Catholic Perspectives on Snake Handling: Why do not Catholics take up the serpent during worship?

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To begin, I am speaking as a Christian, and also as an Appalachian-American, and on that this subject bears considerable merit.  Also, I want to say that I know many of the people in these churches as friends, and they are decent people who have given me a lot of insight and appreciation for the movement.
 
As a Christian, I am an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, which means I do not personally practice serpent-handling.  I tend to follow a traditional understanding of the Mark 16 passage, meaning two things.  First, the “serpents” it talks about I believe are spiritual forces we all encounter, and that by the authority of Christ within us through His Holy Spirit, we do have the authority to “take them up” so to speak and have victory over those situations.  Second, although I do believe it from a more traditional allegorical approach, I would also acknowledge that if a Christian were in a situation where an actual poisonous snake or other wild beast posed a danger, I believe God is by all means capable of allowing someone in a situation like that to actually physically engage the snake and remove the danger – that is really what I believe the context of Abbe Paule, the Egyptian Coptic Church Father, entailed that we talked about earlier.  To this I would add a third understanding I have been considering for some time, especially in lieu of actually getting to know many serpent-handling Christians personally.  I would not rule out the possibility at all that perhaps some individuals are gifted in this way to handle serpents, and being that is the case, I think some of these people may have an actual spiritual gift for doing it.  I am not dogmatic on that, but I am just saying the witness of the Spirit does bear out with many of these individuals, and it challenges me.   Much of my position on this still needs some development, but I can confidently say that I believe these people are genuine Christians, and that they are not crazy, nor are they just a bunch of “dumb hillbillies” either – on the contrary, Thomas Burton records that some of these serpent-handlers actually appear more mentally stable than some “normal” people they tested (Burton, p.129-130)!  It is truly a case where God indeed uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise (I Corinthians 1:25-27).  And, if one studies the Eastern Christian “Fools for Christ,” one will find that many eccentric practices of saints were considered holy attributes as a result, so why should serpent-handlers be any different?
Although I have been highly critical of Dennis Covington’s book in this article, I must admit that he did say something that has merit in this discussion when he noted in his closing chapters this: ” Feeling after God is a dangerous business.  And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.” (Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain {New York: Penguin Books, 1995} p. 177).  I would actually agree with Covington on that.  Over the years, Christianity has gotten more complacent, more accomodating to the culture, and many of its pastors have entered “confort zones” in which they don’t want to “rock the boat.”  Sin and salvation are not preached as much, and “Christian humanitarianism” (also called by Barton Gingerich “Moralistic Therapeutic Relativism”) has made much of the message of contemporary Christianity about what makes me feel good instead of what will save my neighbor.  Sacrifice and self-depreciation are not only ignored, but apostates such as Joel Osteen even say it is “dangerous” to think like that because in their eyes we (and by that, they) are to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” with a daily dose of “I love me.”   Serpent handlers fly in the face of that mentality, for to them Christianity is about obedience to God’s Word rather than self-gratification, and sometimes obedience means a subjection of our own will and desires.  I respect the serpent-handlers for that, because unlike so many wishy-washy pastors and seminary professors, they actually believe and take seriously what the Bible says, even to the point of great personal risk – I recall Jesus did that too when He was crucified for our sins, right?   I may not practice what they practice, and personally may differ with their interpretation, but I know where they are coming from.  As an Appalachian-American, I also know what it is like to grow up poor, and to be honest it makes taking a risk a little more realistic – these serpent-handlers are the same type of people I am, and when I see their struggles I can see me, because in many cases I am them.  Joel Osteen, as well as many professors in theological graduate-school programs, don’t relate to that and therefore are quick to be skeptical and dismissive of these things.  This, despite many of them spouting rhetoric about “identifying with the poor.”  If they truly believed what they are saying, then perhaps some of them need to attend a service where people “follow the signs,” and maybe they would be challenged to come out of those comfort zones.  Many old-time Pentecostals – whether they handle snakes or not – know what I am saying, because they live it.  Many “mainline” Pentecostals and others don’t have a clue – just saying….
 
