Aug 8, 2013

Snake handlers embrace media attention

The National Geographic channel is planning a show on two Tennessee men and their communities struggling to keep the snake-handling faith. Titled Snake Salvation, it's scheduled to debut in September.

Bob Smietena of the Tennessean reports:
A crew from National Geographic Television followed the two preachers in the fall of 2012 and the spring and summer of 2013. Sixteen episodes are planned so far, said executive producer Matthew Testa.

Testa said that because their faith is dangerous and illegal to practice in most states, serpent-handing congregations have been wary of the media in the past. By getting to know [Jamie] Coots and [Andrew] Hamblin, he said, viewers will get a view into a unique religious culture.  
'We live at a time when, because of the Internet and television, we are all becoming more and more alike,' he said. 'To find a really distinct American subculture is incredibly rare.'
Coots, for his part, told the Tennessean that he hopes the show helps people realize there's more to snake-handling churches than handling snakes, featuring the day-to-day struggles of living out their faith.

Only about 15 percent of church members actually handle snakes, according to Ralph W. Hood Jr. and W. Paul Williamson, psychology professors who have extensively studied snake handling churches. They write, "All members believe in handling, but some have not yet been called by God to do so or have not experienced sufficient anointing to practice the sign."

Snake handlers believe the religious practice demonstrates the power of God, their commitment to God, and their commitment to a literalist hermeneutic of scripture. A.J. Tomlinson, one of the founders of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), a church which stopped practicing snake handling by the 1940s, once wrote, "you say that the disciples did not handle serpents? You cannot read it anywhere in the Bible? I wonder what kind of reader you are!"

A desire to demonstrate that commitment has driven these Tennessee pastors -- part of a younger generation of snake handlers seeking to revitalize the movement -- to open their arms to the media. In a profile of the believes last year, Smietena noted that "these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook .... They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality."

For them, the show is part of an evangelization effort.

"If one person sees it," Coots said, "and it converts them or causes them to go to a church, then it will be worth it."