The Rev. Mark Wolford, a popular snake-handling, Pentecostal minister, has died. The cause of death was a rattlesnake bite.
A little bit of basic background: Snake-handling churches are mostly confined to Appalachia. The practice is rooted in Jesus' post-Resurrection pronouncement towards the end of the Gospel of Mark. Chapter 16: 17-18 reads, "And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." And so, as a show of faith, some Appalachian Pentecostals handle poisonous snakes as part of their religious observance.
Most Christian groups, though, are apparently content to take Jesus' word for it; they don't feel any strong compulsion to gather poisonous snakes for liturgical use. Or, they might be aware that the passage in question is widely acknowledged to be an add-on to the original manuscript of Mark (and thereby not to be considered authoritative.) Whatever the rationale, if you are like most Americans, then snakes are not one of your preferred forms of religious media.
And to briefly point out the obvious, Wolford's death probably seems at least a little bit ironic. Beyond that, I'd venture to suggest that knee-jerk reactions to this news story are characterized by the general feeling that "aren't these Appalachians ignorant/uncultured/fanatical/etc."
But let's try to be a little bit more objective, and a lot more anthropological.
What's cool about freedom of religion is that it leads to a seemingly endless proliferation of faith perspectives such that no niche seems to go unfilled. Peter Gomes, who served as Harvard's chaplain until he died last year, was a black, Republican, gay, Baptist. (Wrap your brain around that for a moment.) When it comes to religious affiliation, if you can think of it, then someone somewhere is probably claiming it. Atheist Christians? Check. Muslim Shintoist? I'm not sure, but my gut says probably.
Point being, in the absence of coercion or forced assimilation, religious views will evolve endlessly. That's why there are over 40,000 denominations of Christianity. It's also the very reason that religions continue to exist at all. Religions that refuse to adapt in some way will, eventually, die.
Culture is like this, too. If you can think of it, somewhere there exists an enthusiast. Do you know about Bronies? These are fully grown adult males with a strong predilection for My Little Pony. It is unclear whether or not their interest is intended to be ironic, and, for the purposes of most outside observers, I don't think it matters.
Q: So what do Bronies have to do with Snake-handlers?
A: You're probably tempted to make value judgments about both groups, and, in both cases, you are wrong.
If we can bracket out the issue of the sacred for a moment, then it should be clear that religion is largely a cultural phenomenon. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined religion as
- (1) a system of symbols
- (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men
- (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
- (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
- (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic
The only valid objection to Geertz's definition that I know of is that it does not account for sacrality. In Geertz's schema, there is not much to distinguish the Marine Corps from religion.
In any case, religion has a strong cultural component regardless of whether one considers religion to be part and parcel of culture more broadly defined. We should think of differences in religious practices, then, in the same way that we might view differing cultural preferences. It takes a heavy dose of elitism and obsession with class status to claim that, for instance, opera is right whereas heavy metal is wrong. These are matters of preference. Maybe you feel that your preferences are better or more refined than others, but they are still preferences. It takes a real jerk to think less of someone because of their cultural mores. So too with religion.
As it relates to the particularities of a religion's "system of symbols," we find ourselves in the realm of personal preference. For whatever reason, certain Appalachian Pentecostals have incorporated poisonous snakes into their religious observance. Whether or not you find this congenial is of little importance w/r/t the religious experience of said practitioners. It can be said, at most, that conducting a religious service with poisonous snakes is more dangerous than most other forms of liturgical expression. Anything beyond that is condescending and culturally snobbish.
Mark Wolford, like any other type of minister, used the conventions and resources of his religious tradition to deliver a message. In that sense, he was the same as any of his counterparts. Joel Osteen promises wealth and smiles really big. William Sloane Coffin Jr. quoted poetry. E. Dewey Smith Jr. whoops.
And The Rev. Mark Wolford handled snakes.