Taking Up Serpents

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; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

— Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16:17-18

Among biblical literalists, these passages are electric. American evangelicals and Pentecostals are fond of casting out devils and speaking in gibberish tongues, both of which are histrionic performances that can be seen every Sunday in churches across the land. Most stop there and refuse to read the next two items literally: they don’t take up serpents or drink poisons. Except, of course, for some particularly fervent Pentecostals in Appalachia.

Over at the Pacific Standard, Mike Mariani examines this sub-culture and its most high-profile practitioner, Andrew Hamblin, who has become something of a television star while simultaneously living on food-stamps. The Discovery Channel must not be paying well, or Hamblin needs an agent who can negotiate better deals. For his story, Mariani wisely interviewed Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee psychology professor who literally wrote the book on Pentecostal serpent handling. Their conversation led, at least in part, to this attention grabbing paragraph:

When one considers the cultural and religious history of Appalachia, though, Pastor Hamblin’s socioeconomic circumstances hardly come across as problematic. While the Appalachian region is frequently stereotyped as what Professor Hood calls a “culture of poverty and deprivation,” this definition is “probably inappropriate.” Instead, Hood explains, Appalachia rejects the larger American culture of materialism and financial success in favor of a lifestyle devoted to God and the matter of one’s eternal salvation. He even goes so far as to refer to Appalachia as “America’s Tibet.” What outsiders see as a “backwoods” culture sunk in squalor is really austerity by design; these are devout Christians that deliberately insulate themselves from mainstream American values (see: greed) and privilege service to God over affluence and material betterment.

This is the first time I’ve encountered an anarchy theory analysis of Appalachia. If I’m not mistaken, this is a riff on James C. Scott’s work on stateless societies and subaltern resistance. In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series) (2009), Scott makes a compelling case for seeing southeast Asian hill people not as “primitive” or backward peasants but rather as deliberate change agents who hove to hinterlands for very specific, and anti-state, reasons. While reading Scott’s superb book, it was clear to me that his arguments applied also to many historically known hunter-gatherer groups around the world. It never occurred to me that Appalachia, or at least parts of it, might also be an example of this process. When it comes to Appalachia, my views probably suffer from presentism: what we see today is fairly dismal, if not perfectly dysfunctional. I would have to know more about Appalachian history and ethnography before deciding whether the anarchy thesis provides a proper frame for analysis.


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3 thoughts on “Taking Up Serpents

  1. Steve Lawrence

    Appalachia’s history of illegally distilling liquor is quite consistent with alternative society, if not so much with revivalist religion. Cults do seem to form on the edges; or they migrate there. For example, the hippie counter-culture begat many cults, of which Charlie Manson and Jim Jones were the most notorious. Maybe mind-altering substances provoke edgy religion?

  2. Bob Wells

    I not only agree with his analysis, I’ve changed my life to live in that same philosophical way. Except I don’t model my life after the preposterous religion of Christianity, but the nomadic tribalism of hunter-gatherers. I live in a van and have a website dedicated to getting as many people as I can reach to abandoning a failed civilization and live nomadic as well: cheaprvliving.com. I personally am an animist, but it is not a main part of my movement.

    I’m having some pretty good success too! Our age is rife with total contempt for our way of life and many are looking for an alternative that makes sense.This week I’m hosting a gathering of van-dwellers in the Arizona desert and I expect at least 100 people to join me.

    The genetic drive for Tribalism is not gone, it has just been beaten down in the last 10,000 years. Within the next century when we have thoroughly damaged our eco-system, it will make a full comeback! I’m just trying to hurry that up.

    Here is a link to a documentary I was in (produced at the University of Texas) explaining my goals:


  3. GregJS

    Interesting connections here.

    Even if Appalachian Pentecostalism doesn’t quite fit the anarchy theory frame in all respects, I wouldn’t doubt that it does in some ways. It seems that most of us are drawn, in one way or another, and to one degree or another, to recreate at least some aspects of hunter-gatherer life, whether through all-night dance raves, weekend fishing or hunting trips, joining a street gang, going for a run, growing plants in our houses, or any number of other ways, religion being one of the real biggies. We all bristle under The System and we all look for ways to buck it. Probably in most cases, if you suggested to people that they were acting on impulses that go back to our hunter-gatherer origins, they’d feel insulted (Christians perhaps more than most) due to all the associations with being “primitive,” “savage,” “backwards,” and so on. But still, we all want some hunting-gathering in our lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s too deep in us to shake it.

    Bob, you seem to have gone further than most – and in a very conscious, intentional way – in this direction. So kudos to you! Hope your gathering is a good one – and I agree that you may very well be at the forefront of what will be an eventual large scale return to some form of tribal living.

    Not to get all comparative religion, but since it just so happens that I’ve spent the past 3 months primarily diving into Christianity – which I’d also always assumed to be “preposterous” – I have to say I’m blown away by what I’m finding. Just like there was a time when I dismissed, in a typically civilized way, hunter-gatherers; but then came to see that there is a profound rightness and coherence to that way of life, so I’m finding with Christianity, or at least one form or strand of it. In both cases, I’ve found gaining entry into these seemingly preposterous worldviews very much like learning a new language. Suddenly, that which made no sense at all makes surprisingly good sense – and it is possible to know and see things not knowable or seeable in any other “language.”

    Of course, there are so many people who make Christianity look truly preposterous; but writing it off as such might be like writing off hunting-gathering because some people, who never bothered to learn the real language of it and who merely adopted some of its superficial external trappings made a terrible, botched mess of it.

    Not trying to proselytize here – just sharing my most recent surprise discovery, for whatever it’s worth. I love learning new worldview languages and can’t help wanting to share the pleasure of it with others.

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