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A snake-handling Church of Christ? Fiction author makes unfortunate name choice

Imagine my surprise when I read this in The Washington Post:

In the harrowing opening scene of Wiley Cash’s compelling first novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home,” the minister at the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following takes up a copperhead, prays over it and hands it to an elderly church member, who holds it “like a baby” to show the strength of her faith. The snake strikes her twice, the second time sinking its fangs into her hand so deeply that the preacher and two deacons have to pry it loose.

Read the full review.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that this “River Road Church of Christ” is a fictitious congregation in North Carolina with no connection to the River Road Church of Christ in Albany, Ga.
I visited and wrote a story about the congregation (the real one) in 2002 — and saw no evidence of snake handling.

The real River Road Church of Christ in Albany, Ga., welcomes church leaders during its Southern Africa Mission Project. (Photo via www.riverroadchurchofchrist.com)

I was there to cover the church’s Southern Africa Mission Project, or SAMP. The church brings congregational leaders from African nations, including South Africa and Malawi, and treats them to a week of classes on subjects including team-building, marriage enrichment, leadership and nutrition. (At this year’s Pepperdine lectures, I talked with a group of ministers from South Africa about the program, which is still going strong, they said.)
There are at least two other congregations in our fellowship with the name “River Road Church of Christ” — one in Nashville, Tenn., and one in New Port Richey, Fla.
So, why the unfortunate coincidence? Does Wiley Cash, a native of North Carolina, have an axe to grind with Churches of Christ? Or was he looking for a nondescript name that wouldn’t identify his fictional church with a well-known religious denomination?
Here’s what the author says about his own faith on the book’s Amazon page:

I deeply love my native state of North Carolina, especially its mountains. I hope my love for this region is evident in “A Land More Kind Than Home’s” portrayal of western North Carolina’s people, culture, and religious faith. While “A Land More Kind Than Home” revolves around a young autistic boy who is smothered during a church healing service, the novel’s three narrators all represent my experience of growing up in North Carolina and being raised in an evangelical church.
Like Jess Hall, the younger brother who secretly witnesses the death, I often found myself sitting in church and waiting for something to happen. As a boy I was promised that I would recognize my salvation when I felt Jesus move inside my heart; however, just as Jess does after his brother’s death, I attempted to rationalize the mysteries of Christianity, and I soon realized that we often use faith to fill the empty spaces in our lives. Like Adelaide Lyle, the church matriarch who straddles the divide between religious faith and old-time folk belief, my own religious beliefs are rounded out with a healthy dose of skepticism. While I’m always suspicious of those who pray the loudest, I can’t help but acknowledge the tug on my heart when I witness a baptism, and I can’t account for the inexplicable peace that comes from humming an old-time gospel. But I most identify with the character Clem Barefield, the local sheriff who must sift through his own tragic past to solve the mystery of the boy’s death, because, like Clem, I’m guided only by what I can perceive of this world, and I’m hesitant to get lost in following those who claim to be led by a spirit from the next.

What do you think of the author’s take on Christianity? Do you feel that he represents a regional trend among the people of the southern U.S., or a broader national trend of embracing spirituality while remaining skeptical about church itself?
Also, if you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts about it.

  • Feedback
    The name he gave the congregtion “with Signs Following” was entirely accurate for that type of church (aka “snake-handlers”). An enjoyable non-fiction read, in narrative format, on this group is “Salvation on Sand Mountain.” http://www.amazon.com/Salvation-Sand-Mountain-Snake-Handling-Redemption/dp/0140254587
    As for the author’s views, I can see the skepticism fairly clearly in our culture. But then, I live just outside NYC. So….
    Adam Gonnerman
    May, 9 2012

    I actually visited (on accident) a snake handling “Church of Christ” many years ago somewhere around the Tennessee/Georgia border. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the congregation, I was on my way to RUSH at Freed-Hardeman and was going up before the youth group to get everything ready for them.
    I got lost trying to take a “shortcut” and felt a little rush of joy when I saw a familiar church sign. I was late for services so I slipped in and sat at the back of the auditorium and it wasn’t but five minutes after I showed up that out came the snakes and out went David. I am not afraid of snakes, but I didn’t feel compelled to stick around.
    May, 9 2012

    My mother attended snake handling churches occasionally in the south before becoming a member of the Lord’s church. It is really easy to see that these are false teachers and are full of deception. Some have chosen the name church of Christ in this manner—one country singer, I can’t remember mentioned the church of Christ in a popular country song a few years ago-leading many to believe that this country singer might be at least church of Christ affiliated. When I emailed the singer–at least his representative said that he had no affiliation-that ‘church of Christ’ just fit the lyrics.
    Gary Hatmaker
    May, 10 2012

    I handle snakes. But then I work in a zoo. I don’t do it for religious purposes though it occasionally takes a lot of faith to handle some our most venemous ones! 🙂
    Mike Nance
    May, 11 2012

    Did anyone notice in the opening episode of the History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys” that the patriarchs of both families attended the same church, the Tug River Church of Christ? That was the sign on the outside of the church building.
    Victor Knowles
    May, 30 2012

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