True Snake Salvation

Haven’t serpents done enough damage? (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel 1508-12)

I have always been amazed and dumbfounded by Pentecostal preachers who handle poisonous snakes during religious services, even though this practice has been outlawed nearly everywhere you go. Apparently, these individuals and their followers believe that God will protect them and that no venom can harm a true believer who has been anointed by the Man Upstairs. To justify this belief, they often turn to several passages in the Bible, including the following:

  • Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you (Luke 10:19).
  • 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 (Mark 16:17-18).

Of course, I am always reminded of the Book of Genesis and how it was a serpent who misled Adam and Eve and ultimately destroyed Paradise—an act that pretty much screwed the rest of humankind… if you believe in that sort of thing, which I don’t. No offense to Christians, of course.

George Went Hensley... not to be confused with Norm (George Wendt) from "Cheers" or George (Sherman Hemsley) from "The Jeffersons" (Getty Images)

George Went Hensley… not to be confused with Norm (George Wendt) from “Cheers” or George (Sherman Hemsley) from “The Jeffersons” (Getty Images)

So when it comes to involving these slithering sinners in religious rituals—most of which seem to occur in rural, mountainous areas, for some reason—it’s easy to see why the merest mention of snake handling raises an eyebrow for me. And I struggle to this day to understand why a creature cursed by God is being included in services and prayers designed to worship Him.

I mean, even the founder of snake handling practices in America—George Went Hensley—died of a snakebite in 1955. I don’t know about you, but that certainly raises a red flag for me. Yet the practice continues, albeit on a much smaller scale. And yes, a lot of people have died as a result.

The latest victim is Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, a third-generation snake handler at Middlesboro’s Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name and star of the National Geographic Channel reality show Snake Salvation. He died Saturday night after being bitten by a poisonous snake and refusing treatment.

I don’t mean to sound too cynical or mean, but if you follow the “snake handling rationale,” wouldn’t this mean that Coots was not a true believer, despite being a church pastor? Better yet, could this kind of thing prove that there really is no God watching over us?

Jamie Coots handling the same species that would eventually kill him (National Geographic)

I’m sure most Christians would agree with the first question—and who could blame them for supporting their faith—but some may see it the other way, too. I know something like this would be enough to make me question my own beliefs—if I were a religious man, which I’m obviously not.

Fortunately, you could argue that Coots has been heading for disaster for some time now. In 2008, he was arrested for having nearly 80 venomous snakes in his home. Five years later, he got busted at a Tennessee license check with two copperheads and three rattlesnakes in his car—a move than ended with citations for illegally possessing and transporting venomous snakes across state lines and one year of probation.

I’m not sure whether Coots completed his probation or not, but it was due to end this month. Rather than gaining his freedom, though, he ended up with a death sentence—and a self-inflicted death sentence at that!

Sorry, but I can’t help quoting Canadian singer Alanis Morissette and the question she asked in her Grammy-nominated hit from the late 1990s—a question that provides me with the perfect ending to this unusual tale of religious fervor and questioned faith:

Isn’t it ironic?

Posted on February 18, 2014, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

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