Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Woman Dies After Handling Snake in Church

A story of bad theology from – one that seems to come up every few years.

A London woman is dead after being bitten by a snake during a Sunday church service, the Laurel County Sheriff's Office said yesterday.

Neighbors near East London Holiness Church on Smith Brewer Road, which officials said the 48-year-old attended, said the church practices serpent handling.

[…] The woman was taken to University of Kentucky Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m., almost four hours after the bite was reported.

Sizemore said he thinks the woman was bitten by a timber rattlesnake. He did not know if the woman practiced snake handling.

Snake handling is based on a passage in the Bible, in the Gospel of Mark, that says a sign of a true believer is the power to "take up serpents" without being harmed.

It is illegal in Kentucky to handle reptiles as part of religious services. Snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50-$100 fine.

Opal Wagers lives near the church on Smith Brewer Road and said it's been two or three months since she last visited the church, but said she's witnessed snake handling there.

"I don't have no dealings with those snakes," Wagers said. "But they seem to handle them pretty good."

She said people fill the church at least one Sunday each month to handle snakes. Wagers said members from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia bring in the snakes.

Well, I certainly hope that this woman is in the presence of the Beatific Vision, but grabbing a rattlesnake is still a pretty bad idea. Snake handling churches appear to be largely a phenomenon of the rural Southeast. Psychologically (stereotyping generalization follows), it seems to give the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised a sense of power and specialness. Theologically, the whole idea skates on really thin ice. Mark 16:18 indeed says what they claim, but that doesn’t give one license to act like an idiot. After all, Psalm 91 says not to fear “the arrow that flies by day nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness.” I don’t think that calls us to dance on the archery range or to run around naked hugging Ebola patients.

I wonder if the rest of us are as different as we think, however. A lot of people in suburbia seem to buy into the “prosperity gospel,” where your wealth and your health are a function of how much faith you have. There’s not much difference between believing that your cancer won’t kill you if you only have enough faith, and believing that the snake won’t bite you for the same reason.

And lest the theological liberals feel smug, let me point out that someone dancing with a serpent like a Timber Rattler is likely to only hurt himself. When whole churches convince themselves that they can dance with The Serpent and walk away unharmed, the results are likely to be a whole lot worse than a trip to the hospital.

(I confess, I felt like going out in my back yard and finding a snake to bite me after the election results last night. May God have mercy on this nation.)