The Airwaves of Zion: Radio and Religion in Appalachia

Howard Dorgan

“For over 20 years, Dorgan has been listening to ‘airwaves of Zion’ programs in the Appalachian regions… this ethnographic study provides an overview of radio evangelism in Appalachia… Dorgan trains his scholar’s eye on four case studies within the genre, capturing not only the unique character of each of the respective programs and stations… this book preserves an endangered segment of the Appalachian religious experience, rich in the cultural values and evangelical traditions that make this region unique.”

Publisher: University of Tennessee
Paperback: 226 pages

Serpent-Handling Believers

Thomas Burton

A history of the snake-handling churches of Tennessee which is both academic and insightful, containing 178 photos of people handling snakes and drinking poison. There is a general tendency to view the Southern snake-handlers as simple-minded or insane. Such a condescending attitude is, thankfully, absent from this book. Author Thomas Burton seems to have a liking for the subjects of his study, and reports that one of the reasons he stays in contact with them is that “they are good friends. They are strong, courageous, ethical people… I am proud of their friendship.”
Whenever a snake-handler dies of a snake bite, it makes the papers. This helps create the impression that snake-handlers are crazy people who drop dead whenever they perform their insane ritual. This book makes clear that although a practitioner will drop dead now and then, snake-handlers generally are bitten again and again with little or no effect. Even more amazing is their ability to consume poison. It is tempting to dismiss snake-handlers by speculating that they milk the snakes of their venom and switch the jars of strychnine with plain water. Every investigation that I am aware of shows that this is not so.
The snake-handlers take Mark 16:17-18 (and some other Bible verses) literally. They believe that the best way to show their faith is to handle deadly snakes and drink poisons. Also described are their fire-handling abilities, which are completely different from New Age-style firewalks. They have an obsession for filling Coke bottles with kerosene, stuffing a rag in the end and lighting it on fire. This potential Molotov cocktail is then held under the chin and other parts of the body. Removing hot coals from a furnace with the bare hands is not an unknown occurrence.
Particularly interesting is the section of biographical essays of various snake-handlers. These accounts could be dismissed as the product of someone’s imagination if it weren’t for the fact that the author has done such a thorough job of documenting everything in the book. Snake-handlers are as close as the United States gets to a home-grown mystic order (excluding Native Americans, of course). Although only briefly mentioned in the book, parallels to certain Sufi dervish groups are noticeable. There is an emphasis on good behavior (adab in Sufi terms), a disconnection from a “main” or central church body, a transference of powers of immunity (what the snake-handlers call “anointment”), dancing and rhythmic moments that turn into a trancelike state while accompanied by music played on the instruments of the common folk. The appendixes include an electroencephalograph test on an “anointed” person and a technical report on the music used during snake-handling services. The list of references is extensive and complete. TC

Publisher: University of Tennessee
Paperback: 208 pages

For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids

S. Elizabeth Bird

John Waters (whose wonderful essay on “Why I Love the National Enquirer” is listed here as a source) once noted that he was convinced “that typical Enquirer readers move their lips when they read, are physically unattractive, badly dressed, lonely and overweight.” Anthropology and humanities professor Bird refutes this and other beliefs in a well-researched study of weekly tabloid papers and their readers. Bird attempts to situate the tabs in “a tradition of oral, folk narrative” in which content is the result of a collaboration between reader and writer “about how the world is or should be constructed.” After sections devoted to each member of the tabloid triad (the Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star), she demonstrates her hypothesis via a case study of the tabloids’ contribution to the mythology surrounding JFK after his death. While Bird is clearly an academic familiar with postmodern theory, For Enquiring Minds is easily readable and relatively jargon-free. And the next time someone discovers your secret stash of tabs, simply quote Bird: “I believe the tabloids are to some extent an alternative way of looking at the world that may be valuable to people who feel alienated from dominant narrative forms and frames of reference.” You won’t hear another word about your reading habits. LP

Publisher: University of Tennessee
Paperback: 234 pages