On Snake Handling

Have you seen this great post at Craig Adams' blog on snake handling?

He wrote it only a few days before the death of Jamie Coots (pictured) - a snake handling pastor who starred in a (so-called) "reality TV show."  My thought when hearing the news was that this was another sad story that also presents Christianity as bizarre and dangerous to our non-church-going popular culture.  And the sad truth is that, if only this man had a deeper knowledge of the Christian tradition and had used it as an authoritative guide for Scriptural interpretation, he never would have done something so foolish as to handle deadly snakes; but a man has literally lost his life because his knowledge was limited to his local customs without input from the wider, deeper, and older wisdom of the Church universal.  Ideas have consequences and false ideas about God, false interpretations of Scripture are dangerous to soul and body and community.  

Adams ably addresses these issues as he ends the discussion of Mark 16 (virtually the only relevant Biblical text on the subject; especially verses 14-18):

"This passage does not contain any command to handle snakes or drink poison. And it certainly does not say that salvation depends upon doing those things. It says these signs will follow (παρακολουθήσει) or accompany believers. The only condition of salvation mentioned in this passage is faith (verse 16). This looks for all the world like a description of things that were reported to have happened during the time of the earliest church. According to the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was bitten by a snake and suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:4,5). It doesn’t say he or anyone else in the early Church sought out snakes — or sought to drink poison to prove the genuineness of their faith.
This is not an issue about “inerrancy” or “literal interpretation of the Bible” (whatever that means). This passage in no way commands snake handling!
In fact, most Christians would argue that to deliberately handle snakes or drink poison as a proof of faith would be tempting God and thus, a sin (Matthew 4:7)! It says signs follow believers. Believers do not follow signs...
However, this passage has been in the Bible for many long years before Biblical scholars determined that it was a later addition. There is nothing heretical about it — and it is very ancient. People were not running around poisoning themselves and getting themselves bitten by snakes right and left until the advent of modern textual criticism.
The issue with Jamie Coots, and other snake-handling preachers, is not about inerrancy or “literal interpretation" — it is about false interpretation. It is an issue of hermeneutics.
Bad theology is deadly. In more ways than one."



Whelby supports Bartholemew on ancient cathedral

I was saddened to hear that the ruling party in Turkey is pushing forward plans to again convert the Hagai Sophia into a Mosque.  The Hagai Sophia was built after the Roman Emperors converted to Christianity in ancient times.  It is a huge and beautiful church building that served for a Millennium as the cathedral for the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world.  Around AD 1500 the city was conquered by Muslims - Ottoman Turks (thus, 'Turkey') - who converted the great church into a mosque and white washed all of the beautiful mosaics.  In the 20th Century a secular government came to power which converted the building to a museum.  Across town is the Blue Mosque which copies the architecture of Hagai Sophia, and also makes one wonder how another mosque of that size would be needed in the city.  Converting the cathedral into a mosque would seem to be an attempt to make a statement about the power of an expansionist Islam over Western/Christian culture.   

In any case, I am heartened to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Whelby has lent his support to the Ecumenical Patriarch in this matter, stating that Hagai Sophia should not become a mosque.  I, for one, think that the cathedral should be returned to the Eastern Orthodox community in Istanbul from whom it was forcibly taken; a Christian community which has certainly not thrived under Turkish rule.  There are several petitions to that effect floating around the Web.

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Truth in Beautiful Spaces: from CC

When I was in college and moving in non-denomination and similar evangelical circles, there were many
factors that motivated me to explore deeper the more traditional and sacramental ways of being Christian that led me to spend lots of time around an Anglican Church and ultimately to connect with a rather traditional Methodist Church with lots of ministry opportunities.
Some were theological factors that had a lot to do with my discovering more of the Bible (especially the sacramental passages that had been largely ignored by my Baptist and non-denominational teachers) and also reading authors like C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and John Wesley.

Some were what we might call "spirituality" reasons - a desire for more "roots," mystery, and especially beauty in my Christian experience.  I remember expressing this desire for beauty once in a conversation with a like-minded friend about our discovering the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer (many of which are also to be found in The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship): If I can, with equal sincerity, say a prayer that is beautiful and elegant or one that is less so, surely it gives more honor to God to say the more beautiful prayer.  After all, he is the Creator of much that is beautiful, and beauty evidently delights him.

We could apply the same logic (and the Christian Church traditionally has done) to the worship spaces in which we meet.  Assuming that we can worship God in a big-box or in a gothic cathedral with equal sincerity and fervor, then would it not be preferable (all other things being equal) to have a more beautiful structure that makes a rich statement about our God and our faith to all who not only enter in, but even those who simply pass by?  (Of course, for practical reasons and financial reasons this is not always possible; all things are not equal; we cannot all afford to build Westminster Abbey, and even if we could there might well be other higher priorities requiring faithful attention.)

One of my attractions (back) to Methodism was that while many Methodists seemed to believe the Bible just as seriously as my non-denominational friends, yet they evidently (based on their church-houses and church-services) had a much greater appreciation for beauty and the kind of cultural achievements (in music, literature, architecture, stained glass, sacred-vessel making, and so on) that delight the human soul the way that God himself delights in the beauties he has made.

This struck me as somehow deeply true to what Man is as the Imago Dei, though even as I write, it is difficult to convey in words or rational argument.  It is the kind of thing that you feel or sense, the kind of thing that is best communicated in symbol, perhaps.  We not only proclaim with words the life-giving truth of our faith, we also seek ways to embody, to incarnate, it as well - embody it first and foremost in how we live, and also in our own acts of creating (creating music, creating art, creating poetry, creating architecture). 

I got to thinking about all of this after reading this (relatively short) piece at The Christian Century: Truth in Beautiful Spaces.

Pictured above is Christ Church, United Methodist - New York City.

You can click here to look at a few of United Methodism's beautiful spaces - but there are in fact hundreds more both large and small. 

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