If GodWas a Rattlesnake,Would You Pick it Up?Lost in the Land of Faith, Hope and VenomDouglas Cruickshank
"YOU CAN NEVER EXHAUST THE POWER when the Spirit comes down, not even when you take up a snake, not even when you take up a dozen of them. The more faith you expend, the more power is released. It's an inexhaustible, eternally renewable resource. It's the only power some of these people have."
I never quite understood church religion --- what it can mean to people, what it can do for them --- until I took a long drive through the Mississippi Delta a couple years back. The American South is another country. If you think it isn't you either haven't been there or you haven't been away from there. Like other countries, it is delightful in many ways, dreadful in a few well-publicized other ways, and entirely ordinary in still others. Parts of it are shamefully poor --- poorer than any other place in the United States. It's a congenital indigence, passed down from parents to children, down again. And then again. That kind of destitution and powerlessness gets on you, gets in you, and does what it does to people everywhere --- compels them to scour the landscape for hope. The hopeful thing is that sometimes they find it, though occasionally in the oddest of places, people and beasts.
Driving past endless cotton fields and cypress swamps, I must have passed a single room church every mile or two from Vicksburg to Clarksdale. On a Sunday morning there would be dusty, busted up Impalas, Rivieras, Ford pickups, old Dodge flatbeds and Chevy Blazers parked all which ways in front of the shining white buildings. Maybe even a green and yellow John Deere tractor. And if I slowed down and opened the window as I passed, I'd often hear singing, shouted "Amens," or the sole, rhythmic voice of the preacher exhorting the congregation. "The church is the glue," I later jotted on a café napkin, "that adheres people to one another. It's where transcendence is found, and faith turns to hope --- the kind of hope that gets you through the week when there's little else to keep you going." Not a profound insight, but the bittersweetness of the Delta made it seem so.
In 1992, Dennis Covington, a freelance journalist and professor of creative writing, was covering a trial in the northern Alabama town of Scottsboro for the New York Times. In Scottsboro, a place made notorious by the unjust 1931 rape conviction of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a man named Glendel Buford Summerford stood accused of attempted murder. Summerford was the pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following. In a drunken rage, he'd tried to kill his wife by forcing her to stick her hand into a cage full of snakes. "...after the diamondback rattlesnakes had bit her and she'd stumbled on the way back to the house and fallen to the ground, he unzipped his fly and pissed on her. That's how bad it had got," Covington writes. Darlene Summerford lived and her former husband is now serving 99 years in the state penitentiary.
That's where Glendel Summerford's story ends and Dennis Covington's begins. As he attended the trial, and afterwards, the writer got to know some of the snake handlers, members of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, and others who would pick up serpents when "the Spirit moved on them," notably Charles and Aline McGlockin. Covington also got in a lot deeper than he could have anticipated. But he got back out and wrote it all down in a spare, moving book called Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Penguin, 1996). It was a finalist for the National Book Award. It should have won.
"The Prosecutor had maintained during the proceedings," he writes, "that the trial was not about snake handling. But in many ways that is all it had been about. Facing fear. Taking risks. Having faith." That's also what Covington's book is about.
The rationale for religious snake handling --- speaking in tongues, handling fire and drinking poison may also occur during a service --- is found in the literal interpretation of a passage from Acts in the Bible's New Testament: "And these signs shall follow them that believe;" the text reads, "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!"
After the trial, Covington was invited to a service being given by another congregation of snake handlers on Sand Mountain near a town called Section. His interest, as he tells it, was still largely journalistic. "I was pleased the handlers had felt comfortable enough to include me. It meant the work was going well. The relationship between journalist and subject is often an unspoken conspiracy. The handlers wanted to show me something, and I was ready to be shown....But I had a personal agenda too. I was enjoying the passion and abandon of their worship."
