On snake handling and testing God

by Anna Blanch on June 4, 2012

A week ago a preacher named Mack Wolford died a horrendously painful death at his home in west Virginia, USA, with his mother by his side. A photojournalist, Lauren Pond, who’d been documenting the pentecostal practice of snake handling in the Appalachian mountains — which is by no means common — recorded the events of his last hours of life.

I’ve been pondering the spiritual practice of snake handling in part because though it is so ‘extreme,’ I wonder both what is attractive about it and whether or not many of us (me included) have a (maybe) less benign version of snake handling going on.

To handle snakes is supposedly an act designed to both prove and test your faith in God – both his faith to heal you and that snakes won’t bite you. Paradoxically, the community seems to hold that if a snake handler is bitten and dies ten it was just their time to go — definitely a rationalisation when viewed from the outside and it is no wonder the group have been criticized from both within and outwith the church.

However,  this is also a community that revels in holding naked flames to the skin of hands and head and makes available mason jars of Strychnine dissolved in water for those who would choose to demonstrate the ‘sign’ of their faith in this way. The taking on of very dangerous activities — life threatening activities, or at least life harming — for no other reason than to show faith, seem an incredibly strange thing to do. On one hand, I can understand why it can be justified under the rubric of ‘what seems foolish to men, seems wise to God’ but on another I wonder whether or not ”testing God” in this way isn’t inherently wasting the immense gift of life that we have been given.

The hunger for religious experience — a transcendent experience of the supernatural, of God meeting with you in a tangible, measureable way — seems to be at the root of such practices. But so too is the notion of putting your faith on the line for God.

Sometimes it takes an extreme (which to all intents and purposes we may think is a little crazy) to make us ask of ourselves, do we do this too?

Do you, or do I, have our own versions of this?

My question is this, is this a kind of adrenaline rush experience? — that excepting real physical trials that come because of war, or natural disaster, or putting yourself in harm’s way to serve others, that we naturally seek out ways to make sure that God is with us on a day to day basis.

In doing so, are we selling both ourselves and God short? It feels true to me that I seem to invest as much emotional energy into small dramas as really intense and difficult trials and that in a sense I am better in situations with more complex challenges than the mundane of the everyday, which in my own way I may end up blowing out of proportion as a consequence of my response.

I also wonder then, why snakes? Why not go and serve those in your own or another community that truly are in life threatening situations? Is it just another example of an adrenaline junkie using God to justify the addiction?

What about you– do you handle snakes (metaphorically speaking) when you could be out serving the least of these, and changing lives?

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