If movies have taught us anything—think Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jungle Book, even Snakes on a Plane—it’s that snakes are not to be trusted. For Christians, it’s a lesson that goes back to the Garden itself.
Filmmakers hoping to offer a sympathetic depiction of these animals face quite the challenge. But that’s exactly what co-writer and co-director Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage manage to do in their recently released film Them That Follow.
In the hands of this capable storytelling duo, snakes are not the terror many imagine them to be, though a very real threat to life and limb. Rather, they are beautiful, albeit seriously misunderstood, creatures.
It is also difficult to paint a sympathetic picture of something as misunderstood, and often equally reviled, as Pentecostal snake handling. But Poulton and Savage demonstrate the same kind of care and concern for these people of faith as they do the serpents they handle.
Them That Follow tells the story of Mara (played by Alice Englert), the daughter of snake-handling pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins). Early in the film, Mara pledges herself to be married to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), the spirit-filled young man being groomed by Lemuel, even though she is pregnant with the child of Augie (Thomas Mann), the wayward son whom she really loves.
All told then, Them That Follow is a coming-of-age love story. But it’s also more than that, in large part because it offers a rare glimpse into a world of Christian faith and practice that will strike many viewers as strange and unfamiliar, even evangelical Christians.
The filmmakers could have easily sensationalized this practice, but they go to great lengths to do the opposite. The camera lingers over the characters and the places they inhabit, lending the visuals a Terrence Malick-like sense of spiritual saturation. The story unfolds slowly but intentionally, creating space for the characters to be and become rich and textured human beings rather than caricatures or stereotypes.
Most importantly though, the film depicts these faithful individuals not as blind or backwards, but as sincere and earnest. For Mara in particular, the film seems to affirm both her core desire to commune with the Spirit of God in and through the created order, and her ability to discern the Spirit’s presence and activity in her life.
In fact, without spoiling anything, the whole narrative turns on the characters’ perceptions of the Holy Spirit. A handful of key religious leaders refuse to respond appropriately to what the Spirit is whispering into Mara‘s ears, choosing instead to deploy the language of spirituality as a tool to maintain their power and control over her and the rest of the community.
Like Mara, they too operate with an earnest zeal that the film never calls into question. They each have their foibles, but it is clear that their flaws have nothing to do with their belief in a spiritually charged world. Instead, the real tragedy—and indeed the irony—is that they aren’t committed enough. As a result, they are unable or unwilling to rightly discern the Spirit’s voice and, by extension, unable to follow his prompting.
The film is also uniquely American. Snake handling is itself an expression of Christianity contained almost entirely within the Appalachian region of the United States. It emerged at the turn of the 20th century as an offshoot from the Holiness movement.
From my own theological perspective, by instituting snake handling as a regular, intentional practice (and in some cases as evidence of salvation), practitioners are overinterpreting a small handful of biblical allusions to the ways in which Christ’s work on the cross has caused poison, like death, to lose its sting (e.g., Mark 16:17-18). That being said, it would be an overstatement to suggest that snake handlers are doing something qualitatively different than any other Christian community in the US whose worship practices have also been shaped by the evangelical tradition.
I realize that some Christians might balk at the suggestion that snake handling is in any way representative of our faith and practice, and I certainly have no intention of making this claim. But, snake handling notwithstanding, from the perspective of those looking in from the outside, it’s hard to deny that Christians have always been in the habit of doing things that are—how should I put it?—a bit odd.
Even without snakes, our worship includes some unusual practices and proclaims some unbelievable truths. In baptism, we dunk each other underwater (which is only slightly odd) while saying something about dying (a little odder) and coming back to life (super odd!). In communion, we eat bread and drink wine while claiming to consume Christ’s body and blood (downright weird). Then there are more strange practices like speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick, and casting out demons.
In truth though, that’s as it should be. There is nothing “normal” about proclaiming the death and resurrection of God in the flesh. Nor about loving one’s enemies, praying for one’s persecutors (Matt. 5: 43-48), or sacrificing for the wellbeing of foreigners or social pariahs (Lev. 19:34; Luke 10: 25-37). Some might even call this way of life complete foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18) because that’s just how unexpected the gospel proves to bee.
But according to Jesus, the most glaring of all our oddities—the one that should stand out like a swollen, snake-bitten thumb—is the radical, unqualified love we show to each other (John 13:34-35). This “new commandment” Jesus announced in John 13 serves as a helpful reminder, especially when outsiders struggle to understand why we do what we do.
It can be easy to convince ourselves that those outside our community are uncomfortable with Christianity because they think religious faith itself is naïve. But this is why Them That Follow proves to be such an insightful film. In its sympathetic handling of its religious characters, told from the perspective of outsiders looking in, it dares to suggest that it isn’t snake handling that outsiders find off-putting about Christianity. If anything, to “pick up snakes with their hands” without being poisoned is a genuine sign of deeper spirituality.
However, what the film’s narrative depicts as utterly unbelievable, and thus unforgivable, to outsiders is how a group of Christians ostensibly committed to loving one another could be so quick to leverage their spiritual authority to silence and condemn those through whom the Spirit is speaking a critical word.
Put differently, genuine faith turns out to be fairly compelling in this film, no matter what form it takes. But when a community’s idiosyncratic practices simply serve to reinforce oppressive power structures, it’s a deal breaker. Quirkiness is endearing; duplicity is intolerable.
Them That Follow is rated R, so it isn’t for children. Not only is it thematically intense, but it also contains numerous moments of disturbing violence. Nevertheless, adult Christians will find in it a sympathetic portrait of a group of believers who engage in a practice that many would admit is odd at best and misguided at worse.
Rather than denigrate our sisters and brothers who respond to the Spirit in ways we might find uncomfortable, Them That Follow invites us to tell their stories sympathetically and, in doing so, to love them. I know it may sound a bit unconventional, but if we learned how to treat members of our own community with the same kind of compassion that this film demonstrates toward them—to love the people we instinctually want to discredit or disown—snake handling might look completely normal by comparison.
And that would be odd indeed.
Kutter Callaway is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-director of Reel Spirituality. His most recent books are Deep Focus: Film and Theology in DialogueandThe Aesthetics of Atheism: Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture. He hosts the Kutter Callaway Podcast and tweets @kuttercallaway.
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