A Snake-handler's Lethal Embrace of Religious Ecstasy

I was driving into downtown Seattle when I heard the news of Randy "Mack" Wolford's death on National Public Radio, in a British accent no less. Randy, a snake-handler in West Virginia, had died -- bitten by a snake and poisoned. Mack had a spare room full of poisonous snakes, and he used to lie down with them, dance with them and fling them around his neck. On May 31, at a big homecoming bash, the flamboyant handler set a snake by his side, and it rose to bite him in the thigh. Eleven hours later, he was dead. Mack died the same way his father had when Mack was 15 years old: by a snake bite during worship.

Hearing about Mack's death took me back to Dennis Covington's riveting book on snake handlers in West Virginia, "Salvation on Sand Mountain," which tells the story of people like Mack, who sounds a lot like Covington's mentor, Brother Cecil, "a man who really gets anointed by the Holy Ghost. He'll get so carried away, he'll use a rattlesnake to wipe the sweat off his brow."

Journalist Covington met the quirky people of rural West Virginia when he covered a murder trial in which another snake-handler tried to kill his wife by holding her hand in a snake cage. He pissed on her, too. She survived. He went to jail. And Dennis Covington got changed.

What changed him? The thrill of ecstasy, the pulse of daring, the restless effort to defy the limits of life. If you've ever driven through rural West Virginia, you see those limits firsthand: deep ravines, curving rivers dotted with chemical plants. It's perennial dusk in some places, a shadowy land without a horizon. Snake-handling, poison-drinking -- these are the things that bring transcendence, light, sunshine to a few dreary churches in the valleys of West Virginia.

Snake-handling is senseless, of course. It's based on spurious biblical manuscripts at the tail end of Mark's Gospel that probably weren't part of the original New Testament documents. And it's dangerous. That, too. But it's also daring. It's the lure of ecstasy. The rush of religious adrenaline. It's like spiritual NASCAR for fundamentalist Christians who don't have two nickels to rub together, as my mother, a dirt poor coal miner's daughter from the mountains outside of Pittsburgh, used to say.

My mother left the mountains. She took the train to Kansas City after World War II. She took a job in Manhattan and married a New Yorker. But Randy "Mack" Wolford? He didn't get out. He stayed put and handled. I don't know if he handled life any better than he handled snakes. But he had his rush of adrenaline -- the rush so many of us yearn for.

I don't want to sanction snake-handling. I don't mean to perpetuate poison-drinking. And I don't want to eulogize Randy "Mack" Wolford for dying in this way. Yet before I dismiss this tragic snake-handler for the absurdity of his faith and his outlandish practices, I need to consider the questions Annie Dillard poses to Christians of comfort like myself:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? ... It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Annie Dillard, and Mack Wolford, too, remind us that there is a whole world out there -- and a part of ourselves -- in search of ecstasy, daring, the edge of experience rather than the safe and secure middle ground of mainline Christianity. The truth of the matter is this. Mack Wolford's death gives us the opportunity not just to belittle and to dismiss what we fail to grasp. Those of us who occupy the secure and sane middle-ground of Christianity can use a dose of adrenaline. Not the rush Mack felt in the presence of poisonous snakes, but a shot of daring and religious audacity.

An overwhelming penchant for ecstasy, however, is imbalanced and, in Mack's case, altogether too dangerous. Our Christian roots do not prize ecstasy at the expense of intellect, emotions without reason. Even at Pentecost, the church's birth Christians celebrated last weekend, Jesus' followers spoke in other tongues, comprehensible dialects: "Amazed and astonished," spectators asked, "How is it that ... in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's praiseworthy acts" (Acts 2:8-11). Theologian Michael Welker is spot on when he draws our attention away from the mighty rushing wind and toward the miracle of comprehension. "The miracle of the baptism in the Spirit lies not in what is difficult to understand or incomprehensible, but in a totally unexpected comprehensibility and in an unbelievable, universal capacity to understand..." When taken over by the spirit, Jesus' followers offered a thoroughly accessible recitation of God's praiseworthy acts. Randy "Mack" Wolford and the swelling ranks of Christians worldwide need to understand that when the spirit filled Jesus' followers, our earliest sources tell us, their response was a clear, intelligent and forceful testimonial to God's praiseworthy acts.

If Christians intend to thrive in the coming century, we could do worse than return to our roots and receive an invitation to a shared hallway in which all of us can walk. Those of us with drastically different experiences of God can learn to embrace ecstasy, even if some of us lean toward chaos and others toward order.

Dennis Covington, "Salvation on Sand Mountain" (Penguin, 1996)
Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk" (Harper & Row, 1982)
Michael Welker, "God the Spirit" (Fortress, 1994)