Friday, June 1, 2012

Doing the Snake Watusi

Note: I just finished writing this blog, and as I read through it I realize that I’m coming across as seriously peeved. Reason is that I am. So, let this serve both as my apology and my fair warning.

Funny thing happened on my way to the blog this afternoon. I had a nice piece all planned out, then I made the mistake of detouring to Drudge. Once there, I spotted a story about a snake-handling preacher who died after being bitten by a rattler ( Intrigued, I clicked and read.

Turns out the story was more about the angst of the photojournalist who watched Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford die following a chomp on the thigh by a rattlesnake. She wrestled with her guilt at not doing something, and the story seemed to be part of a cathartic justification process. For me, though, her emotional/spiritual/professional struggle was much less of a concern, than was the fact that this guy died a ridiculously stupid death.

George Went Hensley
In Mark 16:15-18 (part of a much-disputed portion of the Gospel that most likely either was never in the original or was added later to fill in for a portion that was lost), Jesus is commissioning the disciples. “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’ ”

Somewhere around 1910, George Went Hensley, a rural Tennessee pastor, read these words and got it in his twisted mind that God wanted him to start dancing with snakes – thereby ignoring the passage’s historical context, cultural context, literary context, immediate biblical context, broader biblical context, and Just-using-the-brain-God-put-in-your-head-Common-sensical-Don’t-put-the-Lord-to-the-test-Them-things’ve-got-fangs-Really?-I-mean-really? context. And once Pastor George started doing the snake watusi, a number of other Pentecostal churches said, “Whoa, that looks like fun. Where can I get me some snakes?”

The purpose of this “act of worship” is to prove one’s deep faith through obedience to one of Jesus’ most risky commands. The problem with the obedience tack is that Jesus never commanded anyone to pick up snakes. In fact, looking at the Greek tells us that the only command in the whole passage is to preach the good news. Accidentally picking up snakes without harm is simply a sign of God’s protection over them, as Paul proved on the island of Malta (an incident that still gives me the heebies whenever I read it).

Now, my purpose in this post is not to convince any of you not to pick up snakes – my guess is that most of you are firmly in the non-shake-rattler-and-roll camp (and I’m quite aware that I’ve been woefully remiss at tapping the Appalachian blog-reader market). What concerns me in all this is just how twisted we can get as the result of bad hermeneutics, i.e., principles for interpreting the Bible.

Pastor Randy "Mack" Wolford
As Pastor Wolford’s life slowly drained, his congregants stood by praying and waiting for God to heal him. His own mother, who had lost her husband to the same insanity thirty years earlier, stroked his feet as he passed. She said, “It’s still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says.”

But it’s not what the Word says!

Wolford’s sister said, “His faith is what took him home.” And I want to scream, “No! It was ignorance! It was bad theology! It was deception! It was the toxic venom of crotalus horridus! Whatever it was, it wasn’t faith – and it certainly wasn’t God!” I commend their deep faith, but faith in a lie gets you nowhere. I can have faith that my mini-Schnauzer is going to start gakking up gold bars, but if I quit my job and wait for it to happen, then I have no one to blame but myself when the bank comes and takes my home.

Please don’t get me wrong – I hurt for Wolford’s family. They’ve lost a loved one. No two ways about it. But it didn’t have to happen. When we take Scripture out of context, we can end up using it to justify anything we want – dancing with snakes, baptizing for the dead, confessing through a priest, creating a Melchizedek priesthood, keeping women quiet in the church, beating the snot out of our kids, picketing the funerals of servicemen, picketing the funerals of gays. Hey, you got a cause? I’ve got a verse.

Pray for the Wolford family. They’re dealing with a huge, painful loss right now, and chances are it won’t be the last hole that unnecessarily gets drilled into their hearts. Pray for the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, and others like it. Ask God to let them see the truth of His Word.

Finally, pray for yourself. Ask the Lord to protect you from deceptions, to keep you near His truth. Commit to yourself and to Him that anytime you hear something new, exciting, strange, or hinky, anytime you get tempted to walk a different direction from the one the Holy Spirit set you on at conversion, you’ll check it out deeper, you’ll seek some wise counsel, you’ll pray long and hard before you leap.

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s two posts in a row I’ve gotten preachy. I am now officially stepping off my soapbox – but I’m still keeping it close by, just in case.

1 comment:

Curt Miller said...

Steve, if you decide to do the snake thing at church let me know ahead so I can plan my vacation around it (to be gone of course)