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Maybe it's time to break out the vipers

Published on -3/28/2013, 10:13 AM

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Not long ago on a cable-TV channel, there was a program about snake-handling Christian fundamentalists in West Virginia. This ritual, considered to be bizarrely primitive by most Christians and non-Christians alike, is confined mainly to the Appalachian region in the eastern United States.

As a collection of independent congregations split off from the traditional Pentacostal Church, the snake-handlers are definitely a religious breed apart.

Allow me to put in here that I prefer the term "literalist" over "fundamentalist" when referring to all literal interpreters of the Bible, snake-handlers and otherwise, because I regard what they are compelled to believe and do is not essentially "fundamental" in a genuine spiritual context.

As literalist grounds for their snake-dangling practice, these Appalachian sects cite Biblical Scripture, specifically Mark 16:18 in the New Testament in which Jesus describes true believers: "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."

While a number of literalist-fundamentalist churches perform laying on of hands for healing the sick and lame, or "cast out demons and speak new languages" (Mark 16:17), all with the actual or illusory effects in the public eye, this writer has never heard of the ritual drinking of "any deadly thing."

Would any sane human being, however strong his faith in the Lord, knowingly imbibe poison as proof of that faith?

Such an improbable scenario encapsulates the conspicuous fallacy of interpreting scripture absolutely literally. Probably most literalists are inwardly aware of the absurdity of doing so, yet adhere to literalist interpretations that do not constitute an overt threat to their or their loved ones' psychological and physical welfare. They merely skip over the two potentially fatal demonstrations of faith involving poisonous serpents and liquids, as set down so briefly in the Book of Mark. But laying hands on the sick and lame, speaking new languages and casting out demons -- hey, those are doable and can even be well faked if the real thing isn't in the cards. However, exorcising evil spirits, if real, could get scary in the extreme, in which case only the most macho believers would be called upon.

And then there is the question of context. In the Mark verses cited, was Jesus really countenancing his followers to voluntarily capture and hold up vipers and gulp lethal substances as ultimate proof of the purity of their faith?

Or was he instead telling them that their true faith would surely save them if these or any other dreadful situations were forced upon them by their enemies? (remember, there were some sadistic anti-Christians about in the Holy Land in those days.) The literalists may find that an agreeable interpretation, but then they would cease to be strict literalists.

Although Jesus reputedly healed the sick and lame, and performed a number of other miracles, they were done foremostly to actually cure or help people in some way (such as turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana), and at the same time revealing the power of God as called down by His messengers in times of great or dire need. They were not meant by Jesus to simply convince audiences of his spiritual prowess, as seems to be the motivation with the Appalachian snake-handlers, religiously disguised ego-tripping, in effect.

Certainly, one can't imagine Jesus doing such stunts for show, even of faith.

That being said, there are countless scriptural passages that can, and should be, taken more or less at literal face-value. Mainly, these are the ones pertaining to attitudes and behaviors toward one's fellow men and women: love, charity, honor, humility, etc. Yet even these Christian virtues are not always overtly demonstrated before others. When genuine, they are the manifestations of one's inner state. Visible virtue without such is, even when not intended as deceit, spiritual mimicry or egoistic sanctimony at worst.

One positive thing can be said about the snake-handlers. Though they are fanatical, obsessive Biblical literalists, they are willing to put their belief on the line in extremis, at least where the serpents are concerned. A few, possibly clinically insane, might even be induced to quaff a little poison as a show of faith.

No, these literalists are not scriptural cherry-pickers like most of the others. Or the cherries they do prefer to pick are of a rare, poisonous variety.

So, all the rest of you biblical literalists out there, how about finally facing up to Mark 16:18 and proving to yourselves and the rest of us how strong your Christian faith really is? Flush out and hold up some rattlers and copperheads, as those death-defying Appalachians do or down an ounce or 2 of Drano for the cameras.

We'd even let you take it half-strength, with medics on stand-by.

A. Wayne Senzee, formerly of Hays, is a published author now residing in Salina.

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