The Dead Snake Handler and the Dead Poet’s Society

On February 15, Jamie Coots, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and co-star of National Geographic’s reality show Snake Salvation, died from a snakebite to the hand. Christianity Today has the story. It was his ninth bite in twenty years. The previous eight made him very ill. Once he even lost a finger.

Snake handling as a form of worship is practiced by a small number of churches mostly in the rural southeastern United States. It started 100 years ago with an illiterate Pentecostal preacher in Tennessee who interpreted Mark 16:18 as a commandment from God.

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. (Mark 16:18, KJV)

Coots had stated that he viewed this commandment on the same level as the Ten Commandments.

Besides the fact that some of the earliest manuscripts don’t even include Mark 16:9–20, the problem with Coots’s understanding is that Mark 16:18 is not a commandment. It describes signs that “will accompany those who believe” (verse 17). What the author most likely had in mind were experiences such as Paul’s in Acts 28:3–6, when he was unexpectedly bitten by a poisonous serpent and suffered no ill effects.

After Coots died, National Geographic said in a statement,

We were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced. Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith.

Jamie Coots was sincere. But sincerity will not protect us from peril if we are sincerely wrong. Mark 16:18 does not instruct, nor does the New Testament anywhere enjoin, believers to handle poisonous serpents in worship services as proof of their faith. Coots’s devout convictions were based on a text he misread. He had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). And his end was sad.

John Keating’s Erroneous Zeal

Dead Poet’s Society is a critically acclaimed film from 1989 starring Robin Williams as John Keating, a charismatic English teacher in a private boy’s preparatory school who inspired his students to throw off conformity and join the great poets in “sucking the marrow out of life” by embracing the creed of carpe diem (seize the day).

In a provocative article, professor Kevin Dettmar, who has spent the past 30 years reveling in the wonders of English literature, declared that he hates Dead Poet’s Society. Using the fictional Keating as an example of a very real problem in the humanities, Dettmar calls him “misleading and deeply seductive” because “what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading.”

Then he points out where Keating seriously misreads Robert Frost and Walt Whitman to his students. Keating’s inspiring effect turns tragic when one of his students is prevented by his father from sucking life’s marrow and commits suicide.

Now, Dettmar writes,

[I am] all for passion in the literature classroom . . . . But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong.

In the film, Keating sincerely wants his students to live fully. The problem is that he inspires them by making the poets say what he wants them to say, finding “in poetry only an echo of what he already knows.” And in doing this, he’s leading his enchanted disciples to a perilous Neverland. Keating has a zeal for poetry, but not according to knowledge.

Be Zealous! But Only According to Knowledge

Teachers, and especially Bible teachers, let us by all means be sincere! Let us be zealous! But only according to knowledge. Let us be like Jonathan Edwards who wrote,

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.

Let us inspire, yes! But let us inspire with nothing but the truth.

And really understanding the truth of a text can be very hard, time-consuming work. What we think a text means at first, or what we want it to mean, are frequently not what the author actually meant. That’s why John Piper exhorts us to “query the text.” He says,

If the Bible is coherent, then understanding the Bible means grasping how things fit together. Becoming a biblical theologian means seeing more and more pieces fit together into a glorious mosaic of the divine will. And doing exegesis means querying the text about how its many propositions cohere in the author’s mind. . . . This kind of reflection and rumination is provoked by asking questions of the text. And you cannot do it if you hurry.

Dettmar’s words are as true for biblical exegesis as they are for the study of English poetry: “passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous.”

The Sobering Reminder

Jamie Coots and John Keating are sober reminders to us of what’s at stake in our teaching. People are going to actually believe what we teach them. What we teach will shape the way they live. Most will assume we have done the hard work of understanding the text. If we get it wrong, the results could be disastrous. And we will be held accountable (James 3:1).

Zeal and sincerity are wonderful qualities in a teacher, but only if he can teach and inspire his students with what the text really says. That teacher is one “who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Let us strive to be such teachers.