September 19, 2020

Random Thoughts from the September Grass


Photo by NGT

Several years ago, our congregation used to take summer mission trips down to the hills of eastern Kentucky, near where our pastor grew up. We worked with a mission, helping with their facilities and doing VBS for them. One of our pastor’s relatives lived near the mission, and he had one of the more unique occupations I’ve come across — he was a snake catcher. Among his clients were snake-handling churches in the region. He helped us when it came to recognizing some of the dangers along the creek and in the fields where we worked.

Snake-handling churches base their practice on Mark 16:17-18 in the KJV (a passage many scholars think was added to Mark later) — “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

I have never been to a church that practiced this unusual ritual, but tomorrow night we can watch a new reality TV show about it. National Geographic Channel will present the premiere of Snake Salvation on Tuesday, 9pm ET. Here’s the description from Nat Geo:

In the hills of Appalachia, Pentecostal pastors Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin struggle to keep an over-100-year-old tradition alive: the practice of handling deadly snakes in church. Jamie and Andrew believe in a bible passage that suggests a poisonous snakebite will not harm them as long as they are anointed by God’s power. If they don’t practice the ritual of snake handling, they believe they are destined for hell. Hunting the surrounding mountains for deadly serpents and maintaining their church’s snake collection is a way of life for both men. The pastors must frequently battle the law, a disapproving society, and even at times their own families to keep their way of life alive.

According to Pastor Jamie Coots: ““To me, it’s much a commandment from God when He said ‘they shall take up serpents’ as it was in the Ten Commandments when He said ‘thou shall not commit adultery.'”  He also said, “I believe that if I did not take up serpents, that I could go to church for the rest of my life and die lost.”

And Pastor Andrew Hamblin interpets the “sign” language of Mark like this: “Taking up serpents is not a sign to the believers. It’s a sign to the unbelievers of God’s power that moves on the believers.”

I’ll bet Michael Spencer would have known exactly how to address this. As for me, I’m just one of the curious and bemused who finds this stuff as foreign as the worship of Ganesh or the practice of self-immolation.

* * *

9780310331360Discussing Inerrancy
Peter Enns announces a new Zondervan Counterpoints book: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Contributors include Al Mohler, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Bird, John Franke, and Enns.

If you are not familiar with the format of these books, each author writes an essay asserting his/her position, and then the others write responses. In his post, Enns warns us not to expect a “nuclear, apocalyptic, smackdown, world-ending” conflict in this book, but rest assured, some strong opinions will be stated.

Enns notes:

A strength of this volume is that all five of us had to include in our essays an explanation of how inerrancy works (or doesn’t) by engaging the same three issues:

  • The historicity of the fall of Jericho;
  • The conflicting accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts;
  • Canaanite genocide vis-a-vis Jesus’ teaching.

That’s encouraging. Too often in these kinds of debates, scholars have their own pet texts that they use to form their conclusions. At least with this format, everyone will have to discuss the same passages and issues.

* * *

September Grass
Finally, I can’t ever get through the early days of September without listening to this song by James Taylor. It’s “September Grass,” from his album October Road — one of the most perfectly autumnal records ever.

The YouTube video which the song accompanies features a short film by Paul Joy, a freelance filmmaker/videographer based in Norfolk in the UK. You can check out his website HERE.


  1. I once read a similar kind of book outline various viewpoints where the authors would present their viewpoint and also defend it from the arguments of their co-contributers (although I think it was an IVP book, not Zondervan). I found the book frustrating in that I just couldn’t pick the viewpoint I wanted and assume the others held no water at all. I am curious how the inerrancy book turns out.

    Out of curiosity, how do the inerrancy folks handle Mark 16:17-18 given the thought many have that it was added later?

    And why don’t the snake handlers just make things simpler and drink some poison? “and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them” I’m not really wishing them dead – just wondering why the only choose part of the verse to hold to. (Or maybe some of them do…)

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And why don’t the snake handlers just make things simpler and drink some poison? “and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”

    I understand some do. Strychnine.

    • Wow.
      (Was thinking of ‘wondering’ if they have safe non-alcoholic communion wine in addition to the strychnine but… wow, some drink strychnine?!?)

  3. I like that song and little film, Chaplain Mike. I am going to share it with friends and family.

  4. We thought that our younger son’s knowledge of the branches of the Christian family was pretty filled out until the near 15 year old asked incredulously about snake handlers. Two days earlier he had completed an article about America interpreted through a future anthropologist’s lens and how distorted the “reality” was. So when the new article popped in his assignment list he thought perhaps the trend was continuing.

    My husband’s dad is from the area and Daniel was privy to lots of stories of true believers. It is still nice to shock you 15 year-old.

  5. These were indeed random thoughts :=)

    I feel sad that there are still fundamentalists in pentecostal churches who not only believe that this saying of Jesus is historical but also that it should be applied literaly.
    One can certainly liken such a kind of faith with that of the former members of the Heaven Gate UFO cult.

    The book co-authored by Peter Enns is promising and I am glad to see that an increasing number of Evangelicals is calling into question the dogma of inerrancy.

    Lovely greetings from France and Germany.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  6. I’ve always meant to read — and now I will — the story by a NYT reporter about his investigation of snake handling religion in Appalachia. The startling fact is that the reporter was gradually convinced of the truth of the religious experience, and eventually took up snake handling himself. The book is Salvation on Sand Mountain, and the Amazon description is:

    “For New York Times reporter Dennis Covington, what began as a journalistic assignment—covering the trial of an Alabama pastor convicted of attempting to murder his wife with poisonous snakes—would evolve into a headlong plunge into a bizarre, mysterious, and ultimately irresistible world of unshakable faith: the world of holiness snake handling.
    “Set in the heart of Appalachia, Salvation on Sand Mountain is Covington’s unsurpassed and chillingly captivating exploration of the nature, power, and extremity of faith—an exploration that gradually turns inward, until Covington finds himself taking up the snakes.”

    From reading the reviews, I get the sense that at least Covington does not condescend to the snake handlers, which is far more than can be said for these exploitive, wretched TV shows like Breaking Amish or Amish Mafia or this newest one on National Geographic. Say what you will about their behavior, people who are willing to risk their lives for their faith are worthy of something besides the sneering media.

  7. yes, they do drink strychnine. Buy and read Foxfire Volume 7.

    But “serpent” means “snake,” not “poisonous snake” (though it includes the venomous varieties as well). ophis is the same word the LXX uses in Genesis 3:1.

    Silly Appalachians

  8. David Cornwell says

    “September Grass” is a wonderful, heart warming song that rings so true. And the video could have easily been shot at Mary Lea Environmental Center located about 10 minutes from home. It’s a thousand acre reserve owned by Goshen College (Mennonite) here in Indiana. I go there in the summer and autumn to walk, soak up part of God’s creation, think, pray, and listen. And so, some of the things that appeal to a young boy and girl draw me as an older man. Plus I take my camera along just in case.

  9. Random comments:
    Check out Wendy Bagwell’s story “Here come the rattlesnakes”. There are several versions on YouTube. We had the album as a kid and listened to it over and over, howling every single time.

    A favorite bluegrass band introduces one of its members as being from “so far back in the mountains, even the Episcopalians handle snakes”. It’s interesting to see who gets the joke and who doesn’t.