I spent the whole morning reading the New York Times, but there wasn't one article as interesting as this little snippet from the new reigning source of news, the Internet.
Snake-Handling Pastor Dies of Snakebite
Well, you see, Appalachia is fairly dripping with venomous snakes, rattlers and copperheads being the most common. The pastor in this story had just finished filming a reality t.v. show called "Snake Salvation" when he was fatally bitten during a church service.
I couldn't make this up.
There's a long tradition of snake-handling in the mountains, but there's never been (to my knowledge) any statistics on how many of these snake handlers die in action. Considering that this is a traditional practice, probably going back a few hundred years, there must be a considerable amount of denizens of Heaven with fang marks in their wings.
Some religions teach us to go against our common sense, in order to prove that the deity transcends Nature as we know it. That's called faith. But when faith transcends reason entirely, you can get Earth-smacked big time.
Two years ago there was some sort of Armageddon prophecy, and the believers in this particular date paid to put it up on a huge billboard near the thrift store. When that day came and went without the Four Horsemen, the billboard returned to its usual messages for fast food. I had to wonder, myself, who paid for that "The End Is Nigh" billboard. And you hear all the time about people selling their houses and giving their stuff away because of one of these scheduled Armageddons. What happens the morning after, when their kids are crying over donated Legos?
Then there's snake handling. There's some Bible scripture (not going to quote it, this is a blog, don't have to attribute) that suggests faithful God-people can play with killer snakes and not get killed. Seriously, you have to ask what kind of deity would let something like that go into the canon. For one thing, it's a foolish gamble with human life, and for another thing, it's desperately disruptive to the reptile.
Did you ever wonder what happens to the snake that bites the snake handler? I doubt very seriously that they take the lil' guy out into the woods and gently let him go.
This is where your basic New Age religion enters the picture. And in the nick of time, if you ask me.
Your basic New Age religion endorses deities who have a realistic, practical view of the ultimate purpose of poisonous snakes. This purpose is to keep an area free of disease-carrying vermin and other small mammals that, left unchecked, will multiply rapidly and wind up starving. Therefore, in your basic New Age religion, if you see a snake that is not reared up and ready to bite you, you just acknowledge its importance to Gaia and leave it alone. You go home happy, the snake goes home happy, and about the only thing left unhappy in this mix is the unfortunate mouse that gets poisoned instead of you.
Does religion really have to be foolish? Can you have faith in Higher Powers without having to prove that They protect you by doing something that flies in the face of common sense and biodiversity?
I would like to see a sociological follow-up on the ramifications of a pastor's death from snakebite on his parishioners, especially the younger ones. But more than that, I want to know -- what happens to the snakes?
PS - When treated promptly, the bite of a copperhead or a rattlesnake is not fatal. Rattlesnake bites can cause tissue damage, though, even when caught quickly. The word from the bored gods on this matter is to keep your eyes open when you're hiking, and leave all snakes alone. If you see a rattlesnake that is damned for sure dead as a doornail (as I did once, it was flattened by a tire), the rattle makes a cool conversation piece. Snake rattles fall apart with age, so store in a cool, dry place. Again, and again, and again, don't mess with a snake that isn't as stone cold dead as a door nail. Your deities don't ask that of you.