Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Review of "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia" by Dennis Covington

In Dennis Covington’s account of Pentecostal Appalachian Snake Handlers, he talks to a woman who has decided she will not touch poisonous serpents in the month of July, because in two precious Julys she had been bit. So during that July, she would only drink strychnine. “Good idea,” thought Covington, “Play it safe.”

Covington didn’t play it safe when he researched and wrote “Salvation on Sand Mountain” in 1996. A reporter for the New York Times, he went to cover the attempted murder trial of Glenn Summerford, a preacher convicted for trying to kill his wife with poisonous snakes.

But he didn’t stop with the trial. He went to spend time with the snake handling congregation that had lost their pastor to a 20 year jail sentence. And not only does he capture the culture of a number of these churches, he eventually becomes, for a time, part of it. He handles snakes himself.

The Scriptural basis for the churches is Mark 16:18 where Jesus said, “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Nowhere in the book is it mentioned that Mark 16: 9 – 20 is a passage with relatively weak textual support, it might have been in the original text.

A passage of Scripture that is not mentioned Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Jesus on the highest point of the temple saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” One would think that snake handling, poison drinking, as well as touching hot stoves and sticking fingers in electric sockets might well be called testing God.

None of the Snake Handling Preachers really go for the seminary learnin’. They have favorite passages that focus on faith and the miraculous. An interesting quirk is the emphasis on the name of Jesus. In fact, many of them take the idea that Jesus being the only name by which one can be saved and say that Jesus is the only name for God. They scoff Trinitarians, saying that God is not in three persons, there’s just Jesus. Most Christians have a word for that teaching…Heresy.

But Covington comes to love the energy, music and rapture to be found in the Snake Handling services. And he eventually joins in, singing and testifying, and eventually snake handling and preaching. But his preaching leads to him leaving this strange world.

It is a captivating story, well told. While one may question the sanity of many of the people featured, one comes to admire their faith.

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