Lord have mercy, these aren't snake-handling churches.
They're churches on fire.
Former drug dealers and men in untucked flannel who once drank beer sunup to sundown and long-haired women and their children with pink tambourines smacking against their hips are singing and dancing and shouting for the Holy Spirit, their poor shoes stomping on the wooden church floor as if something down below was trying to burst through.
"Jesus in your holy name," one woman shouts.
They pray in voices that don't sound like voices at all. They lay hands. They anoint. They testify, as if they themselves were once the crippled man lowered through that Gospel roof.
"I done dope for so long. I lost my front teeth from it," said one man.
"Ever since I was up at that altar, I've not picked up no cigarette or drunk no beer," said another. "You tell me it ain't God."
Drums that won't stop. Women playing keyboards not with delicate, proper fingertips but banging their whole hands. Songs that last nearly an hour, services that last three. Electric guitars with images of da Vinci's "Last Supper."
So when the snakes appear -- their triangular heads with that terrible symmetry -- pulled from wooden boxes and draped over arms and necks like jewelry, it is the least surprising thing in the world. Of course, you think. Of course.
Because if you go outside and down the rutted, unpaved gravel road, beyond the field where weeds grow past the tire swing, you'll find an Appalachian landscape full of dangerous things that can bite and strike. Meth addiction. The last coal mine closing. Bills that won't stop coming. A world gone crazy.
"Ain't no easy living around here," said one man. "You break your back."
You do not handle snakes in high holy church, where hands remain folded in laps, services end not a minute past noon and all bills are paid on time.
You handle snakes in nine-pew sanctuaries where the only thing on the walls are framed Bible verses and a funeral home calendar. Churches without windows on the walls or hot water in the bathroom. Churches where folks wipe their eyes like the tears won't stop.
Churches where all they've got is Jesus.
"I got nothing in this world and don't want nothing in this world," one man says.
Here in these churches, there is transcendence, a fabulously empowering altered state where folks without work and no idea how to find it are able to hold a five-foot rattler through God's protection and survive. The Gospel of Mark ends with the resurrected Christ telling believers to make their faith manifest in certain ways.
One of those ways?
They shall take up serpents.
"You and God bonding," said one man.
"What you would kindly feel is like you're floating," said another. "You feel bulletproof."
"It runs down the back of my head," said Tennessee pastor Andrew Hamblin. "It would put the hair on your arms right to attention."
The winter night we visited Hamblin's LaFollette, Tenn. church, there were more than 50 others, including two reporters from London. One couple traveled from Baltimore. Many people there looked barely older than Hamblin, who's just 22.
They shook hands and hugged necks, asking about this widow and that man with cancer. They greeted us like family, reminding me of what another woman at another serpent-handling church said: "you feel the love when you come in the door."
The media has distorted serpent-handling churches into some slack-jawed spectacle as a banjo plays in the background. Like a car wreck, we can't help but look, yet we are staring at the wrong thing. We ignore the fellowship, the community, the salvation.
"I don't care if we had a 17-foot cobra and we rode it through the churchouse," Hamblin said to his congregation. "You're still more important than that."
Hamblin's service lasted three hours. The snakes were part of the service for fewer than five minutes.
"We're just like any other church," said Cody Coots. "We just have snakes."
Across the state line in Kentucky, Coots and his father pastor the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name. Before the service, they'd placed four wooden boxes near the altar. Inside, four rattlesnakes and two copperheads. Inside, death.
What would possess a man to put his hand inside such a box? What level of trust and faith must exist?
"Why belittle God?" Hamblin said. "If he can raise the dead surely to goodness he can move on you through his spirit and let you take up a little ole serpent."
I've never trusted God in such ways. Me, of little faith. Me, of garter snake faith. To witness serpent handling is to witness an act of integrity and obedience, even if it kills you.
"I ask you tonight," the preacher says. "Where is your faith?"
Serpent-handling reminds us that God is not tame, that religion is sometimes more of an explosion than a still, small voice.
Here, the worst sin is disobedience. Here, unlike many of us, they go all in.
Perhaps that is why we villify it. We fear such displays because they push us into uncomfortable waters, where the question rises: Do I trust God in such ways?
We talk and talk about freedom of religion, yet we so quickly turn a blind eye when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency takes their snakes, and the Supreme Court rules against them, and lawmakers refuse to do anything about it.
The rattlesnakes and copperheads aren't the real danger.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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