For my August reading selection, I chose a title that kept popping up in conversation with both Appalachians and folks outside the region: Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. The copy I read was a 15th anniversary edition published in 2009, and it includes a new afterword by the author. It was also a National Book Award Finalist.
I’ll be the first to admit that snake handling is a facet of Appalachia I am not very familiar with. I’ve never attended a service where snakes were handled nor where anyone spoke in tongues. In fact, I’m very much an outsider when it comes to that sect of Appalachian culture. Similarly, the author—an Appalachian city boy from Birmingham—is an outsider to the rural Holiness church culture, specifically The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, which he finds himself immersed in. As a journalist, he walks a fine line between being part of this community and also reporting on it. My favorite parts, however, were when we learned about him and his own ties to the community. In what turns into a journey of self-discovery, we see the author shed his skin in service of addressing his own fears, his own desires, and the fact that his ancestors could very likely have been involved in snake handling way back when. By jumping in feet first, he brokers a kind of respectful peace with the congregation he is visiting.
When describing the events he witnesses, Covington is careful to set aside judgment, which the reader is expected to do also. For instance, after meeting Brother Charles and listening to him talk about visions of the Lord, Covington writes, “I thought about it for a minute, and then decided Brother Charles was out of his mind. In time, I’d find out he wasn’t” (65). By narrating in this style, Covington not only leaves the reader with a bit of suspense but also refuses to let the reader write these people off. We’re forced to suspend any disbelief if we read the author as a credible narrator, and he’s given us no reason not to.
Through his words, we are allowed into very intimate worship moments. We meet folks who preach, who tremble, who speak in tongues, who prophesy. And, of course, we meet those who live by Mark 16:17–18: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; . . . They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Covington speaks to his own fascination with the danger of handling venomous snakes or drinking strychnine. After years of adrenaline as a war correspondent, he settled back down in Alabama and started attending church, though he was “vaguely uncomfortable.” He writes, “The previous nine years had been a journey out of cynicism and denial into a kind of light. . . . But something was missing” (55). In The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, he found both faith and adrenaline, which combined into a powerful force.
As I read about this particular community of worshipers, I began to wonder if there are ties between poverty and seeking danger through faith acts such as these. In the same way that life stressors caused by poverty can manifest in habits that relieve stress (like drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes), perhaps walking open-handed toward death in the name of faith provides the release needed. I write this without judgment, as I know full well the effects poverty can have on people and the effects stress can have on people. I also know full well, as evidenced in the books I’ve read this year, that poverty is endemic of top-down power grabs, which are common in Appalachia due to coal companies, fracking, absentee landownership, etc. (Here’s a good article explaining poverty from the inside.)
The author compares these urges toward danger in terms of his own war experiences. He notes that the actions of this congregation and the way they talk about snake handling and those who have passed due to bites or poisoning sound like war stories. He says it is a spiritual warfare, but I think it might also be a different kind of war on poverty.
In any case, Covington does a good job of making these real people not become caricatures in service of some larger narrative. In fact, he does the opposite by respecting their traditions and eventually even taking up a snake himself, though only when he felt called. The passage about his personal experience handling is striking, with phrases like
And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. . . . I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. (169)
Upon reflection, he writes, “I had become my own subject” (214). In his obedience to the spirit, he was able to transcend the line of them versus us. He, for a while, became part of their community while also better understanding himself.
I often read more than one book at a time, and serendipitously, passages in Madeleine L’Engle’s book The Irrational Season were strangely relevant. She wrote at length about her struggles with having faith in God’s healing. This reached a head when a friend asked her if she would accept God’s healing for her eyes if it was offered, and she finally turned from her canned response of “I accept my situation as it is” to “Of course I would accept healing.” And she soon was healed, emotionally at first, and then an experimental treatment came along and made a world of difference. Similarly, the congregants that Covington visits preached about healing with true belief that it was possible. In order to be saved, to show their faith when called on, they had to know that God would heal them from snake venom or poisons. If God didn’t, then either it was their time or they hadn’t prayed over it enough.
In another section, L’Engle writes about how we humans have divided our faith into so many denominations that it’s nearly impossible for us to all be One again. This is definitely visible with The Church of Jesus with Signs Following. Not all denominations, or Appalachians for that matter, are okay with what they see as “tempting fate.” Laws were passed to outlaw snake handling in the south, and such congregations had a hard time finding places to worship. When reading their stories in the light of L’Engle, however, I see that they are just as passionate about their faith as anyone else is, though via a different set of traditions. Just after reading about a preacher in The Church of Jesus with Signs Following who began leading communion and stopped to say “‘Now, he didn’t mean it was really his body.’ Amen. ‘They weren’t cannibals.’ Thank God” (115), I read the following in The Irrational Season:
If those who are terrified at the idea of the Real Presence in the bread and wine, those who shudderingly call it cannibalism (but we are all in one way or another cannibals; we do nourish each other; all life lives at the expense of other life), if those who staunchly assert that their communion services are purely memorial services—well, then, if they really remember, in the fullest sense of anamnesis, the problem is a semantic one. (142)
Regardless of how the faith is being practiced (as long as no one is put in harm’s way without their consent), we are all shades of the same faith lineage. The congregants of the snake handling churches could very well have been related to Covington a few generations back. And the church itself is only a few generations removed from my own denomination of Disciples of Christ. Both blossomed out of Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Though disparate, Covington (and I) and the congregation also have commonalities.
Salvation on Sand Mountain covers a lot more than I discuss here, and some of it is a problematic (particularly about focusing solely on Scots-Irish roots in Appalachia and calling snakes poisonous rather than venomous), but Covington does an excellent job of making a point to learn from an “other” and to respect and understand their differences even though he chose a different path in the end.