Would you climb a mountain if you knew for sure that you could have a spiritual experience at the top? Would you go down into a river? About fifty years ago, theologian Harvey Cox predicted that religion would decline in the face of modern progress, and many educated people agreed. They were skeptical about all matters religious or spiritual. But his prophecy did not turn out to be accurate.
Many people began looking for spiritual experience again, evidenced by such widely diverse phenomena as the New Age movement, the popularity of the Pentecostal movement, and the growing number of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What they have in common is the desire for an experiential connection to the larger reality, to the mysterious, to the divine. But for many this is still unfamiliar terrain. What is Spirit anyway? What is the Mystery that connects and upholds all life? By what signs would we recognize it if we experienced it?
One group of people who thought they had the answer were the snake handling churches of the Appalachian south. Perhaps they offer a cautionary tale. Dennis Covington wrote about them in his book Salvation on Sand Mountain. He entered into the world of the “Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following.” Its name and its practices were drawn from an obscure verse at the end of the gospel of Mark: “And these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”
Interpreting these words literally, their church services regularly invite believers into prayers for healing, the handling of rattlesnakes, and the drinking of strychnine poison. While on the surface, it doesn’t sound like this would play well as an advertisement for divine encounters, the author was amazed to find himself drawn more and more into the power of their experience. What began as a journalistic investigation became a much more personal exploration.
Eventually, he too joined in, and took up serpents. He described it like this:
I didn’t stop to think about it. I just gave in. I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands. I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared… all gone, all faded to white. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees… The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light… I knew then why the handlers took up serpents.
What makes an experience a spiritual experience? By what signs would we recognize it? Is an experience of ecstasy an experience of God? Covington would later compare the ecstasy of snake handling to the adrenaline induced high of being on a battlefield, surrounded by the risk of death. But eventually, he mistrusted this emotional surge. It wasn’t the physical danger that drove him away. Rather, it was the dogmatism of the spirit-filled preachers, who condemned him when he didn’t accept their whole system of beliefs. Near the end he remarked, “Feeling after God is dangerous business.”