In the House of the Serpent Handler

A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media

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Julia C. Duin
  • Knoxville, TN: 
    University of Tennessee Press
    , December
     2017.
     277 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781621903758.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Julia C. Duin’s book focuses on the newest generation of snake handlers in six Appalachian states and their complicated relationship with the media. The book begins in 2012 with the death of renowned snake handler Mack Wolford and the author’s struggle to get his story covered, and ends with an exploration of how the media contributed to the downfall of one of the new generation of snake handlers. Duin’s interlocutors are members of “sign following” churches, who take a literal interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 in the King James translation of the Bible. In addition to snake handling, members of “sign following” churches ingest poison, handle fire, speak in tongues, and lay hands to show God’s power, test their own faith, and produce miraculous healing. Whereas earlier generations handled snakes in secret, partly to avoid arrest and prosecution, this new generation of snake handlers uses television, news, and social media to evangelize in the hopes of saving souls and their practices.

One of Duin’s key interlocutors is Andrew Hamblin, a young pastor from Tennessee who began handling snakes when he was eighteen years old. Unlike many of the other snake handlers profiled in Duin’s book, Hamblin comes from a non-handling family and church. His background made him the ideal person to translate his Pentecostal practices to a wider and oftentimes suspicious audience. Hamblin and members of the Coots family from Kentucky starred in Snake Salvation, a reality television series produced by National Geographic Channel, which introduced the American public to snake handling in the 21st century. As Duin shows through her description of Hamblin, engaging with the media can bring fame and followers, which can translate into material support. However, the media often brings negative consequences as well. Local law enforcement targeted Hamblin for possessing snakes, which is illegal in Tennessee, leading to a highly publicized court battle. Hamblin’s relationship with media brought criticism from other snake handlers who believed he was more committed to becoming famous than serving God, leaving him ostracized by much of the snake handling community.

Duin is a captivating writer and her book was fun to read, but I finished it wanting more. In the second half of the book, Duin presents lengthy Facebook posts and exchanges, but does not provide an analysis. She allows her interlocutors to speak for themselves but fails to explain to her readers why any of it matters. Her book would have benefited from a more critical lens. Despite her focus on new media, such as social networking websites and reality shows, Duin does not explain what is unique about these forms versus “traditional” media. Reality television provided Duin’s interlocutors with an illusion of control over their narrative and social media facilitated an affective relationship between the handlers and their audience. The latter point seems to be of interest to Duin, who appears shocked and confused by her interlocutors’ willingness to share intimate details about themselves to an unknown imagined audience. As Duin writes of Hamblin’s ex-wife, “Liz was addicted to these invisible friends even if it meant spilling all her secrets to them” (161). What does it mean for someone living in an isolated community to be able to connect to the outside world? How does the synchronous nature of social media change communication strategies? How does social media complicate gender norms? These are all questions Duin left unanswered.

Duin’s book also raises interesting questions about the ethics of conducting digital ethnography. She treats social media as public domain, despite the marginalized position of the people she is studying. Throughout her book, Duin highlights members of “sign following” churches who have been ostracized by their families and their communities, from being kicked out of their home to losing their jobs. Yet, Duin does not fully anonymize Facebook users. She leaves out people’s names, but provides identifiable information including age, location, and employment to highlight how diverse snake handling supporters are. Her book shows how journalist ethics and anthropologist research ethics differ. For this reason, I believe this book would make an interesting addition to a methods and theory class.

In the House of the Serpent Handler provides a sympathetic account of a group that is trying to revive fading practices, as their environment around them deteriorates. Duin joins a small group of scholars and writers including Ralph Hood, Dennis Covington, and Thomas Burton who have sought to de-exoticize snake handling. In addition to Appalachian studies, Duin’s book contributes to the broader field of religion in America and evangelical studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kayla Renée Wheeler is Visiting Scholar in the African American Studies Program at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julia C. Duin, the former religion editor for the Washington Times, has published articles in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other national publications. She is the author of five previous books, including, most recently, Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community.

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