I got the strangest telephone call yesterday, one that is directly linked to a common problem/challenge/sin on the Godbeat. The call came from a newspaper reporter in Greece. I am not absolutely sure what the female voice on the other line was saying, because her accent was very heavy. And please remember, I attend an Antiochian Orthodox parish with an Arab priest who was educated in Greece and speaks Arabic, Greek, French, English and some Spanish. I am used to hearing some interesting accents.
The reporter attempted to give me her name but I was not able to get it down. But I was able to figure out why she was calling -- Google. Then I was able to understand some of the crucial questions.
"You are an expert on Christians who worship with snakes, yes?"
Uh, not really, I said. I have read some books on the subject and I used to teach at a college in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I never even met any snake handlers. Even the Baptists there drive Volvos, listen to NPR and watch pantheistic Sci-Fi movies like everybody else. OK, I didn't say that last part, but I tried to explain to her my limited contact with this kind of fringe niche culture in American Protestantism.
"Can we interview you about this? You have written about it?"
This told me that she was probably -- via Google -- looking at the following on a computer screen: "Snakes, Miracles and Biblical Authority," a column I wrote back in the summer of 1996. It was based on a lecture by church historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University, a key figure in the whole Bill Moyers wing of Southern Baptist life. It described the theological lessons Leonard had learned from his friendship with the late Arnold Saylor, an illiterate country preacher who used to carry rattlesnakes with him into the pulpit.
Here is a flashback to the money paragraphs from that column.
Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. "Amen," say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.
Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been "anointed" by God's Holy Spirit. "Preach on," say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. "Been there, done that," say snake handlers.
The bottom line: Snake handlers say they have biblical reasons for engaging in rites that bring them closer to God. They wonder why others settle for less riveting forms of faith."
In other words, snake handlers are a unique brand of biblical literalist who have, via sola scriptura, arrived at a unique form of sacramental worship. They like to quote the end of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall 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."
With that in mind, let us return to the Greek reporter. It seems that they needed to know more about snake handlers because their newspaper wanted to write about American religion during this election year. Did I know any snake handlers in the state of Ohio? They were going to be visiting there and that was a crucial state in the presidential race.
Say what? I tried to explain again that this was not exactly a normal form of evangelical worship and, come to think of it, I did not think that President Bush was automatically the candidate of snake handlers. I suggested that she get in touch with Leonard if she wanted to discuss the topic with an actual expert on the topic.
"Can we go ahead and interview you? We do not have a lot of time."
That was really the end of it. Apparently, people in Europe really do think that evangelical religion is a powerful force in politics here in the United States of America. This is an entire news angle on the race for the White House that I had not thought of. Perhaps CBS is working on this story? I am sure there are experts who can give them a few quick quotes (documents even) on the impact of extreme forms of biblical literalism on the born-again faith of George W. Bush.