Saturday, July 19, 2008

Taking Up Serpents

Miss Birdie's book (still not done) is giving me a chance to revisit The Holiness Church of JESUS Love Anointed With Signs Following from Signs in the Blood. Once again Birdie has need of Aunt Belvy's power of prophecy. And for all of those who thought Harice the preacher was hot -- he's back!

The Signs Followers base their practices of serpent handling and poison drinking on these lines from Mark:16 --

And these signs shall follow them that believe;
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.

I've never been to a Serpent-Handling Church -- they exist in our neck of the woods but I'd feel disrespectful, like a tourist or a writer taking notes. ( If I were invited to go . . . I'd be there like a shot! Though not taking up serpents.) My research comes from two terrific books which I highly recommend for those of you who'd like to know more about this interesting sect.

The Serpent Handlers by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald is an up close and personal look at various believers, with a good deal told in their own words. It gives a powerful and moving insight into the motivations and beliefs of these folks who take up serpents.

The second book, Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington is a literary account of the churches and people, beautifully told by a New York Times reporter who, in the process of learning more about the Holiness faith, discovers his own roots.

These are both wonderful books that, by taking somewhat different approaches, together give a more nearly complete picture of this unique expression of faith. And, yes, both books have some pretty amazing pictures.

I felt good about my treatment of the Signs Followers in my first book -- I had Elizabeth moved by her experience in the church and respectful of the congregation's beliefs. But in order that this return not seem like warmed-up leftovers, in this book I'm showing the church from two points of view very different from Elizabeth's: first there's Miss Birdie's niece, Myrna Lou, who is kind of freaked out at the thought of even seeing snakes, and then Miss Birdie herself, who, while not a member of this church, is very much a believer.

It's a good reminder of how a story can differ, depending on who's telling it.

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Pat in east TN said...

There was at least one Serpent-Handling Church in a distant area of where our farm was in NC, and like you Vicki, I didn't feel comfortable just going and was never invited, although either way I don't know if I would have gone. Intriging ... yes/scary ... YES! I had heard stories over the years and it was quite interesting hearing everyones version.

Vicki Lane said...

The Brown/MacDonald book actually talks about a church very near us -- though supposedly they don't handle snakes anymore as it's illegal in NC now. That's why my fictional church is in TN.

Susan M. Bell said...

As a child, I had a babysitter who attended a holiness church, so of course I did as well. This wasn't the serpent-handling type, but people were always yelling, running around like they were on fire and falling on the floor. Scary to a little kid, can't imagine adding snakes to the mix.

I have a lot of respect for all faiths...especially for those who have so much faith they absolutely believe God will keep them from being killed by those snakes. I too think it would be interesting to attend such a church just once, to see what it's really like. I'm betting they would not mind someone with an open mind asking for permission to attend and experience one of their services. After all, many have let news crews with cameras come in. It's one way to try and show the world what their belief system is and to spread the word as it were.

Anonymous said...

Those books were respectful of people and practices that could be considered weird/crazy/etc. Hummm...........what about hair shirts, whirling, cuts self-inflicted as part of religious ecstacy? I guess we're all trying to figure it out, do it right!

Vicki Lane said...

I find little in any religion that makes 'rational' sense to me -- but I do, indeed, respect the mysterious workings of the Spirit (whatever that may mean to each individual).

Why someone would want to flog himself (like the Penitentes) or undergo the Sun Dance torture of some of the Plains Indians, or follow any number of odd practices, I can only speculate. And it well may be a different reason for each.

If you're brought up in a faith that follows these practices -- whatever they are, I suppose it seems perfectly normal.

Coloring Outside the Lines said...

I've heard of this,(serpent handling) and I think I even saw a documentary on TV about it- Don't you just love researching your stories? That would be my favorite part of being an author!