The Serpent and the Spirit
By Thomas Burton (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 262 pp., $19.95)
The author reads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Aug. 9 at 6 p.m.
When Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that those who believe in him can safely take up serpents and drink deadly poisons without fear of harm, most mainstream Christians believe he was speaking in metaphor. But to the 3,000 or so Pentecostal-Holiness adherents in Appalachia, Jesus' words in the Gospel of Mark are statements of fact. Holiness believers routinely drink poison and pick up rattlesnakes as part of their worship services, although they do so only when they feel "anointed" with the Holy Ghost, an ecstatic interlude during which God intervenes to protect them.
Thomas Burton, a retired English professor at East Tennessee State University, has spent almost three decades researching and mixing with Holiness Pentecostals in East Tennessee, where serpent-handling is thought to have been born, and throughout the South, where between 50 and 100 Holiness churches administer their faith. (Because religious handling of serpents is illegal in every state except West Virginia, estimates vary widely on the number of churches.) Over the years, while immersing himself in Holiness culture, Burton has produced or co-produced three documentaries on the subject and has written what is considered the authoritative history of the Holiness tradition, Serpent-Handling Believers (University of Tennessee Press, 1993).
Now, in an extraordinary new book, The Serpent and the Spirit, Burton revisits the celebrated 1992 case of Glenn Summerford, the serpent-handling, strychnine-drinking reverend of the Holiness Church of Jesus With Signs Following. After a trial covered by network television and The New York Times, Summerford was convicted in Scottsboro, Ala., and sentenced to 99 years for attempting to murder his wife by forcing her at gunpoint to stick her hand into a box of agitated rattlesnakes.
What got lost in the media frenzy, at least according to Burton, was the preacher's side of the story. Burton argues that Summerford was the victim of both a good-old-boy justice system and a vindictive, psychologically unstable wife hell-bent on sexing it up with every male in and out of Summerford's congregation, including his best friend and two of his adolescent sons from a previous marriage. Even Marty, the couple's lone child, believes that his mother took up serpents not to commune with the Holy Spirit but to meet potential lovers: "I mean she'd get up there and play with them snakes just like everybody else. [But] I don't think she was trying to do right. I think she was just using itlike the first church they had, she cheated on him at that one. I just can't remember that guy's name. He played the bass fiddle and the guitar. Once she cheated on Daddy with him, he didn't ever come back to the church no more. His guitar case sat there forever." But this kind of sensationalism is not what makes The Serpent and the Spirit extraordinary. In fact, Burton's unrelenting insistence that Darlene Summerford is a harlot, as well as his continued speculation that some unnamed cabal in the justice system had it out for Summerford, are the weakest parts of the book. While both of these theories may be true, the author's jackhammer approach turns them into detracting fixations.
To be fair to Burton, however, he may have had little choice about the twin obsessions of this book. And that, paradoxically, is what makes his work here unique: for Burton didn't write this book at all; instead, he made the supremely wise decision to let several key participants tell their own versions of events. What results is neither an unnuanced stack of opinions nor an artificially streamlined narrative, but rather a textured, intertwining set of personal stories that tell less about what happened that night in the snake shed than they tell about life in the Holiness community. And stories is what they are, told in voices that rarely make it into print and that find their way into the movies only in some abridged form designed to mock the rural South or ostensibly to glorify it.
Burton has done a masterful editing job. He respects the distinctiveness of each voice without attaching to it his own prejudices, so that the storytellers are neither demeaned nor exalted. Mostly, he simply condenses into linear monologues what surely were long, roundabout conversations. Sometimes, he abstracts from courtroom testimony and documents. This, for example, is Darlene, speaking at her husband's trial: "They said I was probably the best female snake handler in this area for a while. I handled copperheads too. They're not real bad poisonousI ain't never heard of nobody dying from them, getting bit by one. But one time a rattlesnake bit me because I got fear on me. It just nicked me, and it made me throw upthen my nerves made me throw up too."
While Burton states outright that his goal is to allow Summerford and his supporters a chance to air their side of the story, he accomplishes far more than that. He allows readers into a world that most would never otherwise have access to. And while part of the pleasure of the book is a shameless voyeurismThey drink strychnine! They play with rattlesnakes!what remains after the reading is not a voyeuristic sense of having witnessed strange people in a strange land. Instead, it's the recognition that on the most basic levelsthe desire for love, or the practice of faith (and, yes, the surrender to malice, vengeance and greed)those strange people are no stranger than we are ourselves. Well, maybe a little stranger. But that, perhaps, is why we tell stories in the first place: to fascinate and to humanize. In The Serpent and the Spirit, Burton does both.
The shooting location for hard bodies gym was formerly the Paramus, NJ location of Tower…
This is like a flashback to the '80s, when Ted Turner was colorizing CASABLANCA and…
That clip is horrifying. It looks like postmortem makeup. Very uncanny valley.
AGGGHHHH that last picture!
LE JOUR SE LEVE is far superior to its American remake, THE LONG NIGHT (1947),…