Snakes, Bush and the Greeks

The woman on the telephone was speaking English, but it was hard to understand what she was saying because of her strong Greek accent.

She was a journalist in Greece, but I couldn't catch the name of her newspaper. She told me her name, but I didn't get that, either. Lest readers judge me too harshly, it helps to know that I attend an Eastern Orthodox parish with Lebanese priest who speaks Arabic, Greek, French and English. I am used to interesting accents.

The reporter's first question told me why she was calling -- Google. Before long, I learned that she was interested in American politics as well as religion.

"You are an expert on Christians who worship with snakes, yes?"

Not really, I said. I have read books on the subject and I used to teach in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I never met snake handlers. In modern times, even some of the Baptists there drive Volvos, wear Birkenstocks and listen to National Public Radio like everybody else. OK, I didn't say exactly that, but I tried to explain to her my limited contact with this edgy flock on the far fringe of American Protestantism.

"Can we interview you about this?", she asked. "You have written about it?"

This told me that she had found -- via Google -- my 1996 column on "Snakes, Miracles and Biblical Authority." It was based on lectures by Baptist historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University and described the theological lessons he learned from his friendship with the late Arnold Saylor, an illiterate country preacher who took rattlesnakes with him into the pulpit.

In that column, I noted: "Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. 'Amen,' say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

"Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been 'anointed' by God's Holy Spirit. 'Preach on,' say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. 'Been there, done that,' say snake handlers."

Snake handlers, in other words, believe they have biblical reasons for engaging in their risky rites. They quote the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus tells his disciples: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall 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."

The Greek reporter, it turned out, was interested in more than snake handlers. The newspaper wanted to probe American religion, in general. To be specific, it planned to visit Ohio, a crucial state in the White House race. She wanted to know: Did I know any snake handlers in Ohio?

Say what? I tried to figure out the logic behind this question, which seemed to be linked to European stereotypes of this country. The thinking might go something like this: Snake handlers are evangelical Protestants. President Bush is an evangelical Protestant. Therefore, Bush is the candidate of snake handlers. Then again, Bush is a United Methodist. I doubt there are many evangelical United Methodist snake handlers in Ohio. Was this an overlooked voting block?

I urged her to get in touch with Leonard, the actual expert on the subject. That was the least the newspaper could do.

"Can we go ahead and interview you? We do not have a lot of time," she said.

A few days later, Leonard had not received any calls from Greece. He was still fascinated by the beliefs and customs of snake handlers and, come to think of it, he received a recent call from a Chinese newspaper asking questions about this topic. He declined to speculate on the logic of the Greek reporter's Ohio questions.

Truth is, snake handlers "are the bain of liberals and conservatives," he said.

"I can't say why there is this interest," said Leonard. "I don't think it's about Bush, but about strange religion in America -- Pentecostals, healing, evangelicals, snake handlers. ... They are always used as caricatures for something."