Oct 23, 2013

Missing the point of snake handling

In 1976, one old snake-handling pentecostal recalled what may have been the first time that someone died of snake handling. It was more than 50 years before. It was, he wrote, a surprise. Mostly because the snake handler had been bitten so much, and it'd never been lethal before.

"One man," wrote James Benton Ellis, "who had been bitten 230 times without harm, was finally bitten one time and died within 30 minutes."

Sometimes people talk about snake-handlers as if they don't get bitten, assuming they don't get bitten. They speculate about what the trick is. How do they do it? Maybe the music hypnotizes the snakes. Maybe the snakes are tame? Maybe they feed the snakes before. Or don't at all? There's a whole history of such speculation, starting from the pretty obviously false assumption that snake handlers escape harm.

NPR is the most recent example of this. NPR suggests it may be science not the supernatural that keeps snake-handling Christians from getting bit. According to John Burnett, the whole thing can perhaps be demystified by snake experts. He writes:
Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal? 
After the story aired, NPR was contacted by snake experts who strongly suggest that a snake's reluctance to bite a religious serpent handler may have more to do with the creature's poor health than with supernatural intervention.
There are two problems with this, one scientific, one theological.

First, snake handlers are bitten so rarely compared to what?

There are not exactly good records of snake handlers getting bitten, since they generally don't go to the hospital. But they do get bitten. David Kimbrough writes in Taking Up Serpents that "Most snake handlers have been bitten at some point in their lives. Atrophied fingers and hands, paralyzed limbs, and a variety of other physical disabilities are not uncommon among those who regularly handle snakes." One handler told Kimbrough he was bit 119 times, another 54, another never. The anecdotal evidence of bites is quite apparent, even if it's harder to get an exact calculation of frequency.

Even if there were a good record of times snake handlers were bit per times snakes were handled, and one could calculate the odds, that number would still have to be compared to something, too. Hypothetically, say a snake handler is bit on average one out of every 100 times snakes are handled. Are those good numbers? Bad?

There's nothing to compare them too.

If the claim about "rareness" is going to be made, scientifically or otherwise, the first thing one would need is some documentation on the frequency of bites among snake handlers. Then one would need a control group.

Claims that "science explains" are meaningless until that happens.

Second, there seems to be an assumption that snake handlers think they're protected from bites supernaturally, and thus that a scientific explanation would undermine their faith. But most handlers don't believe they're supernaturally protected. They know they can get bit and take up snakes anyway.

Kimbrough explains:
Church members who see God's agency in everything that happens believe that God allows a snake to bite to punish them for sins in their daily life; to prove to unbelievers that the snakes have not been tampered with; to try the faith of the victim and his or her fellow worshipers; or to show His healing power. Today's believers do not condemn a worshiper who has been bitten and swells or gets sick ... it is commonly held that a bad bite can happen to anyone, even the most devout member.
It is true that among some snake handlers in the early years -- 1910s, 1920s -- there was a belief that "anointing" would prevent harm. That has long since ceased to be the common theological stance, though. It's common knowledge that the man typically credited with popularizing the practice, George Hensley, died of snake bit in 1955 in Northern Florida, and no one seems to have concluded on that evidence that he had fallen away from the faith.

Jamie Coots, the snake handler interviewed by NPR and one of the men leading what seems like a revitalization of the practice, has himself been bitten nine times.

Faith, as it's commonly talked about among snake-handling pentecostals, is in the taking up of serpents. The "anointing" is what empowers them to follow the commandment they believe is in the Bible, the words of Jesus in Mark 16:18. Anointing isn't a promise that nothing will happen if you do what you're told and follow Jesus, it's the promise that, though you are weak, afraid, and your own normal self, you will have the power to do what you're called to.

As Andrew Hamblin said, "Our message is not 'handle snakes, handle snakes, handle snakes.' But our message is, 'Be saved by the blood of Christ.'"

Talk about how snake handlers don't get bitten or get bitten so rarely is missing the point.