I have never had a great fear of snakes. Respect, fully. But they don't scare me just by looking at them. I have stepped (unintentionally) over rattlers in the desert. I 'd rather not do that. I have walked around plain species of them crossing dirt roads. I have left them alone in the garden. I have held them with The Grands at the zoo. They are mysterious and primal and powerful. I do not find them good or evil. Except in that over-arching way all God's creatures have an inherent place on the planet, so on balance, more good than evil.
The announcement this week that a young, 42-year-old snake handling minister, died in front of his son, from a snake bite, during one of his services (just as it turns out his minister daddy had died in front of him, at the age of 39, from a snake bite) struck me as a story from another time or the pages of a novel. Which was not simply a lost literary thought. I have been reading, "A Land More Kind Than Home," a first work by Wiley Cash. And he tells a tale of a snake handler and his church in a small town in North Carolina. That minister doesn't die by a snake bite but in a dramatic fashion nonetheless. And more than one of his parishioners has the kiss of death from a venomous snake.
And it isn't the snakes I found creepy in the book but the use of religion to justify greed and lust and the misuse of authority. The hope of innocent folks and the fear of simple people and the exquisite boredom that can live in the hollows of a small rural town. And the burden and the power that comes from bearing witness.
I also thought I heard echoes of my now passed mother, talking about the churches of her youth where her Catholic mother and Methodist father took her in the depression days in middle of the deserts from Bakersfield to Indian Springs and other locales in undeveloped Southern California. They found the tent churches entertainment and they went to watch the Holy Rollers who moved from town to town with their messages of hellfire and brimstone and occasionally, snakes. I don't know all that my mother saw but she spent her entire life terrified of snakes. Terrified. Shivering when she saw one.
And she never became a church-goer of any flavor. Never found them places of comfort but of damnation. Never trusted ministers. Never saw joy in communing with others. So she sought God and found comfort in the ocean and all worship for her and connection to a higher power came in and out with the tide. Collected with shells on the beach. Crashed on rocks with a spray. Illuminated with a sunset, transcended by moonlight. Looking back, she had all she could handle with her ocean worship. I understand that now.
But this week I got to thinking about the snakes and the bible and how misused both were by that man abusing them both. Snake handlers often refer to a verse in Mathew about being able to withstand the bite of snakes as some kind of test of faith or even magic juice from God. It seems a rather archaic belief system. And though I can no longer recall the exact verses, I know there are also a bunch that suggest you not put God through some kind of love test. Faith isn't the pony you prayed for the night before appearing in your room. That is magical thinking-which can be great fun and greatly disappointing but faith has a longer wick than that candle.
I was a student of the Bible when I was in college -- not in the way you might think. I took a class I wish I could I could take again at this age and with these experiences. The class was called something as simple as "The Bible as Literature." And it was crazy enlightening for a seeker from an exquisitely dysfunctional family, such as mine. You could hardly turn a page in that big book without finding a phrase you'd heard/read before. And not complicated theologian-student-level stuff but everyday expressions. The stuff of Shakespeare and Yeats and Austin and Robert Penn Warren and now I would apply to Arron Sorkin and Tony Kushner and Maya Angelou and really all great storytellers.
Phrases you use, from "a man after his own heart," to "fallen from grace," to "led as a sheep to slaughter," to "charity shall cover a multitude of sins," to "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" to "vengeance is mine." And thousands more. That class was also the first time I was forced to consider where the words in the Bible came from, who were those authors. And, as importantly, who were the editors (which I would discover the power of, my entire adult life). Who took those books, chapters woven with ancient whispers of past legends and moral tales to guide social mores, who took all those and shaped them into readable chapters? Certainly, one guesses now, multiple editors, since the Bible is filled with contradictions and uneven repetition.
Faith is not a place for the rigid and unimaginative, in the way I have come to experience how God or the Universe or whatever label you wish to give your Higher Power, works. It is a place of delirious freedom and expansive love and careful stewardship of the planet and the creatures that slither upon it. And when we mere mortals start to think we are gods and above the laws of nature, the universe always seems to find a way to humble us, sometimes to our knees. Washed over by a wave. Or bit by a snake.
There is religion which abides in simple kindness. I'm gonna go there to worship this Sunday in the Park....
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.