“Feeling after God is dangerous business,” wrote Dennis Covington in Salvation on Sand Mountain.
Dangerous for who, exactly?
Years ago, Covington’s remarkable book introduced me to one of the most intriguing human-animal relationships I’ve ever studied. In short, believers “take up serpents,” drink deadly substances, speak in tongues, and follow other signs from Mark 16:17-18. Those who are right by God survive bites from venomous snakes and sips of strychnine.
According to Pastor Andrew Hamblin, snakes are “death in your hand,” but how can something as spectacular and alive as a rattlesnake also be death?
Although the anthropologist in me is curious to attend a service and engage in some observation- hold the participant (sorry, anthro joke)- there is something I don’t think even a visit to a signs following church could answer…
What is it like for the snake? Is the animal just a tool used to facilitate a human experience with the divine that excludes other creatures, or do serpents also experience God? Does divinity discriminate between human and snake- sapiens and horridus? ‘Wise’ and ‘horrible?’
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the woodlands but the Timber rattlesnake doesn’t know that. She’s sunning herself on a rocky outcrop, not far from her den, still digesting a meal of juicy shrew from yesterday morning. If snakes feel happiness, she is happy. If snakes feel god- or are god- she is divine.
Footsteps approach and shake the ground she suns on. It’s something big. As two people inch closer she rattles her tail in polite admonishment before striking once at a long, metal pole. She is wrangled into a bucket.
She spends the night and next day in a garage inside a box with wooden sides and a clear, hinged lid that she shares with three other snakes. They are lethargic. If snakes feel hope, these rattlers have none.
Toward the end of the day, the box begins to move. A thump is followed by rumbles in the dark cave of a car trunk. Then, light again. Into the church they go.
There is talking and singing. Footsteps and hand claps. The box lid opens.
“Careful with that one…” someone says, “we caught her just yesterday.”
What is a warning to the human animal is a series of vibrations to the snake.
Cool tongs clamp down firmly on either side of her body, not far behind her head, as she is lifted from the wooden box. A breeze blows through the open door at the back of the sanctuary.
The man sings and shouts and dances, thrusting her skyward. Occasionally, he yells at her as if she is the devil herself, born in the nearby woods, an unwelcome neighbor as horrid as her species name in Latin suggests- or more so.
If snakes feel fear, she is scared. Her rattle has no use now. Warm mammal hands prevent her from coiling tightly into a pile of comforting curves as she would if threatened on the ground. Her fangs are folded against the roof of her mouth, her venom glands full.
A day ago she was basking in the divine light of the forest. Tonight, serpents taken up, it is the sign followers’ turn to feel after God.
She does not strike.
Medium article: What Is a Snake Handling Church Like? By Tantra Bensko
NPR All Things Considered report from October 2013: Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington