Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Once Bitten - Twice Shy

". . .they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." Mark 16:18 (ESV)

I saw a documentary about snake handling churches in West Virgina a few weeks ago. Apparently, West Virgina is one of the few states in which snake handling services are still legal. What I found particularly interesting was a comment from one of the old timers interviewed. He said that you didn't have to worry about being bitten because if you died you were assured you would go to heaven, i.e., since you acted in faith by handling the poisonous snake you would be saved. Assuming I was from the Amelia Bedelia school of biblical interpretation, that is not exactly how I would read it. If you were bitten, wouldn't that mean just the opposite? That is, you are not a believer. The passage indicates that true believers would not be been bitten.

Frankly, the story was very sad. This kind of theology can only flow from a people who are gospel starved. Undoubtedly there are some bizarre reasons why a few may be attached to such an odd worship practice. However, if you drill down deep, I bet most of them are in fact simply looking for that assurance that God loves them. I see the same longing acted out in more measured and subtle ways among modern evangelicals. Nonetheless, I submit the better and more faithful way to gain that assurance, is through word and sacrament.

P.S. I guess it is telling that I don't need the closed captioning when they are interviewing mountain folk. I understand them plainly.


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