The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released their 2018 Annual Report recently. We’re going to be talking about quite a few elements of that report in the days to come. But first, though, let’s wander afield a bit with one of the leaders of this disgraced denomination. Come check out this bizarre segue from the report! Today, Lord Snow Presides over the fundagelical hate-fear relationship with snakes.
(CALL AND RESPONSE: When I say “supernatural” in today’s post, you call back “NOT REAL!”
Why Does It Always Have to Be Snakes?
Please turn with me to page 105 of the SBC’s Annual Report.
Here, we find Steve Gaines waxing eloquent in the waning hours of his reign as the SBC’s president before handing the title over to J.D. Greear. He gives a tedious, long-winded, meandering, deception-filled sermon about what he claims is the “supernatural” nature of his god. He’s trying to make a case for his god’s protection being “supernatural” in nature, which I suppose is actually true given that it’s supernatural means it isn’t real.1
In the middle of pretending to establish his claim, Gaines suddenly explodes with a segue:
Paul was out there building a fire by bringing in the wood and all a sudden, a viper shows up. May I just make a statement? I HATE SNAKES. If you like snakes, you need counseling. Every snake is a bad snake. All of a sudden a snake comes out and grabs Paul by the hand. Imagine a snake hanging off your hand! I would be running and you’d never catch me! But notice what Paul does – he just shakes it off in the fire! THAT is a man of God. I’m gonna hire that guy, amen! That’s the guy I want on my staff – someone who can have a snake bite him and not be worried about it.
This whole bit of the sermon felt so totally out of left field that I had to just laugh! Could anything even be more fundagelical than this?
(Mr. Captain: “I don’t know who that guy is, but you need to keep an eye on him. He is exactly the kind of guy who’d burgle a turd.”)
Yet Another Marker Belief.
Unsurprisingly, Steve Gaines really fears snakes. Perhaps because he fears them, he also hates them.
His fear and hatred are so great that he expects every other TRUE CHRISTIAN™ on the planet to fear and hate them as well. Indeed, he equates fearing and hating snakes with being a true and honest “man of God.” If someone doesn’t fear and hate snakes like he does, but can somehow stand being near them at all, even if the snake bites them, then he wants that man working for him. Only supernatural help could ever bring a person to any other place besides fear and hatred of snakes.
Leave it to a zealot to hold such prejudice.
Dozens of religions revere and respect snakes. The Arapaho people–you know, some of those folks that Steve Gaines’ claimed spiritual forebears stole America from—have a legend that gives thanks to the garter snake for creating the wheel symbolizing creation itself after a great flood. The Caddo people, another such group, have a legend about a Snake-Woman who brought agriculture to humans. Even the Japanese possess legends about snakes that paint them in very favorable terms.
Even if we didn’t have copious evidence that plenty of people in other places and faith traditions think decently-well of the snake, we know that snakes perform a valuable role in nature. As one Florida worker at a dog kennel discovered, snakes control other pests like rats. Other types of snakes hunt insects, lizards, and even slugs and worms.
But in Christianity, especially the ends of it that Steve Gaines inhabits, snakes long ago became symbols of demonic power.
How the Devil Got His Fangs.
Many Christians–not just fundagelicals–think of Satan, their great adversary and ultimate boogeyman, as a snake or serpent-like being. And this association boasts a long history.
Sometime after the Old Testament’s last book was set to written record, around 165 BCE, Jewish people’s doctrines and beliefs began to shift. As that website about Biblical archeology puts it,
Two separate things happened and then merged: Satan became the proper name of the devil, a supernatural power now seen to oppose God as the leader of demons and the forces of evil; and the serpent in the Garden of Eden came to be identified with him.
These shifts occurred alongside a move toward belief in a final apocalypse, which Christians–especially fundagelicals–generally buy into even today. By the time the New Testament’s largely-anonymous scribes began developing Christianity’s supernatural ideas, Satan had firmly settled into the basic role he’d play in the religion for years to come. Other religions from that area and time shared this association of evil supernatural beings with snakes as well.
(It was definitely a stumbling block for me as a teenybopper Christian to discover that why no, nothing in my religion was truly original.)
Don’t Tread On Them.
