Paul Prather: Snakes are dangerous and so is taking the Bible too literally

Contributing columnist,Paul PratherMarch 2, 2014 

Jamie Coots, 42, was handling rattlesnakes during a Feb. 15 church service at Middlesboro's Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name. A snake bit his hand.

Shortly after, Coots lost consciousness.

According to news stories, he'd refused medical help for past snakebites and had urged his family not to take him to the hospital if he were ever bitten and incapacitated. So his loved ones refused medical treatment for him. Instead, they prayed.

He died.

Herein lies a problem with being too literal-minded about the Scriptures: it often forces you to defend untenable, even dangerous, positions.

I hold a high but more nuanced view of Scripture.

Before I tell you what I think about how we should interpret the Bible, let me assure you I mean no disrespect to Coots, his family or his church.

Surely, those who handle snakes are sincere. You have to be sincere to reach into a box of writhing vipers with your bare hands, whether in God's name or anyone else's.

But that, my dad would point out if he were still around, goes to show that you can be sincere — and yet be sincerely wrong.

Mark 16 contains this passage: "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."

Mainstream scholars argue this passage isn't found in the earliest extant manuscripts of Mark, and apparently was added much later in the book's development, as manuscripts were endlessly copied and recopied.

Snake-handling Christians tend not to make these academic distinctions. They accept Mark, as they accept the rest of the Bible, at its literal words.

This calls to mind a larger issue within the Christian faith.

Very, very few Christians handle snakes — a micro-sliver-of-a-single-percentage-point of the religion's 2 billion members.

However, a great many Christians claim to believe the Bible is inerrant. They say it's 100 percent correct about any subject on which it speaks, even science or history.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I wrote a column that was partly about creationists, who, despite a century-and-a-half of accumulated scientific evidence to the contrary, insist the Earth was created in six 24-hour days, a few thousand years ago.

That's what Genesis seems to say, and creationists say they believe exactly what the Bible tells them, word for word, at face value.

To me, the danger there is that once you make it your primary spiritual mission in life to defend a questionable passage as unalterably, literally accurate down to the least jot or tittle, you open yourself up for unnecessary grief.

You won't end up petting copperheads, but you may waste oodles of time defending untenable scientific, historic or theological positions. You'll strain at gnats.

I'd humbly suggest another, and time-honored, means of approaching the Bible, and of understanding our faith in general.

It allows us to focus on the heart and soul of the Bible, its profound revelations and transcendent promises, without getting waylaid by less relevant details.

This approach has multiple origins. I happened to encounter it long ago through the works of John Wesley, the evangelist who in the 1700s co-founded Methodism.

Wesley thought the Bible should direct Christians' beliefs. But he also recognized the Bible as a tough book to decipher. To avoid our veering into tangents and excesses, he suggested we accompany our biblical interpretations with checks and balances.

First, he said, consider Christian history and tradition. How have the great body of good, thoughtful men and women understood a particular passage across the centuries?

Second, what does reason tell us? God gave us brains; he meant us to use them.

Finally, what does human experience, including our own experiences in life and in faith, say?

These tests are as valid today as when Wesley offered them.

Take the matter of snake handling.

Mark 16 urges me to handle snakes and drink poison. But church history, common sense and humans' long experiences with snakes all agree that's not a good idea. Those are two biblical admonitions yours truly won't be taking literally.

We can easily apply the same test to many Scriptures.

As we do, we start finding a healthier, more fulfilling balance in our beliefs.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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