Have you ever picked up a poisonous snake?
Have you ever done it in church?
Me neither. But I have always found it fascinating.
At my suggestion, a book discussion group I am a part of recently read Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. It’s a book about snake handling.
Our group meets every Wednesday morning. We usually read business books because most of us are business owners of some sort.
As the group reads the books, the members wrestle with what it means to be both a believer and a business owner. Do we run our businesses differently than the unbelievers? Should we? In what ways? We still have to hire and fire people. Do we hire and fire for competence? Character? The need of the individual? What do we do in really difficult times; watch out for our company or care for the individual workers in the company? Are we really looking out for our workers in the long run if we do not mange the health of the company? How does one deal with the pressure of making sound business decisions that are at the same time ethical and Christian?
Those are usually the sorts of issues we discuss.
Not this week. This week it was about snake handling.
The actual practice affects very few people. So why bother? I wanted the group to read Covington’s book because the cult’s attitudes and values reflect those held by millions of Americans.
Let me say it plainly: the people at the bottom half of American culture do not play with a full deck. They do not learn the same rules, absorb the same lessons, or use the same language as other Americans. They do not know the unwritten processes and values that govern social, relational, financial or educational life. Often, they do not learn the principles of cause and effect, individual responsibility, or the value of planning. To millions of Americans, life just happens and one adjusts to it as it occurs.
My daughter, Talitha, has a burning drive to make classical education available to the poor. She is a world-class teacher and has already sent out dozens of young people who have received scholarships and awards that they would not have received without her mentorship. I’m very proud of her.
Talitha’s central idea is this: upper and middle class Americans begin absorbing the values of Western Civilization in their mother’s milk. Clichés and jokes, meals and movies, even clothing and home décor teaches the little urchins the unspoken language of the tribe.
The children of the poor and minorities rarely receive this subtle education. As a result, they miss the unspoken messages, send the wrong signals and find themselves offending and being offended from the time they enter school until they get their gold watch at retirement. (Except now there’s no gold watch.)
She says (again and again) that classical education deliberately ensures that every student gets the same chance at culture.
There are many classical schools now. Many of them are even Christian. Almost none of them have a social conscience that compels them to find a way for as many students from the margins as the school can handle. Thankfully, there are a few.
Our churches are in the same shape.
Two generations ago, every church of every kind could be reasonably sure that the people knew the Bible stories and the basic teachings of the Christian faith.
This is no longer true. It is no longer true among liberal Christians because they’re not sure the Bible is anything more than a collection of fairy tales anyway. But it’s also true of conservative churches. In fact, the real difference between liberal and conservative churches in America is that they vote differently.
In a way, I guess my pastoral agenda is the same one my daughter has for education: I want to teach the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. I want our people -- upper, middle and lower classes, majority and minority, male and female, to know the Bible and what it means.
I don’t want to be a part of dumbed-down, consumer-driven, entertainment addicted Christianity. I want a church that teaches the Bible, worships a God we expect to show up, and expects that its members will form real community.
Snake handlers risk their lives every time they go to church. They are, one might say, a “peculiar people.” I don’t want to be one and I doubt that you do either.
The point is though, snake handling is one of the things that occur when Christians lack a foundation. The reason it hasn’t caught on is not because Christians know better. It hasn’t caught on because its dangerous, and, even more serious, because its socially unacceptable. It is admirable in certain kind of way though. People can’t be just horsing around who stick their hand in a box and pull out a water moccasin.
Snake handling reminds me of the Book of Judges. That book tells us what happens when God’s people remain sincere but yet fail to learn what God really wants.
Snake handling is not the only example I can think of when I think about sincere but uninformed Christianity. When ignorance masquerades as piety all sorts of stupidity occur.
I’m trying to make a difference by studying for myself and by teaching what I learn to those who care enough to listen.
I wish Dennis Covington had met me first, or had the good fortune of having my daughter as a teacher.
Now, if she will only forgive me for writing this!