That leads me to one further thought about the various programs on cable television that have been popping up lately.  I do watch a lot of these programs, and many of them are good, but I have an issue with them as a danger exists.  The American public these days is infatuated with the sensational and bizarre, and slick TV producers often will make things that are not bizarre enough to them lookbizarre.  That is why some of this trend in so-called “reality TV” is suspect, in particular the recent interest in “rural reality,” which in part has led to these programs about serpent-handlers.  Some of these programs are actually good – for instance, I think Duck Dynastyand Swamp People are two of the best shows on TV these days because what they depict are real people in real situations, and in many cases they also communicate solid values.  However, there are other shows, in particular those targeting religious groups, that are so sensationalized that unless you know better you would believe them as fact.  One such show, totally unrelated to serpent handlers, is this Amish Mafia.   Many capable scholars such as Dr. Donald Kraybill, as well as even former Amish people such as my good friend Mose Gingrich, have stated that Amish Mafiais more fiction than fact.  And, the show has depicted the Amish community in an unnecessarily negative light – secular TV loves picking on Christians, yet I find it fascinating that while they are degrading Amish and other Christian groups, they make sinful lifestyles like homosexuality look so good.  If that is not an agenda, I don’t know what you would call it then.  It is my hope and prayer that these secular networks don’t treat the serpent-handlers as nasty as they have the Amish, which is why they need to be monitored.  Fortunately, so far the serpent-handlers have been treated objectively, thanks again in part to good scholars like Dr. Ralph Hood who are often consulted for these projects.  Let’s hope that continues.  Also, it would be in Discovery’s best interest to maybe consult actual Anabaptist scholars like Dr. Kraybill in dealing with Amish subjects as well.  In the case of the serpent-handlers though, many pastors of their congregations take good precautions against thrill-seeking journalists who want to exploit their apparent eccentricity, and the Amish likewise have a prohibition against having film and photographs, and for good reason – the press in this country is biased, has an agenda, and will do almost anything to discredit people of faith.  It is our duty as Christians to enforce responsible journalism when it comes to any publicity – we are exercising wise stewardship and preserving the integrity of our witness when we do so.
In conclusion, here is my final thoughts on serpent-handlers.  Over the years, I have gotten to know many of them personally, and the ones I have gotten to know are decent, Godly people who just want to practice their faith in peace.  I have serpent-handlers who are my prayer partners as well, and I would trust their agreement in prayer on my behalf anyday.  That being said, again, I do not practice those things myself, and probably never will, but I have an openness and respect for them doing that.  I also want to emphasize that too many people focus on the snakes and not on the fact there is much more to these individuals than just the ability to heft a diamondback under the anointing.  Many are insightful people with their own individual God-given personalities, and a couple of them are gifted in many other ways too – Verlin Short, for instance, has a great respect for the environment of his home, and may actually be doing a service as far as protecting endangered rattlesnake species.  Jimmy Morrow, the unlettered pastor of the Edwina, TN, church, is also a gifted historian, and what he has done as far as personal research would put some Ivey-League scholars to shame.  Intelligence is not automatically bestowed with a college degree in other words, and Jimmy Morrow is actually quite an intelligent guy.  The same could be said as well of a non-serpent handling old-time Pentecostal pastor in Morristown, TN, by the name of Richard Crayne.  As far as I can tell, Pastor Crayne has never went to college, but he has one of the most comprehensive reference books on the independent Pentecostal movement I have seen, and I use it extensively in my research as well – it is called The Pentecostal Handbook, and although out-of-print now you might still be able to find a copy of it on Amazon or someplace.  Many of these people are also gifted songwriters, and yes, even among the serpent-handlers there are degreed people!  I said all that to close by saying that studies like this one are meant to show people there are more to the oft-presented “facts” than we see on the surface, and I want to be one of those who sees the whole picture.  And, I intend to do that with serpent-handlers as well as others – they deserve to be presented fairly and not sensationalized.  God bless until next time.

8 Comments

  • Reply January 30, 2017

    Varnel Watson

    This from an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist. Major breakthrough work

  • Reply January 30, 2017

    Stan Wayne

    Because it is ignorant

  • Reply October 22, 2017

    Johnny Martin

    JESUS GAVE THE DISCIPLES, THE POWER !!! , TO DO THOSE THINGS, “Mar 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    Mar 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    Mar 16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
    Mar 16:18 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. “, “Luk 10:19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. “,” Mat 4:6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
    Mat 4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” “, Act 28:3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
    Act 28:4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
    Act 28:5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
    Act 28:6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. “, okay nowj

    • Reply October 24, 2017

      Street Preacherz

      I haven’t seen that many faith verses since Bible school. Count me in!

  • Reply October 22, 2017

    Paul Hughes

    I would hope that most RCs, like mainstream Pentecostals, are not that stupid. Combining “tempting the Lord thy God” and “puffed up” pridefulness of spirit is unwise.

  • Reply October 22, 2017

    Varnel Watson

    Paul Hughes clearly you lack the faith to handle the serpent Lack of faith comes with no surprise among people who have missed their entire sanctification

  • Reply October 28, 2017

    Adam Matthew Thomas

    Lack of faith. I hear this a lot when it comes to snake handling. Some times I think some folks get so “sanctified” and “righteous” they forget the fact that at one time they where lost. In this self righteousness they become proud which is a big no no to GOD. They begin to cast stones because for some reason they decided to go pick up a snake and it didn’t bite them. Then they figure they have such great faith. Also they figure they and there faithful, self righteous and proud self that they can look at others who don’t pick up snakes and take a jab at their walk with GOD and say “oh you aint sanctified, have no faith, and I am better than you because I can and you cant. What a load of manure. Next time one of you brothers or sisters get you a big rattle snake and hop around with it and boasting your “great sanctified faith” have someone open the Church doors up for you. Then rush right on down, (while your speaking in tongues with no interpreter present) to the first mud hole, stream, river, or the first body of water you come to and walk on out there and not get yourself wet. Lets see if you can do it or not. Or I tell you what let someone throw you into the fiery furnace like them three little Hebrew boys and lets see if your faith makes you fire proof. Here is the bottom line. Troy Day your not accomplishing anything by telling someone of their lack of faith. Do you know how many I have seen drove from the Church because of statements like you made in this discussion to Paul Hughes? Those folks where no better or worse than any of us. Id use caution and remember as I do what I was, a no good wretched sinner who should of been thrown in hell with my back broke but GOD sent me a Savior. Remember who you are and remember you have the power to edify a brother or destroy a brother with what you say.

  • Reply October 28, 2017

    Scott Phillips

    Snake handling is a demonstration of ignorance in the name of devotion. The example of the Scripture in Mark 16 is when Paul accidently picked up a snake.

    Snake handlers have something in common, they die premature deaths.

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