Sep 3, 2018

Documentary about 'snake-handling' Kentucky church fails to grasp tradition, expert says

September 2, 2018

Kentucky Pastor Jamie Coots died after he was bitten by a snake at his church Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name

A new documentary by a London media company shows a serpent-handling pastor being bit and injured by a venomous snake at a Kentucky church.

University of Tennessee-Chattanooga professor Ralph Hood, who is an expert on the practice, says it is an impressive shot of a snake bite, but "My Life Inside: The Snake Church" does little to further the viewer's understanding of the Appalachian religious tradition.

He pointed to the title as an example. Those who perform the Christian ritual tend to refer to them as serpents instead of snakes, which can be viewed as offensive language, he said.

"Nothing about it seemed real sincere to me," Hood said. "It bothers me that nobody tries to understand the tradition."

Practice of 'taking up serpents' rooted in Gospel

For 35 years, Hood has studied religious serpent handling, including the Kentucky church featured in the new Barcroft TV documentary, and co-wrote the book "Them That Believe." The practice, illegal in many states, is rooted in obedience to the Gospel of Mark, Hood said.

In the King James Version of the Bible, Mark 16:17-18 reads: "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."

Through his work, Hood knows Cody Coots, the pastor bit and injured in the video, as well as his late father, Jamie Coots, who died in 2014 after refusing medical treatment for a snakebite.

It is not clear when Cody Coots suffered the snakebite shown in the documentary.

He was bit in 2014, according to news reports, when he took over services at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name following his dad's death. Hood said the last he knew Cody Coots had left the church. And, Barcroft TV refers to him as the former pastor of the Middlesboro, Kentucky church in its story on the second part of its documentary. 

The prevalence of serpent-handling churches ebbs and flows. Today, Hood estimates that about 125 churches are scattered throughout the Appalachian mountain regions. 

"They are not as strong as they used to be," Hood said. "My argument is it's always waxed and waned and as long as there's the King James Bible and serpents, there'll be serpent-handling churches." 

Unlike the Coots family and the Kentucky church, places of worship where the ritual is practiced are far more likely to fly under the radar, keeping cameras out of services and declining to work with the media, Hood said. But, they welcome anyone genuinely interested in learning about their tradition as well as those considering joining, he said.  

Many media companies have documented the tradition, like National Geographic and its "Snake Salvation" show. But Hood says a number of those who do it lean too heavily on sensationalism.  

"It’s not really an effort to document the tradition," Hood said. "It's an effort to get a story out. It's almost like reality TV — that's fine, but it's not real."

Hood urges anyone interested in learning more about the tradition to look for quality, neutral sources on the topic. In churches where the practice takes place, serpents are infrequently handled and when they are, it is only for a brief time, Hood said. 

"Serpent-handling churches are not all about serpent handling. It's only one small part of what they do," Hood said. "What they really are, are Holinesss people who try to live their lives as they think the Bible would have them live their lives."

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