Debate Magazine

Taking Up Serpents

By Cris

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they 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.

– Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16:17-18

Among biblical literalists, these passages are electric. American evangelicals and Pentecostals are fond of casting out devils and speaking in gibberish tongues, both of which are histrionic performances that can be seen every Sunday in churches across the land. Most stop there and refuse to read the next two items literally: they don’t take up serpents or drink poisons. Except, of course, for some particularly fervent Pentecostals in Appalachia.

Over at the Pacific Standard, Mike Mariani examines this sub-culture and its most high-profile practitioner, Andrew Hamblin, who has become something of a television star while simultaneously living on food-stamps. The Discovery Channel must not be paying well, or Hamblin needs an agent who can negotiate better deals. For his story, Mariani wisely interviewed Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee psychology professor who literally wrote the book on Pentecostal serpent handling. Their conversation led, at least in part, to this attention grabbing paragraph:

When one considers the cultural and religious history of Appalachia, though, Pastor Hamblin’s socioeconomic circumstances hardly come across as problematic. While the Appalachian region is frequently stereotyped as what Professor Hood calls a “culture of poverty and deprivation,” this definition is “probably inappropriate.” Instead, Hood explains, Appalachia rejects the larger American culture of materialism and financial success in favor of a lifestyle devoted to God and the matter of one’s eternal salvation. He even goes so far as to refer to Appalachia as “America’s Tibet.” What outsiders see as a “backwoods” culture sunk in squalor is really austerity by design; these are devout Christians that deliberately insulate themselves from mainstream American values (see: greed) and privilege service to God over affluence and material betterment.

This is the first time I’ve encountered an anarchy theory analysis of Appalachia. If I’m not mistaken, this is a riff on James C. Scott’s work on stateless societies and subaltern resistance. In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), Scott makes a compelling case for seeing southeast Asian hill people not as “primitive” or backward peasants but rather as deliberate change agents who hove to hinterlands for very specific, and anti-state, reasons. While reading Scott’s paradigm shifting book, it was clear to me that his arguments applied also to many historically known hunter-gatherer groups around the world. It never occurred to me that Appalachia, or at least parts of it, might also be an example of this process. When it comes to Appalachia, my views probably suffer from presentism: what we see today is fairly dismal, if not perfectly dysfunctional. I would have to know more about Appalachian history and ethnography before deciding whether the anarchy thesis provides a proper frame for analysis.

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