Living as we do in the Bible Belt–forsooth yea verily in the buckle of the Bible Belt–we are accustomed to various unusual Christian novelties.
By “Christian novelties” I mean versions of Christianity that are novel. They are new. They have never been thought of before. They are the creation of entrepreneurial spiritual leaders with one eye on the Bible and the other on the religious marketplace.
They might be the megachurch pastors–the Bible thumpers de nos jours. Their church might be an old supermarket which they have gussied up with a stage, a sound system, a dry ice machine and a light show to rival a rock show. They do a good business raking in the cash and tailoring the gospel to the contemporary culture. Others have named their creed as “Moralistic therapeutic Deism” and it is pretty much THE big thing in the Christianity of our day.
Or they might be one of the number of independent Elmer Gantry’s with their church in a retail strip, a double wide in a country field or a little clapboard Babdiss church out in the boondocks. The grandiose names of the churches are usually in direct inverse proportion to the humble appearance of the building. So an old garage with a home made plywood steeple will attract the faithful with the name “Glory FourSquare Gospel Cathedral” or “Independent Apostolic Church of the Holy Anointing Inc.”
Then there are the various tribes of more traditional Protestants: Each of the old denominations has sub sets and sub sets of subsets. As a Presbyterian friend was describing for me the other day: “There is the Presbyterian Church of the USA. They’re the old mainstream liberals. Presbyterian Church of America broke away from them and are conservative. Reformed Presbyterian are more fundamentalist. Orthodox Presbyterian are extreme Calvinist. The Free Presbyterians are the Ian Paisley bunch…then there are various independent Presbyterian churches.
The same mixture and range of choice exists in all the denominations. So amongst the Pentecostal/Assembly of God gang you have the ones who speak in tongues, fall down in a faint to praise Jeezus, and at the far end the famous snake handlers who, (in literal belief in Mark 16:18) pass around rattlesnakes and imbibe poison at their services.
Now here’s the thing that links them all together (along with the other unusual characters in America’s Religious Sideshow–like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science devotees, Adventists, Christadelphians, Dispensationalists and Episcopalians)… they all follow some deviant, novel interpretation and understanding of the Bible and the Christian religion.
In one way or another, within their own cultural context through the motivation of money or the wish to be well thought of–or more often a mix of the two–they have come up with a new take on the old religion. They have come up with their own interpretation. So, for example, the snake handlers read Mark 16:18…
they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Then they launch their own take on it. Never mind that other Christians down the ages took that verse somewhat more cautiously, and never mind that their unusual interpretation has actually literally led to people dying slow agonizing deaths from venomous snakes and drinking cyanide. They are right. They know they’re right and everybody else (including 2000 years of Christians) must be wrong.
Now it is easy enough to condemn such folks as being backwoods hillbillies– uneducated rednecks who are a threat to true religion. It is easy to look down our noses at the prosperity preachers and the fundamentalist preachers with their novel interpretations of Scripture and their peculiar and ingenious new takes on the Christian religion. It is easy to blame them for compromising the timeless gospel to please the powers of this world and to grease the wheels of fortune.
What tickles me is that no one seems ready to call out the establishment religious leaders for the same foolishness. When Fr James Martin SJ and the bishops and cardinals support women’s ordination or same sex marriage are they not foisting on the ancient faith a novel understanding just as weird as the snake handlers and dispensationalists? When they tell us (with a straight face) that Mary Magdalen was an apostle or the sin of Sodom was “a lack of hospitality” are they not twisting Scripture and the historic faith?
In fact, while we’re speaking clearly–the snake handlers of East Tennessee actually have more respect for the inspiration of Sacred Scripture than the German Bishops and other modernists who treat Scripture as a culturally conditioned human document “which certainly has historical and liturgical importance” but in these matters “we know more about human sexuality now than St Paul did back then”.
The snake handlers may be frightening and they may distort the Bible, but at least they believe it is God’s Word.