In Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy, “The Lady Eve,” explorer and herpetologist Henry Fonda exclaims, “Snakes are my life!” To which card sharp and all-round siren Barbara Stanwyck exclaims, “What a life!” That joke is so much more polite—and funnier—than the clichés about the farther reaches of the American South. Toward what group is contempt most permissible in common culture? Poor, ill-educated, white Southerners. “Poor white trash.” (Even poor white trash use the phrase.) White or black, poor or rich, all feel free to badmouth the “redneck.” Think of the reaction, then, that many might have to the content of Scott W. Schwartz’s remarkable little book, “Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers.” David L. Kimbrough’s 1995 “Taking up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky” is a more detailed study of the same subject, drawn from years of participation and observation. Yet there’s a valuable immediacy to Schwartz’s slim volume, studded with privileged pictures. The photos are not technically admirable, but the content startles and transfixes, against the plain white cinder block walls of a rural church, say, the True Tabernacle of Jesus Christ in Middlesboro, Kentucky, or the Church of the True Jesus Christ in Ross Point, Kentucky. A square-headed, burr-topped, fireman-mustachioed man, eyes cloud, testifies into a hand mike. Another man: Plaid-shirted, mouth slack in shout, wild-eyed as the diamond patterns of a sizable serpent coil against his patterns. Another: chubby, bare feet astride a dishtub of water for ceremonial washing. All gestures of supplication or abandon, reminding us that one may not discount or dismiss the rapture of others. Schwartz works to explain how it’s physiologically possible to walk on coals, get snakebit, talk in tongues, sing praises, draw adrenalized highs and remain alive, attain holiness. “Anyone who handles poisonous snakes is crazy,” Schwartz’s colleagues tell him with contempt. “The wrath of God is what you have to fear if you’re not a believer,” one John Brown, Sr., allows. The thunder of sermons and the vibration of gospel song ask, “Death where is thy sting?” And there is none, even when a snake takes one of their own. There is only faith, humility and the hope of redemption.
Faith, Serpents and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers
by Scott W. Schwartz
University Press of Mississippi, $25, 94 pages