I read with sadness and no small amount of morbid curiosity about Jamie Coots, the Kentucky pastor who died recently from a snakebite he received while leading worship. Coots was a third-generation snake-handling preacher and had been featured on a National Geographic Channel show for his peculiar ministry.
It’s all too easy to make fun of him as a backwoods ignoramus who took his Bible too seriously and his life not seriously enough. Some will say he deserved what he got, while others will dismiss him as just another one of those fringe believers who grossly misread scripture and let their literal interpretations go well past the point of common sense. And if I didn’t give it any thought, I would probably be one of those people. Coots and his ilk are low-hanging fruit for ridicule, Christians whose warped interpretation of scripture give skeptics plenty of reason to point and laugh.
Well, in Coots’ defense what he was doing IS in the Bible. Check out Mark 16: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” So there ya go. Make fun of him all you want, but in his mind, he was following the words of Jesus. There are a lot of people who use the Bible to condemn or condone all sorts of stuff, but at least Coots was basing his belief on the actual words of Jesus, not some obscure law from Leviticus.
I watched a news story about Coots from a few years ago, and I was struck by the man’s…saneness. Yeah, it surprised me, too. He came across as completely normal, except in the part where he was waving serpents around the sanctuary like they were pom-poms. While I doubt he and I would find much theological common ground (I take the Indiana Jones approach to snakes), he and the other pastors interviewed didn’t rave against our Satanic government or live in an underground bunker stocked for Armageddon. They were normal folks who read their Bibles and took seriously what it said to them, including the part in Mark 16.
Coots’ rationality was disconcerting to me. We Disciples are the rational ones! He’s supposed to be the crazy-eyed loony who looks like Nick Nolte’s mugshot. Instead, he looks like the manager at my local Kroger. His faith would be much easier to dismiss if he came across more like a cult leader and less like…well, a pastor. I wanted him to be different so I could more easily distance myself from him and dismiss what he called “faith.” But is it so easily dismissed? Nine times Coots was bitten by a venomous snake and nine times he survived without treatment. The tenth one did him in.
Think about that a second. Nine times. If he survives one bite, that’s just dumb luck. If he survives two bites, that’s quite a coincidence. But nine times? Son of a bean dip! What if this guy is actually right? What if I get to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter is checking for fang puncture wounds as criteria for admission? While I honestly don’t believe that’s the case, it’s kinda hard to argue around surviving nine poisonous snake bites. I’ve walked across icy parking lots to get to the sanctuary, and once I finished a sermon even when my printer ran out of ink and the last three pages were blank, but that’s about as risky as it gets for me when it comes to worship.
Feel free to revoke my ministerial standing, I applaud Coots’ conviction. He may have bet on the wrong serpent, but at least the guy was all-in with his beliefs, to the point he was willing to die for them. How many of us are as passionate about what we believe as Coots? Sure, I believe in things like loving my neighbor and praying for my enemies and all that good stuff…until doing so threatens my own comfort level (forget about it ever actually threatening my life). If stopping to help means being late for my dinner reservation, if standing up for what I believe means a loss of reputation or respect, I’ll let someone else take that snakebite for me.
We have something to learn from Jamie Coots, and it has nothing to do with snakes. It has to do with living what we believe, not to the point of inconvenience, but to the point of death. In the news story, Coots said he would rather die of a snakebite in his own home than in a hospital, because getting treatment for a snakebite would be a renunciation of his faith. How many times EVERY DAY do we renounce our faith by the things we do or the things we leave undone? I don’t interpret Mark 16 the same way as serpent handlers, but there are a lot of other passages about which I’m passionate, which undergird everything I believe about Jesus. Do I live out my beliefs with the same faith as Coots did his? Not even close.
May God forgive us for speaking with forked tongues, claiming one belief with our lips while living out a much more watered-down version with our lives. I personally think Jamie Coots was misguided in his beliefs, but at least he died for what he believed. If our churches were as fervent about what we believe Jesus was calling us to do, and as convicted in doing it, Christians would be known for a lot more than just handling snakes. Rest in peace, brother.