Sep 26, 2013

Why snake handlers go on TV

American evangelicals, as has been noted, have historically been very adept at making use of media. There have also always been concerns about new technologies, about how messages might be compromised by a particular medium, but those are generally put aside, as evangelical media pioneers push forward. With every advance of communication -- print or radio, TV or twitter -- the same argument gets made: the priority is reaching the lost, spreading the word, preaching the gospel.

The potential for evangelism trumps concerns about the corrupting influences and compromises.

Andrew Hamblin, one of the pentecostal preachers who is the star of a new reality TV show, makes exactly this classic argument when asked why he participated in the series:
If people do ... believe in it, begin to believe it, that's wonderful, that's good and so forth. My only reason for participating in 'Snake Salvation' was to spread the gospel to the whole country, to the world if you will, to tell somebody that they can be saved. They don't have to believe like me, they don't have to dress like me, they don't have to handle snakes like me. But to let them know that the blood of Christ still saves and he is still real.

... My goal has been reached. I've had hundreds upon hundreds of people call me, message me different things like, 'Pastor, we might not ever believe alike, but watching this, it restored my faith in God.' I've had atheists write me and say, 'We watched this, we did not believe that there was a God. We didn't believe in no kind of a supernatural being or anything, but after watching this show there has to be a God.' Then I've had people write me and say, 'Pastor, we're Pentecostal believers and we want to learn more about this, we feel the Lord is dealing with us to do this.'

It has amazed me. I had really and honestly thought that it'd be a flop so to speak, and people would look down on us even worse.
There doesn't seem to be any ratings information available for the show. Some viewers have responded differently than Hamblin's correspondents, however. Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani, for example, writes that she could only get through two episodes.
That my snake-handling brothers and sisters in Christ have fixated on a few obscure passages of Scripture doesn’t bother me nearly as much as those damned snakes .... 
Watching scenes of the pastors and their faithful companions hunting for snakes -- poisonous snakes are pricey and these folks are usually a bit short on cash -- I became completely unglued and started shouting at the screen
DON'T PUT YOUR HAND IN THERE! ARE YOU INSANE?! 
WHY?! WHY WOULD YOU PUT YOUR FACE THAT CLOSE TO A DEN OF RATTLERS?! 
STOP POKING AT IT! SWEET JESUS, RUN, YOU IDIOTS!
That reaction's probably to be expected. It doesn't preclude the one Hamblin's hoping for, though.

It's a dynamic, curiously, as old as evangelicals and media. Whether it's evangelical publishers or televangelists, Rob Bell going on Oprah or a Christian hair metal band, this is pretty much exactly what happens every time.