A Different Kind of Salvation

A Different Kind of Salvation

Salvation On Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington, gives us an insight into the religious practices and the private lives of a very unique group of people living in the northeastern Alabama, northwestern Georgia, Appalachian Mountain chain. The meaning of the word “salvation” for these people holds a different meaning than the standard term of God saving their soul. Their sense of salvation is something that is continuously sought out and has to be proven time and time again to their selves, and to those around them who indulge in the practice of the religion. The power of belief in the unseen, or a sensation, and the need to unify with like minds, to feel a part of a community, can propel an individual into acts that may seem crazy to the outside world. For this group of people, the feeling of power that comes to them by the handling of poisonous rattles snakes and copper head snakes, surviving multiple venomous bites, and drinking strychnine, is their challenge for displaying their keeping of the faith. This ritualistic organization seems to hold their community together. Insecurities, fears, lack of self-identity, are the inner forces that drive these people into submitting to a higher power, not only that which is in a heaven above, but rather a forbidden act that gives them the sense of self-worth, self-control, and acceptance by those in their immediate community. The snake handlers pass down this ritual from generation to generation. They believe they are predestined to do so and they feel it’s an honor. They are even willing to die for the cause. In all cases, their fathers and forefathers were snake handlers for the faith.
The surrounding circumstances of these types of people, poor, some uneducated, and sense of obligation, induce the need to dominate their object of choice, the need to control something, to have power over something that can even possibly cause their death, seems to be their need in order to feel worth.
Seeking to feel and experience the unseen is a way to strengthen one’s faith, as if God did something mysterious for him, finding the great favor of God. They want to feel it; they want to believe it, so some make it happen. Believing one has to be in the spirit in order to not be bitten by the snakes determines who handles the snakes. The ultimate devotion and loyalty to the cause, is to die unattended by medical provisions, and some want more bites as their going down. The more snake bites that one survives, the larger and more dangerous the snake that one handles, the more spiritual the man is deemed, making him higher up on the holiness chart because he has supposedly obtained an amazing higher faith that Jesus proclaims makes you a marked follower of His (NIV Mark 16:17-18).
However “around eight thousand people in the United States are bitten by poisonous snakes.” But “only a dozen or so die” (147). This is if they have immediate medical attention. But in the in the snake handlers faith and belief in God to protect them, there are instances in the book where people have been raised from the dead, as it is told. Also, for people to survive the bite of a rattle snake and copper head snake without medical attention, does take a divine intervention. To say that these practices are all in their minds would be not interrupting the book correctly, and over-looking these amazing facts (131). Certainly this would be a powerful attraction for someone who is an on-looker.
In observation of the events told in this book and the way it relates to religion, I have the opinion that a person can become drawn to even the most outrageous religion if there is a trace of identification, history of ancestors, insecurities, fear, lack, and the need to be accepted by society or community or individual relationships, or possibly rebellion against the norm. Even if someone has no desire at the start, one could possibly turn their lives over to a religious ritual no matter how much one rejects the idea to begin with. Curiosity can turn a person’s mind and heart to convert to a religion by repeated exposure to its particular practice. Dennis Covington was a “freelance journalist stringing for the New York Times” wanting to write an article (242). He paid a visiting to Sand Mountain and began believing he was called to be a snake handling Preacher. After watching these people handle snakes, he said, “I wondered what it would be like being bitten by a rattlesnake. I wondered if there would be any pleasure in that, coming close to death and surviving.” I think maybe some people can be hypnotized or captured by an idea or ritual if they are compelled to any of the criteria that are involved in the ritual. He began to think back to a time when he was a child and how he would hunt and capture non-poisonous snakes. This made him ponder the possibility that he may be predestined. He says, “I actually envisioned myself, preaching out of my car with a Bible, a trunkload of rattlesnakes, and a megaphone (236).”
Conforming to religion is a must to be like-minded. One has to agree on every aspect of what that particular religion demands that you do. If not, that person will be ostracized. For example, when Dennis Covington got up in front of the church and defended the position of women in the Bible and in the church, he was opposed by the congregation and the Preacher, who were all of his friends, those who accepted him and his wife and welcomed him with opened arms. This was also the end of his illusion and the end for his book (231-233). How are the women treated in their home after the church service is over? Are they forced to be subservient? Unfortunately, I’m not sure if anyone in a group such as this would come to the aid of someone other than for the need of prayer from a snake bite.
What can make a person desert their entire life’s past, their accomplishments, their families, their careers, and sense of direction, all for the sake of a religion that offers ideas that do not make sense, odd challenges, and a path without certain direction, and possibly a destructive end? I think everyone is in search of fulfillment and many find it in religion. I believe it’s the unconditional acceptance of those who welcome a person into a group, even if the group is a dangerous one. Some people find their salvation by taking on the identity or persona of a group, one that makes them feel safe, secure, accepted, powerful, and fearless. Whoever offers the best idea for life’s salvation is where a person will find their Shangri la.

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