Well handled snakes, in the Tennessean

Dear Mr. Mattingly, You have put me in a somewhat awkward position. 


"Bible Belt" Bobby

• • •

Generally, we GetReligionistas choose our own topics (for better or worse). Occasionally, however, our esteemed leader nudges us to consider certain posts.

In this case, tmatt was preparing the post on the massive Washington Post coverage of Christians who choose to handle snakes as part of their worship services. Honestly, he had all the snakes he could handle. So he asked me to take a look at Bob Smietana's front-page feature in the Tennessean this week on young snake-handling believers. And I was happy to do so.

The only problem (and the one that puts me in the above-described awkward position): I just gave a glowing review to a Smietana story. In a perfect world, his snake story would bite, and I could balance the scales by stomping his journalistic head. (OK, I'm done with the bad puns. Maybe.)

But unfortunately, this is another nice piece of journalism by Smietana, so I'm forced to praise him. Again. I'll drink the poison and resign myself to a post with no comments.

Let's start at the top:

Andrew Hamblin’s Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.

Making a late-night run to Taco Bell.

Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids.

Handling rattlesnakes in church.

Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.

While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood — and illegal — version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.

What a creative lede.

But the real strength of the piece is Smietana's willingness (like that of the Post reporters critiqued by tmatt) to let the believers explain their own faith, with no hint of judgment on the reporter's part. The writer provides focus, context and precise, detailed scenes that take readers inside a snake-handling church:

Then he flipped the lid of a small wooden box by his feet and pulled out three Southern copperheads, all entwined together.

Golden lifted them about his head, then swung them back and forth in front of him before handing them to Hamblin, who took the snakes in one hand and lifted the other in prayer.

Other men took out timber rattlers, putting one hand by the midsection, the other by the head and neck. They held the serpents up in front of their faces, almost staring them in the eyes for a moment, then lowered them down and up in a gently swinging motion. The snakes began winding and unwinding in their hands, forked tongues tasting the air, trying to get their bearings.

Women standing nearby raised their hands in prayer and wept.

Mix in First Amendment experts (who weigh in on the illegal nature of such churches in Tennessee) and wildlife officials (who explain that the state forbids capturing wild animals or having poisonous snakes), and this is a story that covers all the bases.

Smietana even delves into the theological reasons the snake-handling churches give for their beliefs:

Since the early 1900s, a handful of true believers in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have practiced the so-called signs of the gospel, found in a little-known passage in the King James Version of the Gospel of Mark:

“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.”

While other churches ignore this passage or treat it metaphorically, serpent handlersfollow it literally. Their intense faith demands sinless living and rewards them with spiritual ecstasy — the chance to hold life and death in their hands.

All joking aside, this really is a fine example of a Godbeat pro practicing his craft at the highest level. Kudos to Smietana and the Tennessean. But maybe next time, they'll leave me just a little something to hiss about.

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