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If we want to see some really weird stuff done in the name of religion, we never need to look too far. If we go back a few years, we come to a time in which a previous generation's headlines included such things as the Jim Jones and Charles Manson tragedies. Even Mormonism has had its share of bizarre racist teachings, that perhaps many today aren't even aware of, or have simply chosen to forget.
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As I looked through our local newspaper this past Friday, I encountered what I thought yet another bizarre religious story. The headline read,
Preacher Dies From Snakebite At ServiceIt featured an Associated Press photo of a man holding a snake rather closely to his face while he speaks into a microphone. The story said,
In this 2011 photo Pastor Mack Wolford, a devotee of the Pentecostal "Signs Following" tradition, handles a rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, W.Va. Rooted in Appalachian folk practices and the King James Bible's Book of Mark, the "Signs Following" tradition encourages believers to handle deadly snakes, drink poison and speak in tongues as a testament to their faith. Wolford died Sunday after being bitten on the thigh by a timber rattler during an outdoor service. He was 44.I must say, the first thing I thought of when I read that, well, let's just say it wasn't very edifying, and is probably best not repeated here. But really? Snake charming as a central part of worship services? Am I missing something here? I looked online and found the fuller story here.
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What are the similarities between snake charmers and this bizarre story out of West Virginia? In my way of thinking there are at least two. First, there is the obvious. According to Wikipedia, "a typical performance may also include the handling of snakes or performing other dangerous acts." Certainly that is exactly what's happening in this particular "Signs Following" church.
The second similarity, in my way of thinking, is related to the hypnotism part. Please forgive me if this sounds critical, but in watching the video below, even I felt almost hypnotized. From the handling of the snakes to the music to the constant movement and dance, taken together I couldn't help but think of the pseudo-hypnotic trance of the snake charmer's snake.
I was also reminded of what a missionary friend of mine once said about some of the strange blends of Roman Catholicism and Voodoo he encountered while working in Haiti. There may be elements of orthodox worship present, but there is also a bunch of other weird stuff there too.
However, this goes beyond the addition of weird stuff to the worship service. At issue is the belief that there is biblical justification for snake handling in the worship service. At issue is the question of proper hermeneutics. At issue is the question of whether or not the Bible was properly interpreted. At issue is the question of whether or not Mark 16:18, which they quote, means that God would have us to deliberately drink poison and play with serpents.
they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them
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Perhaps the footnote in the ESV Study Bible will help explain this better. It reads,
Some ancient manuscripts of Mark's Gospel contain these verses and others do not, which presents a puzzle for scholars who specialize in the history of such manuscripts. This longer ending is missing from various old and reliable Greek manuscripts (esp. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), as well as numerous early Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian manuscripts. Early church fathers (eg., Origen and Clement of Alexandria) did not appear to know of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome state that this section is missing in most manuscripts available at their time. And some manuscripts that contain vv. 9-20 indicate that older manuscripts lack the section. On the other hand, some early and many later manuscripts (such as the manuscripts known as A, C, and D) contain vv. 9-20, and many church fathers (such as Irenaeus) evidently knew of these verses. As for these verses themselves, they contain various Greek words and expressions uncommon to Mark, and there are stylistic differences as well. Many think this shows vv. 9-20 to be a later addition. In summary, vv. 9-20 should be read with caution.Can we trust such verses as truth when their source is in question? Maybe we can. However, in the end, I suppose each of us needs to decide that for himself. The point is, though, should we not be careful with such verses, and especially so, when our very lives may depend upon it? Should it not be "read with caution?"
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It's perhaps ironic that the devil, also commonly identified with the serpent (Genesis 3:1), also played a part in Jesus' temptation. Having said that, does it not seem bizarre that we should want to play with serpents today? According to Matthew 4:7, when Jesus was tempted by the devil he said,
You shall not put the Lord your God to the testHave we done that? Are we guilty of putting the Lord our God to the test? I wonder sometimes. I do feel sorry for the families involved that they lost their pastor and loved one in this way. I wish no ill on anyone, but the way I discern the handling of poisonous snakes, and the deliberate drinking of poison, well, it sure looks like putting "the Lord your God to the test." Or is it just me?
However, lest you or I get too smug with ourselves looking at that speck in our brother's eye, perhaps we should first check to see that there are no logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:3-5). Am I perfect in my walk with the Lord? Not in a long shot! What weird stuff have you and I added to our faith walk? Hmm, I wonder. Strange, isn't it, how we often see each other's faults better than we see our own? Still, as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:10, "try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord," and ultimately, that is all that I want to do; I want to discern what is pleasing to the Lord and walk in that.
That's the way I see it anyway. Peace.