Tuesday night has gotten a little more exciting thanks to a new television program on National Geographic channel. “Snake Salvation” chronicles two small churches in Appalachia that practice snake handling based on a few verses at the end of the book of Mark in the Bible. The Nat Geo cameras follow two pastors: Pastor Andrew Hamblen of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., and Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky.
The Oct. 15 episode surprisingly featured bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs who had known 24-year-old Pastor Andrew before he was a pastor.
It actually was Ricky Skaggs who spoke a word to Andrew when he was playing banjo at Dollywood and influenced his decision to enter the ministry. Skaggs told him, “God didn't call you to be famous; he called you to be faithful.” The young pastor, now the father of five children, took his words to heart as a sign he should leave the bluegrass life behind, which he did.
You can read an interesting article on the "Christian Post" about how mainstream Christianity has reacted to this program.
In this episode, Pastor Andrew faced the temptation of returning to bluegrass music after he purchased a new banjo. He went to Dollywood to hear Skaggs play a concert and was reminded of the lifestyle that he gave up. (His reflections about his possible future might have been a bit grand.)
One interesting thing in this episode was that when the two sat down to visit and pick a little later at his studio, Ricky Skaggs, the devout and outspoken Christian, admitted he did not believe in snake-handling. He actually said, “The only good snake is a dead snake.”
The storyline around Pastor Jamie Coots in Kentucky involved his daughter who had quit coming to church after her divorce. Her family was very concerned about the condition of her soul, stressing that she would “go to hell” if she remarried. Thinking that she will probably want a husband and child, she quit going to church for around eight months. Her father took her snake hunting to try to reignite her desire to be part of the church.
Yes, snake hunting is an integral part of these snake-handling churches and, consequently, the television program. They have to have plenty of snakes for their services, so they are always trying to find more. It does not appear that they would need that many snakes for their small congregations, so possibly some of the snake hunting must be just for the thrill of hunting or just for the thrill of the television audience. The faithful make it clear that they do not feel the same divine protection while hunting snakes in the woods as they do when they are “in the Spirit” in church.
The men, however, make it clear that they enjoy it. The prodigal daughter even let out whoops of joy when she got a snake. This week, Pastor Coots was trying to pay off a debt to the church’s commercial snake source, a guy named Taz. He managed to find enough snakes to pay off his debt and have some leftover for the worship service.
The worship service is probably the most bizarre, yet interesting, part of the entire show. Some of the members pick up snakes while the music is going on. The electric guitar and drums adds a honky-tonk element to the whole thing, and these “holiness” people, dressed in their very conservative clothing, are jumping and dancing around with these snakes in an almost tribal rhythm. The snakes seem mesmerized by the jiggling beat, and appear almost docile.
Even the women occasionally “take up snakes” during the service. In this episode, Pastor Coots said he felt led to hand his somewhat backslidden daughter a poisonous snake when she returned to church. He just walked over to the keyboard where she was playing and handed it to her. It was most shocking.
To reiterate, even a rather well-rounded, open-minded Appalachian churchgoer, like this writer, has probably never seen anything remotely like the churches featured in “Snake Salvation.” Kudos to National Geographic for opening up the doors and letting us see unusual and interesting cultures that we have never before experienced, even in our own backyard.