Back in the Age of Antiquity, when everyone actually had cable television with a ton of channels and Netflix was still known as a company that sent DVDs by mail, the Nat Geo channel offered up a one-season show called Snake Salvation. Snake Salvation was a reality show that followed two pastors from snake-handling Pentecostal churches in Eastern Tennessee. We lived in Tennessee at the time, so if you combine that with my intense fascination with all things religion, especially minority religious sects- yeah, we watched the heck out of that show at my house. And when I learned that a book had been written about the people featured on the show, onto my TBR it went. I picked up In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia C. Duin (University of Tennessee Press, 2017) at my library last week, courtesy of interlibrary loan. It was every bit as fascinating as Snake Salvation had been.
In the House of the Serpent Handler follows the two pastors from Snake Salvation, Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, whose Pentecostal churches engage in the practice of snake handling (according to the verse in Mark 16 about how people should take up snakes and drink deadly things and won’t be hurt by them- yes, the churches will, on occasion, also offer various poisonous substances to drink, along with fire to pass a hand over). Ms. Duin highlights their lives before the show, desperate as they were- the area is rife with high unemployment levels and massive poverty- and the drama that ensued afterwards. It’s messy, tragic, and intriguing on so many different levels.
Andrew Hamblin is the major focus of this story, and it’s clear that Ms. Duin worked hard to try to understand what makes him tick, with the varying amounts of access she was allowed into his and Jamie Coots’s lives. Jamie Coots died from a snakebite a year after the Nat Geo show ended; this upended everything for Hamblin, whose life seemed to go off the rails in ways that may have seemed unexpected to outsiders, but which likely had been waiting for a triggering event such as this. Ms. Duin follows the fallout as best she can, using social media to track her subjects and show that while these people may be objects of fascination, being the snake handling, holiness-adhering Pentecostals that they are, they’re still people, subject to the major stressors of living in an area worn down by poverty, in a country that does little to ensure its citizens have full access to the services everyone needs to live a full, healthy life.
This is a tough book for me to sum up. On one hand, I found it utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the Nat Geo show and really appreciated knowing what had happened to the people it followed after the show ended. Apart from the articles released upon Jamie Coots’s death in 2014, I hadn’t heard much about this community, and I’d always wondered how they were doing. The area they live in is one of the poorest in the US, with one of the highest rates of unemployment, and everyday life is a struggle in so many ways for a lot of the people who live there, so not knowing how they were faring bothered me. (As it turns out, another one of the people featured on the show has since died- not from a snakebite, but a car accident. I had really liked this person, so this saddened me deeply.) The fallout from Jamie’s death stretched far and wide for Andrew Hamblin and his family, and it can still be felt today. Ms. Duin emphasizes that his choices may have seemed rash and ill-considered, but that they were also part and parcel of marrying so young, so quickly, being impulsive and not yet fully mature, and living in a place where poverty is rife and opportunities are few. So many factors go into the decisions we make and who we are, and the picture she paints of Andrew is a full one, not a mere caricature. He’s a flawed person, though an intelligent one with many gifts, and one who leaves a wake of drama in the path he blazes forward.
On the other hand, a lot of this book left me feeling like a voyeur in a kind of an icky way, and that’s not a criticism of the author. Ms. Duin used social media to study her subjects, and there are many Facebook posts included in the text, word-for-word with all the original misspellings and grammar flubs. So much drama and fighting and what feels like to me the airing of dirty laundry (but what is more likely a generational difference in how we use social media for support!) takes place on Facebook between the people in this work, and it left me feeling desperately sad- over the lack of education these folks have, over the poverty we deem acceptable for them to live in, over how they treat one another, over what their religion (and also their lack of education) deems proper for them. Reading Andrew Hamblin’s first wife Elizabeth’s posts broke my heart a thousand different ways. The book ends with things on an upswing for her, but I can’t help but continue to worry, because so many cards are stacked against her. I truly hope she’s found some peace and success in her life.
There were a few times I felt that Ms. Duin got a little too close to her subjects- not anywhere nearly as close as Dennis Covington did when he was researching his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, but close enough to state she was irritated when family members closed the church to media during a funeral. Her sense of entitlement to be there to witness their grief because the media had ‘made’ them bothered me; in my opinion, all bets are off when there’s been a death, and respecting the family’s wishes comes first, no matter how it inconveniences you, because at that point, it’s not about you, not in the slightest. But overall, this entire book works really, really well.
If you found yourself glued to the television when Snake Salvation was on in 2013, you’ll definitely enjoy the fuller look at the people that this program featured, at how they live and struggle to survive, and what happened after the cameras turned off and the producers packed up and left. And if you didn’t watch the show, this is a deeply fascinating look at a culture and a way of life that you may not be familiar with. You’ll still be left with questions and a nagging sense of worry, though, and a deep sense that no matter how other folks believe or worship or live, we’re truly all in this together and this country *needs* to do a better job of taking care of and educating its citizens.