolford last week, and linked it to a story they'd been working on for months on snake handling churches, I knew what the response would be among the general population, among my fellow Pentecostal travelers, and for those who like their religion exotic-this was exactly the kind of spectacle these churches often provide to a general population convinced that extremism in the defense of religion is one of the worst of all vices. 

Snake HandlerMy interest in this story is not to defend Mack Wolford, but rather to get at what the deeper issue is here, as someone who has studied Pentecostalism for over 15 years, and seen some rather extreme behavior--the issues of extreme views and actions lie at the heart of how some Pentecostals choose to interpret the Bible. Hermeneutics is the academic word that many of us have tried to unpack as we try to make sense of people like Wolford. Wolford knew how dangerous his faith was, he saw his father bitten and later die of a snake bite. To be sure, these churches are not representative of Pentecostalism, in reality, they number less than 100 churches and their membership continues to dwindle. But still, the exotic nature of this type of Pentecostalism, (which is over 100 years old), always attracts journalists and academics because it seems so unbelievable.  Why would anyone take that verse (Mark 16) literally? 
 Indeed, that is the deeper question. Biblical literalism, as sociologist Christian Smith argues-is impossible and often leads to incoherent theologies. More to the point, Ralph Hood, who's been studying snake-handling churches for over two decades says that he knows of no one who reads the Mark 16 passages independently and seeks membership in a snake-handling church, but, notes, Hood, all snake-handling church members know how to interpret Mark 16.  How do they know this?

How do Pentecostals know anything about this text?  How do they know that speaking in tongues means speaking in an unknown language, when one of the key proponent of that theological concept, Charles Parham, did not believe it was unknown languages, but the ability to speak known languages as missionaries helping to usher in the parousia?  How do they know to distinguish between the literal-tongues, exorcism,  healing, laying on of hands, and the metaphoric? take up serpents, whatever they drink will not harm them? Why is poison the drink of choice? Certainly enough benign beverages will do you in if you drink enough of it--note the war on SuperGulps in NYC.

Pentecostals often revel in their ability to fluster those of us who have tried to understand them through our own lenses and have often disregarded their own lens.  There is probably no greater tension between those of us who study religious communities and the believers in those communities when we seek to analyze their beliefs and practices without adhering to the same hermeneutical schema at the core of their faith.  It frustrates us as well, since to note my colleague Ralph Hood again, "the most common assumption is that any theology that emerges from Appalachian religion is an impediment to the people's inevitable necessity of accommodating to modernity." Scholars and journalists alike want to rush pastors like the late Rev. Wolford from the premodern phase to the modern phase where, presumably, an enlightened church would not think of snake handling and drinking poison worthy of their faith.  

Even for those of us for whom biblical literalism has little or no theological currency, modernity is not an attractive alternative because it does not value experience-Pentecostalism is an experience-driven faith that requires the accumulation of countless narratives of healing, salvations, being snatched away from the jaws of death, (in the case of snake-handlers, literal death), joyful, wistful stories of being something one day, and turned around to being something else the next--Pentecostals are the best raconteurs I have ever studied. Narratives are theological currency, it's what makes Pentecostalism plausible. While biblical literalism may be Pentecostalism's intellectual failure, that is of little consequence to the hundreds of Pentecostals I have met over the years.  

Most of us in the academy and in journalism value intellectual depth more than faith measured by experience--the Washington Post picture essay and the follow-up essay by the photojournalist Lauren Pond, and more terse, unsympathetic piece by Sally Quinn both failed to move beyond the surface of what Wolford died for.  According to Ralph Hood, and journalist Dennis Covington, whose notable ethnographic trip chronicled in "Salvation on Sand Mountain," snake-handling preachers Wolford, and most of those Pentecostals in Appalachia who practice snake handling are guided much more by the two verses that bookend Mark 16-17. They are guided by the desire to evangelize because they believe this to be the last command Jesus gave.  Perhaps it is the placement of the these verses that drives much of this dangerous and reckless behavior, the verse attributed to Jesus that commands his followers to evangelize and baptize followers of the Way (what the earliest Christians called Christianity), and the last verse of that section where Jesus leaves his followers with a glimpse of what all who follow will eventually be in store for--eternity with God. It is a beatific vision.
Still, does that mean that Wolford should not be criticized for such reckless and dangerous behavior? No, all one has to do is look at Pond's picture in the Washington Post of Wolford's mother massaging her dying son's feet to see the pain, and be reminded of the deep ties that this symbolic picture has in Christian history--where a mother watching her son die an agonizing death is iconic and not to be pitied. 

I have seen Pentecostals make some questionable choices about their health care, ceasing critical medical treatment because they believed someone had "spoken" a word of health over them and in effect, allowed their cancer to enter the terminal phase. Perhaps more reckless is the ministry I studied in graduate school who allowed ex-cons to live with their families with little regard to the effect that it may have on their children and other family members. There are documented cases where children were placed with unstable caregivers because the family, wanting the ex-con to start living as a "redeemed" person, decided that they could handle their anger issues without proper psychological counseling-all one needed was prayer. 

 It is the same religious impetus that disallows medicine for Christian Scientists, blood transfusions for Jehovah's Witnesses, snake-handling in West Virginia (the only state that has not outlawed the practice). What academics and journalists may not grasp is the hold that this literalist hermeneutic has on certain religious communities. Pentecostals reach a level of security, comfort, and certainty that a hermeneutic built on biblical literalism that trumps nearly every other kind of knowledge. Perhaps the tension here lies also in the idea that for those of us who study and have worshipped with Pentecostals to not adhere to literalist views, our knowledge is derived from "worldly" sources and that usually is enough for believers to doubt our veracity to explain them to an unbelieving world.


Brett Maiden said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward J. Blum said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett Maiden said…
Professor Blum,
You are correct. I offer my apologies to Professor Sanchez-Walsh and have withdrawn my comment.
Jesse Jones said…
Snake handlers of course are not the only ones who insist on Biblical literalism. How would a Biblical literalist refute the snake handlers' reading of Mark 16? The snake handlers could not be further away from being open to being weaned from Biblical literalism. Is there a compelling argument for the snake handlers to abandon this dangerous practice that does not require them to deny literalism?
It is sad that the Pastor had to die of snake bite, because if he had gone to a snake handling course, then he would have still been alive today.