Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Death Snakes In as Sin

It doesn't get much cornier than this.

Or more tragic.

Mack Wolford died after waiting too long for medical care for a rattlesnake bite this past Sunday.  The West Virginia Pentecostal preacher had been hosting a homecoming-style worship service in a state park for family and friends of his signs-and-wonders ministry when Sheba, his pet rattler, decided she'd had enough.

According to the folklore of religious snake-handling zealots, if one of the faithful is bitten while handling a snake, they are to refuse medical treatment and pray for God to heal them.  The snake bites are a sign of unrepented sin, or, more conveniently for them, an affirmation of the power of God.  It's unclear when a snakebite is one or the other.  But God either spares their life, or He doesn't.

And in Wolford's case, He didn't.  The deceased pastor leaves behind a wife, three stepchildren, and a mother who'd resigned herself to his ministry years ago.

Of course, the international press is having a field day with this story.  And it's hard to deny them that pleasure.  Although one member of Wolford's family did eventually call 911 after he'd spent several hours in excruciating pain with no relief in sight, by the time he'd arrived at the hospital, it was too late.

Ironically, Wolford died the same way his daddy'd done, as they say in West Virginian parlance.  The elder Wolford had been a snake-handling preacher, too.  And had been killed by one of his snakes years ago.

Or to put it more accurately, he'd died after refusing life-saving care for a snake bite wilfully incurred during a wholly unBiblical religious practice.  And although saying both of these men died in vain would be impolite to their survivors, it would nevertheless be true.

Or would it?  In one way, yes, they died in vain.  But in another light, it could be said that they died proving some basic teachings of scripture.  Just not the scriptures they intended to prove.

Among them are:
It should be pointed out that the passage of scripture from which snake handlers like Wolford derive their mandate is itself disputed* by some theologians, and has been under dispute since the Second Century.  It has been argued that since some original texts appear to omit the verbiage with miracles involving devils, serpents, and deadly drinks, this portion of Mark's Gospel should be separated by qualifiers from the rest of his book.

The interesting thing about the people who literally believe this obscure reference to devils, serpents, and deadly drinks is that they don't drink deadly drinks.  They handle snakes, like it's some sort of perverse pleasure, or they're boastful about their ability to capture attention by doing something so foolhardy.  But you never hear about them drinking Clorox or some other deadly drink, do you?

And why is that?  Because they know that even though handling snakes is risky business, snakes don't bit them every time.  And sometimes, they don't inject enough venom to severely injure or kill their handler.  But drinking Clorox is virtually guaranteed to severely injure or kill the person who drinks it, except for a literal, immediate miracle from God.

And you'd really be foolish to tempt God that much.

As if tempting Him in lesser things isn't also a sin.

*In the King James Version, this is Mark 16:15-20:
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved ; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe ; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 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. 19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. 20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

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