On Saturday, Jamie Coots, a famous snake-handling preacher died in the predictable fashion. My lifestyle and worldview are pretty radically different from the charismatic fundamentalism of the late Pastor Coots, but I nonetheless see his death as tragic in its expression of great piety and courage that I have every confidence I myself would not demonstrate. The great irony of course is that the last twelve verses of Mark, on which the practice of snake-handling is based, are almost certainly a late interpolation that made their way into the Textus Receptus but are not found in our best manuscripts and are inconsistent with Mark’s mysterious cliff-hanger literary style. That is, even if one is inclined to take even obviously imprudent suggestions from scripture, the business about snakes is not really scripture. Nonetheless, even misplaced piety and courage remains piety and courage and we can admire the virtue even if given rather severe reservations about its application.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Much of the reaction seemed to consist of Schadenfreude for fundamentalists and hillbillies. I saw more than one joke about natural selection. (I am refraining from linking since my aim is to comment on the sentiment, not launch a two-minute hate against those who expressed it). However little sympathy you might have for Pastor Coots’s theology, it can charitably be described as unseemly to gloat over the death of a man who at the moment was putting only himself in danger out of a sincere sense of devotion.
This spiteful reaction to the death of Pastor Coots contrasts strikingly to how a similar incident was fictionalized in the previous season of Justified.
In that season, Pastor Billy St. Cyr and his sister Cassie come to town and set up a snake-handling tent church. There is some misdirection early in the season suggesting that they are a couple of frauds but in fact they are the two most admirable characters of the season. One of the season’s main plotlines is that a prostitute, Ellen May, grows morally troubled with engaging in prostitution and especially with being party to the occasional murder and she seeks out the tent meeting. The church is completely open to Ellen May and affirms her essential human dignity.
In reaction, Ellen May’s madam, Ava, insists to Ellen May that she is beyond either social or spiritual redemption being a worthless and incorrigibly degraded whore. Ava’s criminal/romantic partner Boyd then reveals to Billy that his sister Cassie has been secretly milking his vipers and publicly challenges him to handle a fresh snake and Billy of course dies in accepting the challenge. In both their continued corruption of Ellen May and their challenge to Billy, Ava and Boyd’s actions are distinctly reminiscent not of the harmless serpents in disputed Mark but the serpent in Genesis who seduces man into the fall.
Although Cassie appears cynical in milking the snakes, she does so not with intent to deceive her congregation but to protect her brother, and she later shows tremendous courage and conviction. In particular she stares down criminals to protect Ellen May and faces almost certain death in doing so if not for the timely intervention of law enforcement.
Justified, one of television’s best shows, engages with the rather alien subculture of snake-handling in a way that contrasts favorably to the gloating I saw over the death of Pastor Coots. We can mock such people for their willful ignorance of the science of human origins or the textual criticism of the original form of Mark, but we can also appreciate that this same stubborn faith is one that says all people are created in the image of God.