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A neat take on that curious Bible verse about “handling snakes”

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Sarah Robsdottir - published on 01/31/23

There's no doubt we're living in a dark world. But we can confront it with a vibrant faith.

“They will pick up snakes … and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all …” (Mark 16:18)

There’s so much to love about Father Damian Ference’s book The Strangeness of Truth: Vibrant Faith in a Dark World that it feels weird to focus on just one point, but I’ve found myself contemplating his personal reflection on Mark 16:18 a lot lately — probably because a new sports season has landed me driving carpool all the time and listening to the radio at full blast (one of the only perks about being a taxi-driver mom). 

Now, anyone who knows me knows I love music. I pride myself on having memorized every single lyric from the 80s and 90s onward, as well as songs from various genres over a wide span of decades. So at the end of Father Ference’s book, when he talks about how important being in a grunge/rock cover band has been to his faith and public ministry, I couldn’t help but pay close attention — as I too have experienced art and music to be central to my own faith, understanding of the world, and how I relate to and share my faith with others. 

Father Ference writes about his time singing Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses, and Pearl Jam:

Sometimes I’ll change inappropriate lyrics, but for the most part, we pick songs that get people dancing, singing along and having a good Catholic time. [Because] at the very end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples they will be able to ‘handle serpents and drink poison and not be harmed.’ I understand those words to mean that the serpents and the poison are the culture. If you are not grounded in the Gospel, you’ll be killed by such things, but if you are grounded in the Gospel, you will be able to handle those things and not be harmed by them” (p. 102: The Strangeness of Truth). 

While Father Ference is clear that this is his own personal opinion and not any sort of official Catholic teaching, the idea has certainly resonated with me (and my teens when his book sparked a cool discussion in the van). I ended up reading a few passages of the book aloud when we returned home that night. My husband joined in the conversation and reiterated the fact that Fr. Ference says he sometimes changes the lyrics — which means he’s paying close attention to them and enjoying the songs with humble prudence. 

We also talked about how there’s a time to simply turn OFF the radio, TV show, or movie, as there’s lots of content that’s spiritually damaging to everyone, no matter what age. 

We concurred that this careful, Holy Spirit-led approach to engaging in the culture brings to mind another Bible passage that also refers to snakes, the one where Jesus sends out his apostles into the world, instructing them to be “wise as a serpents, innocent as a doves.” (Matthew 10:16).  

Not only did my teens pay attention, but I plan to give a copy of this simple/profound treatise on the Catholic faith to a new “spiritual but not religious” friend. This girl is covered with tattoos and piercings; she’s going through a really hard time, and when I first met her (just before I discovered Fr. Ference’s book) I thought, “Geeze, I wish I had a cool book to give Rachel on the Catholic faith, but the kind of book she’d actually read doesn’t exist” — and then I found The Strangeness of Truth — and I was delighted, because yeah — it’s that kind of book, covering rock and roll, salvation, snake handling and so many more important/strange things.    

The Strangeness of Truth: Vibrant Faith in a Dark World (145 pages) is available at Amazon.com and at Pauline Books and Media.

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