Cook: They shall take up serpents

Cook: They shall take up serpents

October 13th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

WHO: Dr. Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

WHAT: Meeting of the Chattanooga Area Historical Association

WHEN: Monday at 6 p.m.

WHERE: EPB Building downtown

We ought to outlaw motorcycle riding. Followed by hang gliding, whitewater kayaking and sky diving. Ban smoking, too.

Let's criminalize all dangerous activities in Tennessee, because, like your mother always said: somebody could get hurt.

Right?

Holy heck no. We're adults with God-given brains, and can choose to behave in high-risk ways, especially here in the land of the free. Want to ride a Harley while smoking a Marlboro on your way to kayak the Ocoee? Be my guest. All totally legal.

Which is why serpent handling should be also.

"It is an offense for a person to display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile," reads Tennessee Code 39-17-101.

But all across Appalachia this morning -- in churches closer to Chattanooga than you may realize -- men and women will rise up out of their unadorned pews, after receiving what they say is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and walk to the front of the church, put their hands into a wooden box, and pick up death.

Cottonmouth. Rattlesnake. Copperhead.

And in a rural whirling dervish, handlers drape those serpents over their necks and around their wrists like jewelry, as the church band plays. Handlers speak in tongues as, inches away, serpents flicker theirs in this beautiful, frightening, trance-like display of religious faith: when God is with us, even serpents can't harm us.

"There is a cultural bias in the Western world that a religious ritual cannot entail risk. But when you think of early Christians, they were martyrs for their faith. It was a risk for them to gather together," said Dr. Ralph Hood, who teaches courses in psychology and religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Monday night, Hood will speak to the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. Arguably the world's leading expert on serpent handling, Hood has visited hundreds of churches, documented more than 200 hours of footage for UTC's archives, and, to use academic language, is one cool dude.

Picture the best teacher you've ever had, then double it. That's Hood.

"It's not a bizarre kind of thing," he said of serpent handling. "It's actually one of the unique forms of American religious expression."

At the end of the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Christ appears to his friends, instructing them on the certain signs by which they can recognize fellow believers. They'll be able to cast out devils, Christ says. Speak in tongues. Drink deadly poison.

"They shall take up serpents," the verse reads.

This is not symbolism or metaphoric, hyperbolic language; the verse reads like a grocery list. If you believe in Christ, then do this. Do that. Handlers are simply being obedient to Biblical instruction.

Even if it's against the law. Even if it kills them.

As one West Virginia matriarch told Hood: "The only difference between your religion and mine is that when I go to church, I don't know if I'm going to come out alive."

Through Hood's archives, I've seen footage of handlers removing their shoes as a serpent is stretched out on the floor before them. Believers walk like a tightrope across the serpent, making manifest the verse from Luke: I give unto you power to tread on serpents.

We may cringe at this, but we are also intrigued by it. Serpent handling is an antidote to religious hypocrisy; its power comes from its sincerity. The litmus test of religious faith is found in the question: do you believe enough to put your neck on the line? The serpent handling church says, resounding, yes.

And there is no reason it should remain illegal in Tennessee.

"A legal avenue exists to have the Tennessee Supreme Court revisit the issue," said local attorney Chris Jones.

Jones recently defended Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, who was stopped near Knoxville while officers seized three rattlesnakes and two copperheads -- each securely locked in boxes -- from his backseat. Coots, currently starring in the National Geographic series "Snake Salvation," could have challenged the confiscation as a violation of the commerce clause (Coots legally bought the snakes in Alabama and was driving through Tennessee to Kentucky), but did not.

"But what I have found so far, is that serpent preachers remain reluctant to challenge any law, in fear of being frustrated by the authorities in the interim," Jones said.

Contemporary serpent handling spread through the early 20th century South, thanks to George Went Hensley, whom Hood in his book "Them That Believe" calls "the St. Paul of serpent handling." Hensley, a Pentecostal, was praying in the woods near White Oak Mountain, when he saw a rattlesnake on the forest floor.

He picked it up, and handled it. Emerging off the mountain, Hensley, who would later live in Chattanooga, began his evangelical career of using serpents as a path to salvation.

Today, handling continues in every Appalachian state, said Hood, who cautions against stereotyping handlers.

"While some don't have college educations, others do. While some are driving coal trucks and working in coal mines, others are managers at Wal-Mart and registered nurses," he said. "The notion in some sense they are less intelligent is not true."

For handlers, the greatest risk of all is not the serpent before them.

"It's to lose their soul," said Hood. "You're asking them to give up the most important thing, which is their salvation."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.