Alan's Reviews > Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington
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's review
Mar 02, 2009

really liked it
Read in March, 2009

This book takes us inside the world of snake handlers who pick up dangrous poisonous reptiles in the midsts of religious fervor as a way to get closer to God. As such, it is about as foreign to me and my tradition as one can get. I don't so much read the Bible as analyze it, always in the light of centuries of commentary that have accrued through Jewish history. This approach, rigidly intellectual, has little room for the kind of out-of-body spiritual experiences this book describes. I have to admit upfront that I am predisposed to be strongly suspicious of such experiences.
The author begins his book covering the attempted murder trial of a southern preacher accused of trying to poison his wife with rattlesnakes. He finds himself drawn to the world of snake handlers, who also drink strychnine when they aren't getting up close and personal with diamondbacks. People get bitten all the time and sometimes die but generally refuse treatment in order to allow God to work out His plan for them free of medical intervention.
These people seem to fill some perceived gap in the author's own life and he feels a common Scotch-Irish, Appalachian kinship with them.
The book is well-written and frequently gripping. The author describes how men and woman handling snakes enter a kind of trance in which they "speak in tongues" (babble nonsense); their faces bear a similarity to those of people caught in the height of sexual frenzy. They step out of themselves and feel something which they attribute to the divine.
Again, all very foreign to me. I have to ask myself, though, why this phenomenon seems confined to people still living in poverty in the hill country of Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee. As a journalist, I covered stories in Appalachia and found lamentable poverty, ignorance, poor health, terrible education and general ignorance and suspicion. If accepting that kind of life is the bargain people make in order to have these religious experiences, in my view it's not worth it. Better every day knowledge than ignorance, science than superstition, progress than stagnation.
There are many ways one can get high -- by taking drugs, or drinking or starving oneself -- or handling snakes. All of them involve not so much a surrender of self as a surrender of mind, of thought, of the most essential parts of what makes us human and what separates humans from animals.
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