The McGlockins were at the service, and though no snakes were handled---there'd been a mix-up and the serpents were left behind---Aline was moved by the spirit and passionate abandon ensued. She lifted her voice in an eerie chanting that Covington describes over more than two pages, and quite beautifully. "It was the strangest sound I had ever heard. At first it did not seem human....I could not disentangle myself from the sound of her voice, the same syllables repeated with endless variation. At times, it seemed something barbed was being pulled from her throat; at other times, the sound was a clear stream flowing outward into thin air." Almost unconsciously, Covington began to accompany the woman on tambourine and an intimacy transpired which he found unsettling. "Through the tambourine, I was occurring with her in the Spirit, and it was not of my own will." So much for journalism as it's usually defined. (Or, to use the wry disclaimer that appears in teeny type halfway down the copyright page, "This is a work of nonfiction, but memory is an imperfect guide.")
Covington digs into his own past --- Appalachian ancestors, middle-class Birmingham upbringing, comparatively tame religious experience --- as he wantonly immerses himself in the deep faith of the snake handlers. A few months after the Sand Mountain service, he stands up at a West Virginia gathering and testifies that the Holy Ghost brought him there and is guiding his journalistic mission. "This thing is real!" he exclaims to one of the parishioners after dancing and singing to a "wacko, amphetamine dirge." Clearly, Salvation on Sand Mountain is subjective, literary journalism if it's journalism at all (I say it's the best kind). But Covington is an earnest fellow --- one can't help wondering what Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe might have done with this material --- a gifted writer, and downright courageous in exposing his self-doubt and spiritual fragility. The book is near perfect as a piece of writing. If it falls down anywhere, it's in Covington's hesitancy to call snake handling what it is: nutty behavior by superstitious hill folk. But then of course there wouldn't be a story. Most of those who practice it seem to be good souls (the McGlockins come off as authentically sweet and true). They're serious about it as an avenue to transcendence. But only a God with a particularly perverse sense of humor, or a deity dreamed up by Mark Twain, would have his charges demonstrate their faith in such suicidal fashion.
Plenty of the faithful get bitten. Most everyone involved has a relative who's died of snakebite. And at least seventy-one people, Covington reports, have been killed over the years during religious services where venomous snakes were handled. Nonetheless, he goes all the way after getting some "solid advice" from Charles McGlockin: "You might be anointed when you take up a serpent," he cautions Covington, "but if there's a witchcraft spirit in the church, it could zap your anointing and you'd be left cold turkey with a serpent in your hand and the spirit of God gone off of you. That's when you'll get bit....Always be careful who you take a rattlesnake from." Right.
Not long after that warning, Covington's moment came. "I'd always been drawn to danger," he explains. "Alcohol. Psychedelics. War....I wouldn't lose my mind. That's what I thought, anyway." During a service he feels himself pulled up to the front where the snakes are. Where the Spirit is moving. A man named Carl offers him a big rattler. "Acrid smelling," the writer remembers it, "carnal, alive. And the look in Carl's eyes seemed to change as he approached. He was embarrassed. The snake was all he had, his eyes seemed to say. But as low as it was, as repulsive, if I took it, I'd be possessing the sacred."
It would be cheating the prospective reader and Covington to further quote the passage because his fine, forceful evocation of those next moments damn near succeeds in making sense of it all. Snake handling is a peculiar route to spiritual release, but the result --- surrender of will, "the power in the act of disappearing," loss of self, a brief immersion in paradise --- is much the same as that reported by religious practitioners from any number of the world's denominations, sometimes employing equally strange methods.
Covington stayed in the fold awhile longer and then his relationships with the handlers took an unpleasant, if predictable, course, causing him to turn away from them and back to his own life. "I refuse to be a witness to suicide," he says, finally coming to his senses. "I have two daughters to raise and a vocation in the world."
Salvation on Sand Mountain is a short book on a long subject---the nature of God, faith and fear. And the hunger for hope and power among those who have little access to either. It's also a good yarn from a thoughtful man. Go ahead and pick it up.