Want to visit someplace interesting, a place rarely visited by mainstream journalists? My good friend S.J. Dahlman is a columnist at the Johnson City Press in the Northeast mountains of Tennessee and a mass-media professor at Milligan College (where he literally sits at the desk I called home for six years). You ought to see the view out of his office window.
This week, his "Face to Faith" column takes a look a religion in the Southern Highlands and, yes, it does include some snakes -- sort of. The big idea of the piece is that there is more to faith in the Appalachian religion than snake handlers, even if that is what interestes the press.
Truth is, the snakey folks are considered mighty strange everywhere -- even in Dahlman's neck of the woods.
According to the Religious Movements Homepage Project at the University of Virginia, perhaps 2,000 people nationwide are members of churches that practice serpent handling. In the big picture, that's not a lot of people.
Check out Dahlman's piece, because there is more there than snakes. But if the slithering fundamentalists (as opposed to the creepers) interest you, you might want to check out this piece I did long ago for Scripps Howard. As it turns out, the snake handlers raise some interesting issues linked to biblical authority, issues that makes people nervous on the left as well as the right. Here was my attempt to sum that up:
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.
These folks are wild, but they are not crazy. Even in the context of those lovely Southern mountains.