This is a deeply reflective article by a Washington Post Photo-journalist who recently photographed and watched the death of a snake handling preacher.
There is a medieval university phrase that “theology is the queen of the sciences”. What that meant was that all the other subjects studied were fed into theology as well as theology influencing how those subjects were studied. What we think about God changes what we can see. Likewise what we know (or think we know) about the world influences what we think of God. If I come at God knowing that he doesn’t exist, I won’t find him. (Luke 16:19-31 Dives and Lazarus) If I think God is all about signs, I will see them everywhere or go to great length to see them. (John 2:23-24) When Jesus says he is the door (John 10:7) or I am the way (John 14:6), or that all these testify about me (Luke 24:44-45) what he is saying is that the starting point of good life giving theology is Jesus. The Christian is conformed to Christ.
Bad theology distracts us from Christ. It places the emphasis elsewhere. In this particular case it comes from an incredibly stupid error. Mark 16:17-18 is part of a larger section Mark 16:9-20. The gospel according Mark, as we know because of modern critical biblical studies, ends at verse 8. All good study bibles readily accessible explain this. All good pastors should be able to explain this. Mark 16:17-18 should not be part of the scriptures. It was at best somebody’s attempt to add an ending to the Gospel according to Mark. The snake-handling preacher was attempting to live out these verses that shouldn’t be there. But here is the thing. The emphasis is moved from Christ to: a) the preacher, b) the signs and c) what faith can do for me. Because of Bad Theology, the unwillingness ignorance or inability to take into theology the evidence from other paths of study, this 44 year old man was handling rattlesnakes and drinking poison. Because of Bad Theology those that were following him are left with questions and guilt – instead of the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.
“Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”
Likewise because of bad theology – a relativism that this man’s authentic faith should be recorded but not confronted, an ignorance of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-34) or the woman at the well (John 4) – the photojournalist takes pictures of a death instead of helping.
We all have a theology. We all have ideas that govern and shape how we view the world and interpret events. Bad theology kills. One other of Jesus’ I am sayings is “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Centering on Jesus, conforming your theology to Christ is coming into the light. Coming into the light is starting to see the world as God intended. No longer blinded by bad theology. And having a good theology, centered on Christ, gives life. There is nothing more practical than good theology. Our culture no longer teaches good theology as a birthright. In fact much the opposite. Bad theology comes in the air. Which means that Christians need to take more seriously than maybe our grandfathers Jesus’ warnings to watch. (Luke 21:34-36)
[Picture is Fra Angelica – Virgin and Child with SS Dominic and Aquinas – not bad theologians, who along with Mary point to the Child in the middle – a visual picture of good theology]