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Rattlesnakes and Grace

Rattlesnakes and Grace

First, a quick note by way of irony. Miska and I were at this very airport in Cancun on Saturdayorning, beating the rush that is now on full-scale alert to evacuate the Mayan Riviera coastline. It’s just weird to see this on the front page of today. Prayers for all who live in the region, who can’t hop on a flight and escape the danger.


One of my absolute favorite musicians – and a good friend – is
Tom Conlon. He’s the real deal. An incredible songwriter and guitarist, he’s turned down some recording deals because, at the time, they never quite fit him right. Tom lives outside of Boston and treks down our way a time or two a year. He always tours with Roadie, his dog, and his custom Taylor guitar. I’m no musician, mind you, but what that Taylor does when it’s in Tom’s hands – pure, aching beauty. For me, Tom defines the indie artist.  Tom knows who he is, and Tom gives away his soul in his music. 

But I’m really not writing about Tom. I’m writing about a book Tom badgered me to read. After a voice mail where he promised to keep after me until I picked it up, I snagged Dennis vington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. What a read. 

Covington, an acclaimed novelist living in Birmingham, was covering regional stories for the New York Times when Glenn Summerford was convicted for the attempted murder of his wife Darlene in rural Scottsboro, Alabama. Normally (sadly), the story wouldn’t have garnered much attention. Summerford, however, was the snake handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following (that’s the name of the church, no joke) – and he had tried to kill his wife by sticking a gun to her head and forcing her to shove her hand in the crate of venomous rattlers he kept in his back shed.  Bitten multiple times, Darlene survived only because Glenn passed out in a drunken stupor, allowing her to stumble her way to a neighbor’s house for help. 

The trial pulled Covington into this underbelly world, and he spent a year or two immersed in this strange, religious, snake handling culture. Salvation on Sand Mountain is Dennis’ story.  

Reading Mark 16:17 literally, snake handling churches believe they should “take up serpents” as necessary signs that they are truly united with the Holy Spirit. One might expect Covington’s work to be an expose, revealing all the weirdness and backwardness in an aghast (or even mocking) tone. What we find, however, is nothing so simple as that. 

As Covington’s months with the snake handlers rolled on, he found himself attracted to the fervor, the intensity, the commitment. At one point, he had an ecstatic experience where he even picked up a twenty-four pound rattler himself. This New York Times journalist, wordly-wise, skeptical and, frankly, concerned about much that he saw, was still pulled toward some ineffable quality he encountered in these oddball experiences.  

As I read Covington, I think I see at least a few of the magnetizing elements that pulled and tugged at his soul, outlandish as much of the external trappings were. Here’s two: 

[1] We humans long for mystery. We are wired for it. A God of wonder and hope and faith formed us in his image; and if cold calculation and hygienic preoccupation and pedantic precision consume our faith, well, something’s gotta give.  

[I have] a suspicion…that madness and religion are a hair’s breadth away…Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.          || Dennis Covington || 

[2] We all have a story. We all have roots. Our story helps make us who we are, and we must make peace with even the parts we most want to forget – even if, in the end, we must leave those chapters behind. For Dennis, this aberrant journey into religious fanaticism took him on a deeper journey into his own story, his own religious upbringing. He came to respect pieces of his spiritual heritage, pieces he probably could never have owned otherwise – he had been too busy running from them. Our past, regardless how strange or repulsive to us, has certainly offered us measures of grace, and we must acknowledge this grace if we are to be truly ourselves. We must. 

I had found my people. But I had also discovered that I couldn’t be one of them, after all. Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it’s suicide to stay there.  || Dennis Covington || 

peace / Winn 

p.s. I’m still looking at conversing around some questions from time to time. If there’s something you’d like to throw on the table, email me @ [email protected] 

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