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ETpro's avatar

Was this stupidity, lack of faith, divine failing, or a business risk gone wrong? [See details].

Asked by ETpro (34461points) June 3rd, 2012

Sunday question.

Forty-four year old West Virginia Pentecostal Pastor, Mark Wolford died from a rattle snake bite suffered during a church ritual involving snake handling. Amazingly, as a child, the Pastor witnessed his 39 year old father die in exactly the same way.

Both were taking part in a ritual practiced by some evangelical churches. They are supposedly demonstrating their belief in Mark 16: 17–18, which 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.”

So what went wrong. Was it stupid to take the verse literally? Would you really expect to drink poison and not have cause and effect operate? Was the Pastor just a tad short on faith? Was it divine failing, as in God the Holy Ghost getting distracted for a moment? Or was this a religious marketing stunt that is usually worth the risk, but this time didn’t pay off as hoped? What’s your take?

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29 Answers

ragingloli's avatar


SuperMouse's avatar

Another vote for stupidity.

josie's avatar

It will appear here fairly soon I imagine

Kayak8's avatar

I think it is interesting that so many pick serpent handling rather than poison drinking. That bespeaks a lack of faith to me in the very design of the endeavor—but perhaps that’s because I think drinking poison is 100% dangerous and serpent handling somewhat less so).

bewailknot's avatar

Perhaps he had a moment of unbelief. A split second crisis of faith.

mangeons's avatar

I’d definitely say stupidity.

ragingloli's avatar

I wonder if any of those would ever be willing to flood the entire church with mustard gas to find out who is truly “faithful”.

YARNLADY's avatar

I think the people who perform that sort of act are true believers, and their luck simply runs out.

wildpotato's avatar

If I believed in God, I would call it divine failing, though I wouldn’t phrase it that way. According to my favorite theodicy (Whitehead’s), a snake is an actual occasion (a thing) that is fairly complex, and therefore has a high level of self-determinative ability. God cannot influence actual occasions at such a level of complexity. In other words, if I believed in God, I would not believe that God is omnipotent. And I would not call this a failing so much as a constraint though I won’t go so far as the Iranean theodicy and make the claim that God self-limits because evil is all part of the plan for good; I think that’s assuming a bit much.

Since I do not believe in God, I’ll have to go with…faith, I guess, just that. Not stupidity, just…selective thought, that in his case excluded the thought that handling venemous snakes is a terrible idea.

Faith can’t be characterized as smart or idiotic because it has nothing to do with thinking consciously or deliberately making a choice to believe. As Kierkegaard points out, it is a leap. So I don’t think he thought about whether handling the rattlers was a bad idea, because his faith overrode any option to make that decision.

zenvelo's avatar

I think he was found wanting, and suffered the consequences. One might even accuse him of hubris. He who exalts himself shall be humbled.

wundayatta's avatar

None of the above. Or stupidity, but it is a common form of risk taking. Many, many people will risk death in order to get high, and that’s what happens during snake handling. It’s a spiritual high.

The Pentecostalists interpret that feeling as being closer to God, and that’s nice, but it isn’t what drives them. It’s the high of being out of your mind that drives them. That feeling drives many people to abuse drugs or engage in many other very risky behaviors, like jumping out of airplanes, or skydiving down mountains or driving very fast and on and on. These activities provide a rush and it is a very important experience, so I understand why people would be willing to risk their lives for it if they have never experienced it any other way.

So I don’t think it is totally stupid. It is stupid, but not totally stupid. I would do it that way, I think, if I didn’t know the alternatives. There is certainly a significant level of ignorance that goes into making a choice like this, but I don’t think it is nearly as bad as some other stupid things I have heard of people doing.

phaedryx's avatar

Matthew 4:5–7 (KJV):

5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,

6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

I categorize these actions as “tempting God”. You have no promise of help if you are purposely putting yourself in danger to try to force God’s hand. Or, as my friend of mine used to say: “God won’t protect the stupid.”

reijinni's avatar

Typical preacher. He deserves his fate.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

Stupidity caused by fate….their karma had it mapped out that way.

woodcutter's avatar

Snakes really don’t like being handled. It pisses them off. Lots of folks have been bitten and some die. The snakes aren’t impressed with the importance of the human handling them. To them I’m guessing all of us humans look the same. The guys luck ran out this time.

Was god mad at Greenville Kansas when the tornado wiped it off the map?

ETpro's avatar

@ragingloli As you said in your first response, he may have been stupid, but not that stupid. I happen to think it was a business risk that went terribly wrong. In that spirit, flooding the whole church with Mustard gas would wipe out the entire market base. Not a great method of increasing your market reach and driving more profits offerings to the bottom line charitable cause.

@SuperMouse There’s some of that in there too. Handling the snake to begin with was a business decision. Going to a relatives house 80 miles away to recover instead of straight to the nearest ER for anti-venom was stupid.

@josie I was thinking that, then it hit me that he got away with this gambit 5 years longer than his dad. Perhaps in 10 or 20 thousand more years, the Wolford Pastors will evolve to the point they can make it to a ripe old age playing with timber rattlers. Or maybe they will evolve resistance to the venom.

@Kayak8 If you’re the crass showman sort of preacher (which it appears this guy was not) then drinking poison is a prefect show. You control what poison and drink the antidote off-stage just before the show.

@bewailknot My guess is that moment didn’t come till the snake struck.

@mangeons Well I’m definitely getting outvoted by the “It was stupidity.” crowd. But hey, I’m stupid enough to go against the flow.

@YARNLADY I’m inclined to agree that he was a true believer, but since his congregation presumably are already believers too, I think the motivation was marketing. Get the home crowd fired up and full of the spirit so they will go out and recruit more members and the Pastor can trade up to a Cadillac.

@wildpotato But if you believed in the God described in his Bible, you would have to believe that He can and does intervene in the actions of animals with high levels of self-determinative ability. The quoted scripture, which he was trying to demonstrate the truth of, says He can.

@zenvelo That is what I love about the Bible. You do what it says, and then when it doesn’t come out right, other believers find a verse that contradicts the verse you acted on, and claim the Bible is therefore inerrant and those that read it and act on what they read are the problem when the predicted result fails to occur.

@wundayatta I suppose extreme sports enthusiasts are like that. Great rewards, both of the brain chemistry and financial variety. But great risks as well. It wouldn’t yield the high without the risk.

@phaedryx So what’s the point of Mark 16: 17–18 then?

@reijinni Ha! I’m guessing you aren’t a Pentecostal.

@ZEPHYRA So your bottom line is he stupidly chose the wrong religion?

@woodcutter Being as they see in IR, I am sure we do all look pretty much the same to them, and we look like a potential threat. And I can’t say as I blame rattlesnakes for not liking humans breaking into their hunting session and carrying them around in a crowd of other humans.

Ron_C's avatar

It just proves that he should not breed because stupidity seems to run in the family. Not only is the snake handling stupid but I suspect that they have corresponding religious views that are just as stupid.

Additionally, I think it’s pretty funny.

digitalimpression's avatar

I think it was, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the bible. If you continue to read Mark 16 it reads as a historical account.. not as a message to future believers. Verses 17–18 don’t suggest to me (as a believer) that I will be able to dance with snakes and eat strychnine for breakfast every morning.

I’d wager that this “church” and this “pastor” were in it more for the profit than for anything else (hence the dramatic snake performances).

Being that it was a father and son show.. it isn’t much of a stretch to say that not only did the apple stay close to the tree.. it actually became the same tree which chopped itself down for lack of wisdom.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C Yes, I can see that aspect of it.

@digitalimpression That was what I saw in it. A business decision gone wrong—rather predictably so.

ragingloli's avatar

Had he seen it as a mere occupational risk, he would not have driven home to “recover” and “pray”, but gone to a hospital.
He was clearly delusional about his god protecting him, so for me there is no other option but ‘stupidity’.

phaedryx's avatar

@ETpro I read it as, within the group of believers, they’ll see occurrences of these signs, e.g. in Acts 28:3 where Paul is bitten by a viper and doesn’t die. I don’t think it means that any given individual believer will experience any or all of these signs (and every time). I also don’t think it is intended as a believer test.

Ron_C's avatar

@phaedryx I think a believer test is a good idea. Tell them they have to be tested before they can join the church. If they agree to the snake handling, they’re automatically disqualified.

I thought that church was for people looking for answers. It seems to me that if you are certain of your religion and your god, you no longer need church.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

@ETpro No, my bottom line is that he didn’t choose anything, his fate led him there, in the same direction. He himself had no part in it, he was merely drawn by fate.

DaphneT's avatar

Well, hopefully his followers will get the message and expand their minds. If they believe, then he’s proved that God didn’t approve of his beliefs and practices and they should take action to expand their beliefs.

ETpro's avatar

@ragingloli OK, I looked it up. Between 7 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the US and 5 of them die. If you get to a hospital within 1 to 2 hours, the survival rate for a timber rattler bite is 99%. If he knew that and decided to skip treatment, that’s stupid. If he was handling snakes as a marketing ploy and never bothered to learn that, again, stupid. The snake can control how much venom is injected. If you walk by one and frighten it, it may give a warning bit with little or no venom. Attack it, step on in, or frustrate it—as handling it would do—and it will unload the full Monte.

So we’re left with stupid or delusional. And give how painful the effects of a rattle snake bite are, if it was delusion, it was a very strong delusion.

@phaedryx I don’t see how you escape the promise of the text. But the text certainly doesn’t mention using it as a believer test or poof of shamanship.

@Ron_C Most evangelical preachers present themselves as the one who has all the answers. This one clearly was wrong in that assertion.

@ZEPHYRA You’re freaking me out about the same way Pastor Wolford would. :-)

@DaphneT It will be their own IQ test.

wundayatta's avatar

You know, he may have wanted to die. He may have been depressed or had low self esteem. Those preacher fathers are sometimes pretty nasty parents. Very harsh. We’ll never know now, unless his family comes forward with more details about their lives. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more psychological issues going on here than meets the eye.

phaedryx's avatar

@ETpro what do you think the text is promising?

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta Great point. You are quite likely right.

@phaedryx According to Mark 16, this was the risen Jesus speaking to his remaining 11 disciples assembled together to eat. He told them to go into the world and preach the Gospel to all, and he defined the signs that would pertain to those that believed, and were baptized. He further said that those that refuse to believe will be damned.

Now, from these verses, I take it that the 11 were already baptized, and seeing him there before them, they believed.

John 1:24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John 3:25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John 4:1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.

So if they were already baptized and believers, he wasn’t saying these signs pertained only to the 11, but to those who received the gospel and believed and were baptized.

It’s always a puzzle to me how Christian fundamentalists claim certain portions of the Bible, such as the 6 day creation, must be understood literally. Despite the mountain range of evidence to the contrary, they insist the Earth and the Universe is only about 6,000 years old. And yet any portion of the same Bible that would obviously be untrue if interpreted literally, they insist is allegory; or is meant only for a particular time or a specific set of people. So Daniel’s specific prophecies of when the Messiah would appear say days, weeks, and months; but they actually mean something quite different.

phaedryx's avatar

@ETpro I guess the difference is that you interpret it as for all of the believers all of the time and I don’t

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