The more toxic the Christian, the more that Christian needs to feel they have divine permission (even a divine mandate) to control, vilify, dehumanize, and abuse various groups they’ve earmarked for that purpose. That end of Christianity, so obsessed with flexing power over others, sets up these villains and less-than-human opponents that Christians may trample and win against.
Little wonder that Christians see snakes as evil beings that they can kill and dominate as stand-ins for their supernatural boogeymen. Actual living snakes can summon a lot of bang for the violence buck, but most of them aren’t dangerous to people. Of the ones that are, people can easily enough defeat them, given time, proper equipment, and planning.
One flavor of Christianity–a particularly odious and extremist one at that–goes in for what’s called snake handling. People don’t know exactly when it started, but it seems like somewhere around the Victorian Age and in the southeastern United States. In this practice, an abused, starved, improperly kept snake gets manhandled by a fundagelical. This act happens while the fundagelical simpers loudly about how the New Testament totally gives them the power to handle snakes without getting hurt–as long as the game is 100% stacked against the snake, natch. (Hey, don’t ever expect a zealot to offer a fair fight to an enemy.2)
And that reindeer game works right up until these animal abusers get bitten anyway and die. Most researchers studying this topic estimate that about a hundred documented snake handlers have died this way. But the practice persists. The Christians who believe this twaddle conceptualize snake handling as the ultimate expression of hardcore faith for a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
Snakes aren’t like a hugely popular pet, but they’re about as well-represented among household pets as hamsters are, according to one survey from 2016. Snake owners have become ever-more-vocal about the pleasure they derive from their danger noodles. Entire online and real-life groups exist for these pet owners (snek frens, though the term can also indicate the snakes themselves) to hang out together and share pictures of their pets.
Silly images of snakes abound in the world of internet memes, as well. I regularly encounter fans of snakes expressing their horror at how Christians think about and treat their scaly li’l frens.
Steve Gaines’ Tactical Mistake.
I grew up Catholic and immersed in folklore about the supernatural world. When I converted to the Southern Baptist Convention, it was almost a relief to discard all of my fears about demons and ghosts! But I noticed very quickly that my peers at school and in youth group at church still suffered from those fears and more besides.
I don’t mean to imply I had no fears. The way I saw it then, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ still had plenty to fear. But demons and ghosts were not part of that grouping. Out of everything I didn’t need to fear, I could not be harmed by demons. And like many fundagelicals think even today, I didn’t believe ghosts existed anyway.
So the notion that a Christian might need to innately fear snakes would have struck me as ridiculous back then. Whatever one demon disguised as a snake might have done eons ago, I knew snakes were not only a necessary but a valuable part of our world’s ecosystems.
Had I heard this sermon back then, I’d have immediately concluded that Steve Gaines doesn’t trust Jesus’ supernatural protection enough. Perfect love casts out fear, after all.3 But this dude dampens his trousers over just the idea of a snake in a mythical story.
I doubt these same Christians refrain from beating their animals just because Balaam’s donkey complained about being beaten after saving his master’s life from a vengeful angel. Just sayin’…
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a Christian who accidentally told us he doesn’t really take Jesus’ promises of supernatural protection seriously, and instead wages an unnecessary war against a perfectly natural and necessary part of the animal kingdom that his god supposedly created.
I’m not sure the maker of this video makes an accurate claim here, but it IS very cute.
NEXT UP: We look at the rest of the sermon–and guess what? It’s hilarious! See you next time. <3
1DRINKING GAME: Every time you see the word “supernatural” in this post, mentally translate it to “imaginary” and take a drink. Disclaimer: Roll to Disbelieve takes no responsibility for anyone who gets alcohol poisoning from this suggestion. Please don’t take drinking advice from a blog written by a half-beer drunk. (Back to the post!)
2 Also, in the same part of the Bible, Jesus promises that believers can drink poison and not get hurt doing it–but one rarely sees Christians trying that. They can’t come up quite so easily with fake demonstrations involving poison, I suppose. (Back to the post!)
3 OMG I’m terrified of spiders. I try not to be, but OMG. I nope out like that octopus meme at the sight of one. Thankfully, Mr. Captain doesn’t share my fear. He escorts any spiders we find in the house outside, to let them enjoy lives of peaceful spiritual contemplation in nature. He’s scared of snakes, but we’ve never seen one in the house. (Back to the post!)
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat, who knew a lot more than he ever let on.