Jamie Coots, a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher in Kentucky who believed handling venomous snakes was an act of faith but might also cause his death was proven right on the second point Saturday night when Coots died from a rattlesnake bite.
Coots, a co-star of "Snake Salvation," a reality television series on the National Geographic Channel, was pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, a small congregation in Middlesboro, Ky., and a part-time school bus driver. He had been bitten numerous times before, but survived.
In this latest instance, police responded to calls from the church just before 8:30 p.m. Saturday, but found Coots had been taken home. He was placed, unconscious, in a living room chair, and was surrounded by family. Coots' wife, Linda, and 21-year-old son, Cody, signed police forms declining medical treatment, and officers left the home shortly after 9 p.m. An hour later, police were called to the scene and found Coots dead, according to veteran religion writer Julia Duin, who has written about snake-handling Christians, and reported Coots' death in a blog item for The Wall Street Journal.
Religion News Service carries an additional report by Bob Smietana, a former religion writer for The Tennessean who wrote about the subject there.
The question of being able to handle deadly reptiles as part of a worship service and survive is a hot-button issue in some corners of Christianity. Those who practice snake-handling, and those who support it, say their actions are meant to confirm Jesus' injunction in Mark 16:17-18, which says in part, "And these signs shall follow them that believe They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them ."
Duin reprised Coots' words from a 2012 interview in which the pastor explained why he did this: "You feel that anointing and then the Lord speaks to your heart telling you what to do. It is a feeling of power, but it is a feeling of peace," Coots is quoted as saying. "You’re in your body and you know what you’re doing and you can’t control it. There is such a power coming over you and you are obedient to the Spirit of God and you are compelled to do what He tells you and you know it will be all right."
Such a view had its skeptics, even among Christians, noted the Los Angeles Times: "A friend of mine suggested that the biblical injunction that inspired Coot(s) to handle a serpent should be properly read to mean that if a believer happens to come across a snake, God will step in, but that doesn’t mean you should seek out the critters," blogger and editorial writer Michael McGough wrote. "Even if you embrace that more moderate interpretation, the death of the snake handler is a reminder that the Jesus of the Gospels spoke in a supernatural vocabulary that doesn’t come naturally to 21st century people, including a lot of Christians."
According to RNS writer Smietana, opprobrium from Christians wasn't Coots' only problem. "In 2008, Coots was arrested after Kentucky police found dozens of poisonous snakes at his home — he later got permits to own snakes in that state. Last year, Coots was arrested near Knoxville after state troopers found snakes in his car. He pled guilty to violating Tennessee’s ban on possessing venomous wildlife and received a year’s probation."
It remains an open question as to whether or not Coots' life might have been saved if he had received medical treatment. Daniel Burke of CNN's Belief Blog explored the question, and quoted an academic on why snake-handling had such attraction.
"Because serpent handling is not a practice that occurs in the mainstream, people tend to look at it as anomalous and strange, " Burke quotes Paul Williamson, a psychology professor at Arkansas' Henderson State University, who has studied the phenomenon. "But to them, it's really no different from a Catholic who takes Communion. It's a powerful and immediate experience of God that gives meaning and purpose to their lives."
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