Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they 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”
The first time it happened was in 1910, near Cleveland, Tennessee. George Hensley, a 30 year old, self-taught Pentecostal preacher, took a rattlesnake from a box at the end of his sermon, and told the men in the room to “Handle it, or face the fires of hell” as an outward and visible demonstration of their faith, and as a sign to others that their faith was true.
He went on to preach this same kind of message for 45 years, starting several churches in the Tennessee-Kentucky area, loosely affiliated under the name “Church of God with Signs Following.” Hensley died in 1955.
There are still scattered snake-handling, cyanide-drinking, fire-touching churches that get together in the backwoods of Appalachia. They’re hard to find because most states have outlawed their practices; Tennessee did so in the mid-40s after three people had died in the process of proving their faith. But it goes on, still. Just last November, an elderly woman in Georgia succumbed to the venom of several rattlesnake bites.
So what in the name of Jesus, or that picture on the wall titled “Jesus”, is going on here?
It’s religion. It’s the acting out of faith in superficial (but deadly) ways, rather than the acting in faith that Jesus taught and demonstrated. It is always easier to go through the motions of Christianity than it is to follow Jesus. The motions of Christianity are always done within a friendly gathering with other, like-minded members, according to ritual, tradition, and approved liturgies. The snake-handlers, of course, take those rituals to an extreme which causes their average age to be somewhat less (I’m guessing) than the average Presbyterian congregation’s median age. But it is still a hollow, religious, self-affirming and ultimately pointless set of motions in which they are participating. Handling snakes has no more to do with following Jesus than the lighting of brass and glass “candles” in church, or the installation of a kabillion dollar pipe organ.
The superficialities of Christianity are often beautiful, sometimes exciting, and pleasantly reassuring, but have little to do with following Jesus. They make us feel like we are doing something for the Kingdom of God, when it’s usually for the benefit of others in our subset of religionists that we are really doing them. (We love the applause!) The superficialities of Christianity make us feel good but always at the expense of someone else’s ignored and continuing misery.
Jesus was about the alleviation of suffering, and the direct and unencumbered relationship between humans and God, and humans with each other. He taught that, demonstrated that, and died for that. Everything else is fluff- decorations hung on the cross in an attempt to disguise its severity and its revolutionary thrust into the affairs of humankind.
And, besides that, the snake handlers have chosen a tiny piece of scripture as their gathering point, that virtually no serious student of the scripture believes was written by Mark. I’ll talk about that later. Meantime, look in your Bibles, and you’ll see that scripture just kind of hanging there, out of tradition, and not much else.