Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Handle with care

The snake charmer is dead. Tragically, Ali Khan Samsuddin, a fifth generation snake charmer, died last week in Kuala Lumpur after being bitten by a cobra. He had been bitten many times before and always managed to survive. Not so this time. Though originally tied to religion, in modern times, snake handling is a trade without much religious significance. The religious practice of handling snakes does still exist, believe it or not, in the American South.

In 1992, a man named Glen Summerford stood accused of attempted murder after forcing his wife to put her hand into a cage full of snakes. He was the pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following. Services at this tiny church, located in the Northern Alabama town of Scottsboro, include speaking in tongues, handling fire and drinking strychnine from mason jars. But even more exciting is their practice of handling poisonous snakes as the Spirit moves them.

The faithful at the Church of Jesus with Signs Following interpret literally a passage in the Book of Acts: And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 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. When the Spirit moves 'em in Scottsboro, they get out the snakes.

Dennis Covington was a freelance journalist covering Summerford's trial for the New York Times. After the trial was over, Covington was befriended by some of the snake handlers and other members of the church. He began to attend services at the church out of curiosity and, over the course of a few months, was pulled into a bizarre world of fundamentalist Christianity where "believers" base their entire Christian identity on one or two Bible passages. Apparent lunacy is generally the result of such limited Biblical interpretation.

While mainstream Christian fundamentalism is not quite as zany, nor as interesting, as it is in Appalachia, the practice of carving the Bible up into little passages and verses that serve particular agendas is just as common. Leviticus does say that for a man to lie with another man is an abomination. It also says that shellfish are an abomination. It says don't cut your hair, don't wear clothing made with two different materials. It's okay to own slaves. Just don't disrespect your father or you'll be put to death. Take one verse, take all. Or else step back and open up to a larger perspective, one that doesn't diminish God or re-create him in our own limited image.

Fortunately, Dennis Covington escaped the cult and made it back to New York. He wrote about his experience in an amazing book called Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. In the book Covington says that the snake-handling experience confirmed his long-held suspicion that madness and religion are a hair's breadth apart. That feeling after God is dangerous business. That Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all. I'm with Dennis on this. Let us not reduce faith in God to a small-minded, verse-picking, powerless and fearful way of life.

No comments: