Debate Magazine

Serpents and Symbols

By Cris

Sooner or later the serpent will bite. This probabilistic reality was running through my head when I read that a snake-handling Pentecostal pastor from Kentucky had been bitten. This CNN story says it all in a single sentence:

A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died — of a snakebite.

The em dash in that sentence is beautiful. There is a sense of consequence, or causation, about it. The dash also suggests a conclusion, one that makes me say: “Duh.”

It is my understanding that Appalachian Pentecostals who handle serpents are not testing their faith. They claim to be faith-filled and free from doubt. They only handle serpents when they feel “anointed by God” or “moved by the Holy Spirit.” When they so feel, or have persuaded themselves, they handle poisonous snakes of various sizes, species, and dispositions. For these Christians, the symbolic symmetry of this ecstatic ritual approaches Manichean perfection.

I have no doubt that this ritual — which is always accompanied by music, singing, dance, and trance — intensifies emotions. I also have no doubt that the world of matter, governed by probabilities, will occasionally intersect with the world of symbol or “spirit.” When this happens, math and matter wins.

Snake handlers are not oblivious to the odds. They know that some species are more dangerous than others. They also know that snakes which have never before been handled are more likely to bite. In this clip, we see a Tennessee pastor assessing the risk and playing the odds for an emotional payoff:


When witnessing rituals like this, I can’t help but think that Durkheim was right.

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