Snake handling in theory and practice

31 05 2010

America never was America to me.

-Langston Hughes

There are those who would portray America as an offshoot of the former theologies of the Protestant mainline churches. Everybody came from nuclear families where Puritan decency and hard-work were the dominating forces in life. Church consisted of semons and hymns; God was a benovolent if distant figure who showed his disposition towards belivers through the “blessings” he shed upon or withheld from them. In other words, God is the painter and viewer of a Norman Rockwell painting. If we have deviated from that, it is because we have broken from a pristine past where everyone knew his place and appreciated Christianity as the foundation of all civilization.

If that is one’s vision of America, it is not the vision shown by Dennis Covington in his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. That which conservative white intellectuals portray as the norm of “white Protestantism” was never really normative. The idea of a tightly-wound, buttoned-up congregation of decent Puritans who devoted themselves chastely to commerce has nothing to do with the reality of American religiosity. Covington writes of hard-drinking “bush Baptists” who would preach and sing well into the night and then brawl and drink until morning. The snake handling churches spead throughout Appalachia are the extreme version of this religion. Like popular Protestantism today, blessings here were thought to be immediate and tanglible, often to the point of putting oneself in life-endangering situations.
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