Down From the Mountain

Did you ever get bored in church as a kid? Did you hide comic books or crossword puzzles in your Bible case to combat the boredom of a stale sermon? Well, they don’t have that problem at the church Dennis Covington used to go to.

While writing his book Salvation on Sand Mountain (Viking-Penguin, 1996; see review in March-April 1996), Dennis Covington attended a church where members of the congregation drink strychnine from mason jars and handle poisonous snakes.

In person, Covington does not come across as the sort of guy who would handle lethal objects by choice. But he’s no stranger to danger. Covington made 12 trips to El Salvador as a journalist, often working amid intense crossfire during the war. Now back in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, the soft-spoken college instructor and author is one of the most exciting new voices in Southern writing. His prose is lyrical, compassionate, and full of the musicality that defines Southern speech and experience.

Covington is currently busy at work on two new projects. With his wife, Vicki, he is co-writing a book describing their well- drilling trip to Belize this summer. Dennis is also working on a new book for Viking-Penguin.

While on tour promoting Salvation on Sand Mountain (which was a finalist for the National Book Award), Covington took time out from his hectic schedule to speak with us about writing, faith, and worship after snake-handling. Staff members Brett Grainger and Rose Marie Berger interviewed Covington in the back room of a Washington, D.C. bookstore in April. —The Editors

Brett Grainger: You have a wonderful ear for language. While reading Salvation on Sand Mountain, I recited much of it aloud to a friend. I was struck that it sounded as if it had been written to be read aloud. Was this intentional on your part? If so, do you think there is any conscious link between this style of writing and the content or theme of your story?

Dennis Covington: I think there is. I found myself writing sometimes in the cadences I heard in the snake-handling churches. The preaching is so musical and rhythmic and poetic. I think I patterned my own style after that...and after the language of the New Testament.

I was reading the New Testament while I was writing the book—it was the only thing I was reading. I had never read it before. Even though I had been raised in the church, I had never just read the New Testament. It was a revelation for me.

Grainger: So you feel that reading the New Testament at the same time influenced the style of the book?

Covington: I think so. Some of the musicality of the text transferred to the book. I can’t read the Bible in other translations [than the King James Version] now. I’m aware of the missing element. And, of course, the handlers won’t...nothing else is the Bible.

Grainger: In your book you write, “At the heart of the impulse to tell stories is a mystery so profound that even as I begin to speak of it, the hairs on the back of my hand are starting to stand on end.” What, for you, is at the center of this mystery, this deep human impulse to tell stories?

Covington: That is how the gospel came to us—in the form of a story—and I don’t know why. Why did God choose that as the means? Stories make sense of our experience, clearly.

In that passage I was talking about the writer’s uncanny ability to see the past, present, and future at the same time. For God that’s no problem; it all is the same, you know: The past is here and now, as is the present. Artists simply tap into something of a spiritual nature when we write a story and, unknown to us sometimes, we’re also tapping into the past and the future.

Grainger: In the May-June 1996 issue of Sojourners, we focused specifically on the relationship between religious faith and creativity. What is the connection for you between your faith and your vocation as a writer?

Covington: I’ve thought a lot about that, but I don’t know whether I can articulate my thoughts. Madeleine L’Engle has a wonderful book called Walking on Water about this, and I am probably plagiarizing her when I say that we are called—as artists, as writers—to do an impossible thing; we’re called to step out on the water and walk on it. This requires a surrendering of self. It requires listening to the work. Most of all, it requires faith that the one who began this good thing in us is going to bring it to completion.

Writers are here for a purpose—to write. When we’re not writing, we’re in trouble. When we are writing, we are fulfilling a higher obligation.

Grainger: I’m interested in the connection you draw between your experience as a journalist in Latin America and your time among the snake handlers. In both situations a people historically oppressed, a people familiar with intense poverty and suffering, rely on their religious faith as a means to transform their suffering.

Do you feel it is a common source or common well that people can tap into in these situations? It’s interesting that you write that they started handling snakes only when they came down from the mountain, when they encountered the dominant culture.

Covington: I’m glad you got that. A lot of people don’t understand what I was driving at there: Running smack up against a culture that seems to have lost its sense of the sacred causes spiritual people to reach deep inside themselves and their faith to find something that is actually of lasting and permanent value.

Way back in the hills, they don’t handle the snakes. It’s on that border; it’s when they come down. And many of the people in the snake-handling churches are actually more “worldly,” having adapted to some of the cultural forms. They have VCRs and cars; they like to watch themselves on television.

