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Kirby: Blind faith at times may just be blind

By Robert Kirby

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Feb 19 2014 01:29 pm • Last Updated Feb 21 2014 06:12 pm

The Rev. Jamie Coots of Middleboro, Ky., died last week of a snakebite. What makes this noteworthy is that he had survived previous bites while worshiping with serpents. What went wrong?

Coots, once the co-star of National Geographic’s "Snake Salvation," was waving snakes in his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church when a timber rattler bit him on the hand. He was dead a couple of hours later.

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Coots and other snake handlers place great emphasis on the King James Bible interpretation of … well, here, read it yourself.

Mark 16: 17-18:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 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."

Note: Actually, Mark might not have written any of that. Most Bible historians agree that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were added much later than the earliest manuscripts.

Back to the snakes and an important religious question: If Coots was proving his faith in God by annoying snakes and surviving their bites, what does his being dead from a snakebite prove?

According to friends and family and fellow snake handlers, it’s that Coots is a "martyr" who died showing his complete devotion to God.

OK, but what about the part of Mark that says: "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"?

Recovering was obviously the plan, as Pastor Coots’ son Cody told the media. "That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy."

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You think? What kind of proof or lesson is there when either answer you get is the right one?

I know that sounds skeptical, but I’ll bet that Coots and friends are also skeptical. Why just poisonous snakes? Why not drape a 12-foot Burmese python around your neck and go dancing?

It’s fair. Mark (or whoever) doesn’t specify poisonous snakes. He said serpents. A rock python capable of swallowing a live goat is a serpent.

I’m guessing the snake faithful don’t use pythons because they’re hedging their devotion. The chances of surviving a snakebite are considerably higher than surviving a head constricted to the size of a raisin.

Poison is also used in some extreme devotion ceremonies. Believers will knock back a shot of arsenic and survive. Hallelujah. I’d be more impressed if they drank half a gallon of antifreeze and survived. After all, Mark says "any deadly thing."

Here’s what I wonder: At what point does "devout religious conviction" become "devout ludicrous conviction"?

Hint: Most likely when it’s someone else’s devotion.

When friends and family are killed by a tornado or a tsunami, it’s always a sign that God is testing your devotion. But if it’s someone else’s friends and family, it’s God punishing them. How handy is that? Either way you’re right.

I’ll stick to being skeptical. Faith is a great way of coping with the incomprehensible randomness of life. But it probably works better if you’re not the one actually creating the incomprehensible.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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