While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.
Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling
By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University
Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)
In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.
The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,
Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.
A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.
That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.
In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.
According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).
Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).
Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.
My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).
There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.
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About the Author
Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”
- Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
- Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
- McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
- McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
- Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.