By Brett Younger
If you’ve been searching for a new favorite show on television since Matthew Crawley, heir of Lord Grantham, died on Downton Abbey, then mark Sept. 10 on your calendar. That is when “Snake Salvation” debuts on the National Geographic Channel.
This much-anticipated reality show follows a pair of serpent-handling Pentecostal preachers, Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., and Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church of Middlesboro, Ky.
The Reverends Hamblin and Coots take with dead seriousness a specific portion of Mark 16:17-18: “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.”
Some disapprove — serpent handling is illegal in narrow-minded states like Tennessee and Kentucky — but Holiness churchgoers have been “dancing with the snakes” for over 100 years.
The show will feature worshippers petting venomous reptiles in church and living within a broad definition of normal outside of church. The series hopes to make it clear that churchgoers who wrestle rattlers have the same everyday struggles with marriage, money and moccasins as the rest of us.
Only 16 programs have been planned, but this show is here to stay. Look for these upcoming episodes: “Bitten in Church,” “Sin or Serpents” and “Outlaw Religion.”
I am hoping that the second season will include “New Testament Scholar” in which a seminary professor (a snake in the grass?) explains that Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition to the text. I would set my DVR for an episode titled “But What If This Passage is a Metaphor?” I would be less enthused about a “Downing Drano” episode in which church members test the “drink any deadly thing” portion of the text.
“Snake Salvation” could begin a flood of church-based reality shows as television producers begin to realize the dramatic possibilities of combining the allure of reality TV with the reality of church life. Here are a few possibilities:
“America’s Next Top Middle School Sunday School Teacher.” Eighth graders try the patience of well-meaning but naïve educators who are not sure how to respond to “Where in the Bible does it say that God thinks polygamy is a bad idea?”
“The Bachelor.” Ten hopelessly romantic women compete for the hand of one tall, handsome, Bible-believing man. Follow the struggles of the most attractive male in the singles’ group as he weighs the appeal of women who may be at church at 9:45 on Sunday morning for reasons other than their love for Jesus.
“Deacon Dynasty.” This cast of old and powerful church leaders brings drama to a new level. Their heated conversations will keep you wondering what these bad boys and girls will say next. Watch them struggle to escape an old paradigm.
“Heaven’s Kitchen.” Aspiring chefs are put to the ultimate challenge of competing for recognition as the church’s best cook. Cutthroat casseroles!
“The Real Housewives of the Church.” This drama details the cast’s lives, loves and religious concerns. Churchgoing housewives in Orange County, Miami and Beverly Hills are more interesting than housewives who have never wondered how their hairstyle goes with their choir robe.
“16 and Not Pregnant.” This unscripted drama explores challenges facing churchgoing teenagers who are not pregnant.
“Trading Musicians.” Each Sunday churches with radically different worship styles trade musicians with hilarious results. Watch the senior adults’ faces when the first note of the prelude is played on an electric guitar.
“Survivor.” Members of a ministers’ peer group meet each month in an undisclosed location and choose one pastor to go into the insurance business.
Now for my favorite suggestion: “Church in the Real World.” Shows like “Snake Salvation” suggest that for a few, church is an escape from reality, but the opposite is more often true. The world of popular culture is not as real as the hope of Christ’s often dramatic church.