Andrew Hamblin handles poisonous snakes every Sunday in the name of Jesus.
At just 22, he leads Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., a Pentecostal church that practices a rare, century-old Christian tradition of worshipping God with venomous snakes like timber rattlers, cottonmouths, and copperheads. He plays mandolin, loves zombie movies, receives food stamps, has five children, and now is he is a star in a new 16-episode National Geographic reality series, Snake Salvation, premiering Tuesday about Appalachia's serpent-handling churches.
The show is bound to stir interest in the unique--and mysterious--Christian sect. There are about 125 snake-handling churches in the United States, and almost all of them are found in Appalachia. Snake handlers like Hamblin do not worship snakes. Instead they use snakes to show non-Christians that God protects them from harm. In church services, when they feel the anointing of the Holy Spirit come upon them, these Christians reach into boxes, pick up poisonous snakes and hold them up as they pray, sing, and even dance. The belief comes from a literal reading of Jesus' words at the end of the Gospel of Mark: "And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
Spiritual signs like speaking in tongues, holding venomous snakes, and even drinking poison or playing with fire may seem radical to many Christians. All Appalachian states except West Virginia outlawed the snake-handling ritual when it first emerged because it too often left people maimed or dead. But for Hamblin, the practice is a part of Jesus' teaching as much as the Sermon on the Mount. "As we say down here when we preach, it is written in red letter," he explains, referring to Bibles that print the words of Jesus in red ink. "It is in my King James Bible, and that is what I go by, the King James Bible."
Even within Christianity, the Bible passage in question is a point of controversy. Most scholars agree that the Bible's editors added those verses to the original gospel text several centuries after it was written. Chronologically, the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels, and the last twelve verses of Mark are absent from the two earliest manuscripts. Early third-century theologians like Origen and Clement of Alexandria also make no mention of them.
That does not deter devoted serpent handlers. "For scholars of religion, the questions surrounding the Mark 16:9-20 passage are extremely important for questions of canon formation and scriptural authority," explains Yolanda Pierce, scholar of religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. "But for those who believe that the version of the Bible that they physically hold in their hands is the true, literal, and unchanging word of God, it's pretty irrelevant if that particular Mark passage was added later than the other chapters."
Believers like Hamblin find snake-handling to be a life-giving religious practice for several reasons. Ralph Hood, psychology of religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an expert on the Christian snake-handling tradition, says that serpent handlers truly understand that nobody gets out of this life alive. "The issue is not whether you are going to die, but how you are going to die," he explains. "They say they want to die being obedient to God."
The spiritual reason for the practice runs deep. "In Christianity, the serpent has long been a symbol of death and resurrection," Hood continues. "They literally in their ritual overcome what for the average person is the fear of death."
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SOURCE: TIME Magazine