But there’s nothing that will keep somebody at bay any better than a rattlesnake. If you hold up a rattlesnake, you’re ensured that you’re going to be insulated from that, whatever it is.

Grainger: How do you worship now?

Covington: While I was hanging out with the handlers, I continued to go to my own church in Birmingham a lot. I was frustrated because I wanted to shout “Amen” and “Praise God,” and stick my hands up and carry on. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t just let go. Now that I’m back there more or less on a permanent basis, I’m kind of reconciled to that form of worship.

The only thing we do in the Baptist Church that’s anything remotely like what the snake handlers do is to lay on hands during the ordination of deacons. I was ordained a deacon about a month ago in my church, and that was as powerful and moving as anything that happened to me with the handlers. When my father-in-law, a lifetime deacon who now has Parkinson’s disease, came down to lay hands on me—a very difficult ordeal for him—I felt those shaking hands on my head as he whispered in my ear. The sky took off.

People say, “Why snakes? I mean, why? Why would Jesus make a reference to that?” My answer, if I’m in a gathering or reading is, “Look at this. Why are you here?” I mean, you didn’t come just to hear me talk about my beliefs, you came to hear about the snakes.

Rose Berger: Somehow frog handlers just wouldn’t have the same appeal.

Covington: Right, although my children have done that. They’ve had some frog-handling services in the neighborhood!

Grainger: You describe at one point a memory when your uncle, a minister, committed suicide, and you draw a parallel between that memory and the snake handler’s continual flirtation with death or, as some would say, with suicide. You write, “My uncle’s death confirmed a suspicion of mine that madness and religion were a hair’s breadth apart. My beliefs about the nature of God and man have changed over the years, but that one never has. Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.”

How do you reconcile this belief with your split from the handlers at the end of the book, when you write, “I refuse to be a witness to suicide, particularly my own”? Is there still enough “passion, danger, and mystery” for you in Christianity without snake handling?

Covington: I hope so. Yes, there’s got to be.

In retrospect, I have a double mind about snake handling. On the one hand, I believe that these handlers are the believers that Jesus was talking about in Mark 16. He said that believers would take up serpents in his name—they’re the ones. The scripture is not lying; it’s the truth. I admire their faith.

But on the other hand, I’m really disturbed by the idea of somebody dying of a snakebite during a worship service. I cannot reconcile those two minds. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t take up serpents again until I wrote that line in the book. Once I wrote it I knew I was going to have to stand by it because of my children and family.

But missionaries who go into places that haven’t yet heard the gospel are putting everything on the line. In general, our culture—even non-believers—recognize the seriousness and importance of that, even though they may not believe the gospel.

I think of the handlers as missionaries. They’re clearly demonstrating signs, and the signs are intended for non-believers. But right now, I’m more interested in the fruit of the spirit than in the gifts of the spirit.

Grainger: How would you describe the “fruits of the spirit”?

Covington: The ones Paul lists. I can’t quote them verbatim, but love, joy, compassion, temperance, long-suffering— those kind of characteristics of Christian demeanor. I think my best shot at achieving this is through service. Most people concluded that a long time ago, but I had to take up serpents before I saw other ways to reach spiritual ecstasy. The entry into ecstasy is abnegation—denial of the self—and service to others is a way to do that.

In particular, what I’m interested in is well-drilling in places in the world that don’t have clean water—I’ve gotten obsessed with that. Vicki, my wife, and I were praying about it. After we prayed, Vicki said, “You know now, don’t you, that if you continue to pray, people are going to come along with answers for you about this.” This was right before the quarter started last fall.

I taught my first class. As I walked outside onto the terrace, somebody was drilling a water well right there in front of me. I’ve been teaching 20 years, and I’ve never seen anybody drilling a water well. So I raced down there—they must have thought I was crazy—and said, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” They said, “We’re drilling a water well.” I said, “Why? What could have brought you here?” Well, they’re from the geology department, and one guy said, “I teach hydrogeology over here at the university, and it’s fine if you want to come sit in.” So I started sitting in on his hydrogeology courses.

Then, Vicki was giving a reading down at Auburn University. I went along because a company nearby makes water drilling equipment. I told the history professor who invited Vicki that I was going to run over to the plant. He said, “Some members of our church have been involved in a well ministry. Let me give one of them a call.”

So I got on the phone with him, and I asked him what kind of equipment he used. He said, “It’s the same kind of equipment that company makes. And furthermore, it’s sitting here in my backyard. You can have it.” So I’ve got this water well drilling equipment in my garage right now.

It’s living water. That’s the idea.

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