I was driving into downtown Seattle when I heard the news of Randy "Mack" Wolford's death on National Public Radio, in a British accent no less. Randy, a snake-handler in West Virginia, had died -- bitten by a snake and poisoned. Mack had a spare room full of poisonous snakes, and he used to lie down with them, dance with them and fling them around his neck. On May 31, at a big homecoming bash, the flamboyant handler set a snake by his side, and it rose to bite him in the thigh. Eleven hours later, he was dead. Mack died the same way his father had when Mack was 15 years old: by a snake bite during worship.
Hearing about Mack's death took me back to Dennis Covington's riveting book on snake handlers in West Virginia, "Salvation on Sand Mountain," which tells the story of people like Mack, who sounds a lot like Covington's mentor, Brother Cecil, "a man who really gets anointed by the Holy Ghost. He'll get so carried away, he'll use a rattlesnake to wipe the sweat off his brow."
Journalist Covington met the quirky people of rural West Virginia when he covered a murder trial in which another snake-handler tried to kill his wife by holding her hand in a snake cage. He pissed on her, too. She survived. He went to jail. And Dennis Covington got changed.
What changed him? The thrill of ecstasy, the pulse of daring, the restless effort to defy the limits of life. If you've ever driven through rural West Virginia, you see those limits firsthand: deep ravines, curving rivers dotted with chemical plants. It's perennial dusk in some places, a shadowy land without a horizon. Snake-handling, poison-drinking -- these are the things that bring transcendence, light, sunshine to a few dreary churches in the valleys of West Virginia.
Snake-handling is senseless, of course. It's based on spurious biblical manuscripts at the tail end of Mark's Gospel that probably weren't part of the original New Testament documents. And it's dangerous. That, too. But it's also daring. It's the lure of ecstasy. The rush of religious adrenaline. It's like spiritual NASCAR for fundamentalist Christians who don't have two nickels to rub together, as my mother, a dirt poor coal miner's daughter from the mountains outside of Pittsburgh, used to say.
My mother left the mountains. She took the train to Kansas City after World War II. She took a job in Manhattan and married a New Yorker. But Randy "Mack" Wolford? He didn't get out. He stayed put and handled. I don't know if he handled life any better than he handled snakes. But he had his rush of adrenaline -- the rush so many of us yearn for.
I don't want to sanction snake-handling. I don't mean to perpetuate poison-drinking. And I don't want to eulogize Randy "Mack" Wolford for dying in this way. Yet before I dismiss this tragic snake-handler for the absurdity of his faith and his outlandish practices, I need to consider the questions Annie Dillard poses to Christians of comfort like myself:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? ... It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
If Christians intend to thrive in the coming century, we could do worse than return to our roots and receive an invitation to a shared hallway in which all of us can walk. Those of us with drastically different experiences of God can learn to embrace ecstasy, even if some of us lean toward chaos and others toward order.
Dennis Covington, "Salvation on Sand Mountain" (Penguin, 1996)
Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk" (Harper & Row, 1982)
Michael Welker, "God the Spirit" (Fortress, 1994)
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