Lauren Pond recently detailed some of her thoughts as she photographed the final agonizing moments of Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford. Pond, a photographer with the Washington Post, recounted how she struggled to fulfill her duties with the paper versus her human urges to attempt to try to help Wolford, who was dying, needlessly and just like his father, from a rattlesnake-inflicted bite. And all, presumably, because of this dubious passage in Mark 16:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (18) 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. (KJV)
Even more disparaging than the fact that fringe Christians are handling snakes, and thus testing god’s protection over their lives (I think the Bible also has something to say about not testing the lord, but that’s beside the point), is that this passage is probably not authentic in the first place. John Dominic Crossan said as much in his “The Historical Jesus” (p. 415-416):
My proposal is that the original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the centurion’s confession in 15:39. What comes afterward, from 15:40 through 16:8, was not in Secret Mark but stems from canonical Mark. … it fits very well with a Markan theology in which faith and hope despite persecution and death is much more important than visions, apparitions, and even revelations.
I found it telling that after observing Wolford’s faith and the agonizing death that flowed and followed from it, that Pond could actually write sympathetically about this man and his fellow believers:
My thoughts have been especially muddied because of the context in which I knew Mack. He wasn’t just a source and a subject in my year-long documentary project about Pentecostal serpent-handling; he was also a friend: We shared a meal at the cafe where members of his family work; he screened videos about himself for me at his house; I once stayed the night on his couch.
The practices of the Signs Following faith remain an enigma to many. How can people be foolish enough to interpret Mark 16: 17-18 so literally: to ingest poison, such as strychnine, which Mack also allegedly did at Sunday’s ceremony; to handle venomous snakes; and, most incomprehensible of all, not to seek medical treatment if bitten? Because of this reaction, many members of this religious community are hesitant to speak to the media, let alone be photographed.
But Mack was different. He allowed me to see what life was like for a serpent-handler outside church, which helped me better understand the controversial religious practice, and, I think, helped me add nuance to my photographs. His passing, my first vivid encounter with death, was both a personal and professional loss for me. …
Mack’s family has accepted his death as something that he knew was coming and something that was ultimately God’s will. The pastor believed every word of the Bible and laid down his life for his conviction, they said. For them, his death is an affirmation of the Signs Following tradition: “His faith is what took him home,” said his sister Robin Vanover, 38.
What a stunning statement from Wolford’s sister. If Mack really believed every word of the Bible, he was foolish to do so since it was already disproved in the death of his father. Doesn’t the passage in Mark 16 clearly say that believers will be able to drink poison and handle snakes, and they will not be harmed? Yet, both Wolford and his father diligently and faithfully followed the biblical passage but, as ever, the biblical promise of immunity was not kept. So, the life of Wolford and his father actually had the unintended consequence of serving to further disprove the validity of the Bible. His faith took him to the grave, all right. So did his unabashed stupidity and failure to understand the text on which he supposedly based his life.
I wonder how many times does the Bible’s promises would have to be broken before these people would be willing to pry open their closed little minds. To borrow a line from Hitchens, to ask the question is to answer it.