Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Serpents, Sainthood, and Celebrity: Symbolic and Ritual Tension in Appalachian Pentecostal Snake Handling

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Serpents, Sainthood, and Celebrity: Symbolic and Ritual Tension in Appalachian Pentecostal Snake Handling

Article excerpt

Keith G. Tidball and Chris Toumey


Intense media coverage of Appalachian Pentecostal-Holiness serpent handling sometimes causes a switch in signifier/signified relationships. The snakes used symbolically in this practice are grounded less in traditional religious meaning, and more in a certain recent secular meaning: from signifying faith in the Holy Spirit to indicating the value of celebrity status. This phenomenon is analyzed in a framework of theories about symbols and rituals, and is then described in a series of ethnographic observations at a serpent-handling church in Kentucky. This case study raises some troubling issues about how cosmopolitan media represent a distinctive local culture.

[1] Why do some Pentecostal Christians handle serpents in their religious services? This practice, so firmly associated with low-income white Protestants in the Appalachian mountains, has received a great deal of scholarly attention, which in turn has generated a series of explanations. Here we summarize three, and explore them at length in a subsequent section. Mark 16:17-18 (KJV) teaches that "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." And so according to one explanation, that reference, in and of itself, accounts for this practice, in the sense that serpent handling is an act of faith defined by a biblical text.

[2] A second theory suggests that serpent-handling symbolizes socio-economic issues which transcend Biblical belief. The serpent represents the Devil--a common Christian image--but the Devil is equivalent to evil forms of capitalism which have stolen natural resources and destroyed communities in Appalachia. In this view, the religious features of serpent handling are part of a larger whole.

[3] A third account of serpent-handling in Appalachia develops the idea that serpent handlers are oppressed and exploited by outsiders, but it adds an intriguing interpretation to that observation. It tells us that the larger American society has taken almost everything of value from the people of Appalachia, and has confined them to such negative social categories as "hillbillies," "holy rollers," and "poor white trash." Some Appalachian people have then reacted against those who have exploited them by embracing a cultural practice which is so peculiar and so perplexing that it cannot be co-opted or exploited. In other words, the ritual handling of serpents is a dramatic act of symbolic resistance to cultural imperialism. Again, the religious features are nested within large-scale socio-economic dynamics.

[4] It is not our intention to dismiss these theories. We recognize that a full appreciation of serpent handling includes all three of them. We especially appreciate these explanations as case studies which contribute to serious thought about symbolism and ritual. We would, however, like to introduce a newer interpretation of Appalachian serpent-handling. We argue that the behaviour of some Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers is strongly motivated by certain media representations, and that this phenomenon has several important implications: first, that serpent handling is changing; second, that secular values are competing with religious values, thereby upsetting the religious basis of this practice; and, third, that some developments in ritual and symbolic theory can help us understand the changing nature of serpent handling in Appalachia.

[5] To elaborate our argument: we observe that intense coverage in the print and electronic media has made secular celebrities of some Appalachian serpent handlers. That process gives superficial attention, at best, to the religious meanings associated with this practice, while emphasizing instead the danger and excitement of dealing with poisonous snakes. …

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