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Philosophy and pop culture

In Praise of Snake Handling

Rediscover risk and absurdity in faith

Pastor Mark Randall Wolford died as a result of a snake bite in May 2012. This story hits home with me because I have developed a sincere appreciation of snake-handling churches thanks to the show Snake Salvation on the National Geographic Channel. The pastors and congregations documented on the show live a hardscrabble life. They have to hunt for their own snakes for Christ’s sake! Unlike faith healers, they employ no tricks and engage in no hucksterism. Unlike many mega-church pastors, they issue no calls for money and don’t make money off their ministries.

Despite the sincerity of the practitioners, the practice of snake handling may seem crazy. Why would people do that? The answer is that they are following verses that are in the Gospel of Mark and that cannot be easily dismissed as hyperbolic or symbolic. Mark 16: 17-20 reads as follows:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well; After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God; Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (New International Version)

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I’d say that the surprising thing is not that people in this day and age handle snakes, but that more Christians don’t do it. Of course many Christians interpret scripture selectively, ignoring some difficult injunctions. I asked a close friend of mine, who is an evangelical Christian and who is not inclined to ignore difficult injunctions, why he does not handle snakes. I should add that this friend is highly educated and very smart. His response surprised me a little. Without missing a beat, he replied that Mark 16: 9-20 was not in the original version of the Gospel of Mark and thus he feels free to ignore it.

He was right, of course, and I knew this. Mainstream biblical scholarship agrees that the original version of the Gospel of Mark ended with chapter 16 verse 8. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark that we now possess end there, and the additional material, Mark 16: 9-20, differs in vocabulary and style, suggesting that it was added by scribes in the second century.

So my friend was off the hook. He could return to his evangelical Church on Sunday and feel no need to handle snakes. I don’t know if Pastor Wolford or other pastors in the snake-handling tradition are aware that they are basing their practice and risking their lives on the basis of verses that were not in the original version of the book of Mark. I suspect that most are not aware, but I also suspect that most wouldn’t care even if it were convincingly demonstrated to them that those verses were added by second-century scribes. The snake handlers could simply respond that those scribes were inspired by God to make those additions. At that point, you might just throw up your hands and say “there’s no reasoning with these people.” But I say more power to them.

Ordinary, mainline Christianity today lacks passion and risk much as it did in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen. In response, Kierkegaard advocated rediscovering the passion and risk of first-century Christianity by embracing the absurd, such as the absurdity of an infinite, timeless God entering time as a man. Although such beliefs are absurd, when people learn them from early childhood they have no sense of the absurdity and thus no feeling of risk. Handling snakes, though, cannot be done without a sense of risk, no matter how young you are when first exposed to the practice. As pastor Wolford demonstrated, no matter how many times one handles snakes, the risk of being bitten remains. And no matter how many times one has been bitten, the risk remains that the next bite will prove fatal. On the plus side, the adrenaline rush must be terrific and the religious experience must be profound. I’m tempted to try it myself!

Ironically, the snake handlers may help you rediscover in your belief system some sense of risk and absurdity even if you’re not willing to handle snakes. The reason I was surprised that my friend was willing to admit that Mark 16: 9-20 amounted to an illegitimate later add-on, is that those verses contain the first stories of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus. Mark was the first Gospel written (late 60’s A.D.), and the original version of that Gospel ends with a young man (perhaps an angel) announcing to the women on Sunday morning that Jesus has risen and has gone ahead of them to Galilee. The later Gospels of Matthew (late 70’s or 80’s A.D.), Luke (mid to late 80’s A.D.), and John (90’s A.D.) include Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Scholars reason that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were added in Mark 16: 9-20 because second-century scribes were uncomfortable with the Gospel ending without them. But I say that kind of discomfort is good for faith because it introduces an element of the absurd. If Jesus really did make post-resurrection appearances wouldn’t the very first Gospel have recorded them? Isn’t it a bit risky to believe that he did make post-resurrection appearances? And if so, isn’t that a good thing?

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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