Serpent-handling churches are, for obvious reasons, perpetually fascinating to those outside them. They’ve been the subject of books, documentaries, songs, photography exhibits, and a reality show.
Indeed, Taking Up Serpents, a new hour-long opera commissioned by the Washington National Opera as part of the American Opera Initiative (AOI) Festival, had its world premiere this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. To its creators, the fringe religious practice was a more natural fit with the art form than you might expect (though they did choose not to have actual snakes onstage).
“This story is operatic in that the characters’ faith imbues the world with meaning that is larger than life,” explains composer Kamala Sankaram in her program notes. Additionally, the musical format allowed her to incorporate the shape note singing integral to the kind of charismatic church featured in the opera, and rockabilly-infused tunes inspired by the Appalachian region around it. Certain scenes even feature people singing in tongues.
The rough and jagged sounds of this music help shape the gritty story of Kayla (played in this premiere by Alexandria Shiner), a young woman who broke away from her father’s charismatic church in Birmingham, Alabama, only to find herself stuck in a dead-end retail job a couple of hundred miles south. Her escape hasn’t done much for her, emotionally or spiritually. She’s longing for some kind of comfort and certainty, “tired of runnin’ from the light.”
But an unexpected call from home is a painful reminder that the faith Kayla left was anything but safe and comfortable: Her father (Timothy J. Bruno) is dying from a snakebite received during a church service. Kayla’s mother (Eliza Bonet) has defied church tradition both by taking her husband to the hospital and by calling their estranged daughter to come home. Kayla’s return—and the visions of her family’s past that we see through flashbacks—force her to grapple with the legacy that they’ve given her and ask herself how she really wants to live.
Taking Up Serpents is the brainchild of Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye, both of whom have had something of a troubled history with faith. Dye, according to a post-performance Q&A session, spent part of his childhood in a charismatic church that had a lot in common with the church portrayed in the opera. Sankaram grew up irreligious in a very religious small town. But both brought to their work a desire to help the larger culture better understand the radical faith of some of those at its fringes.
“The reason I do theater is because I grew up in that church,” said Dye. Because of that experience, he explained, “I know in my heart that people are infinitely more extraordinary than you think they are.”
The story deliberately refuses to offer easy answers to those people’s dilemmas or to the question of why they might embrace a form of religion that routinely exposes them to physical danger. The flashbacks trace Kayla’s evolution from a little girl who fearlessly and delightedly plays with fireworks at her father’s side to a young woman who shrinks in terror as he tries to force her to catch snakes to use in church services. Obedience is everything, he tells her; fear is not to be tolerated. When she cannot overcome hers, he attributes it to her gender, calling her “weak as Eve” and laying the groundwork for the ultimate rupture in their relationship.
Julia Duin, author of the book In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media, questions this interpretation of serpent handlers’ values. According to those whom she’s met and interviewed, “Taking up a serpent required a gift of faith from God and you were told not to pick one up unless God had specifically … suggested you do so. Those who did so—especially for the first time—were congratulated for stepping out [in faith] but I never saw others disparaged for failing to handle. God had to give you the power to pick up serpents and if he didn’t, that was not your fault and it certainly was not considered sinful.” And in fact, “There were less expectations placed on women to handle.”
However, Duin adds, “Perhaps in the opera, the pastor had high expectations for his daughter. … The pastor’s family was supposed to set the example.” This idea makes sense, as tangled family relationships and demands play such a key role in the story. Even on the bus home, Kayla is surrounded by people who are trying to flee the pull of faith and family (one girl sings bitterly to herself, clearly echoing words that she’s heard all her life, “Love the sinner, hate the sin”).
It seems that the practice of serpent handling, rather than being the heart of the story, may instead be there to lend a dangerous new charge to the common narrative of a young person leaving behind the faith of her parents. As Robert Ainsley, a director at AOI, told Duin, “This opera is more about a dysfunctional family than about serpent handling, but religion is fundamental to the plot.”
But the serpent handling does work to show just how high the stakes can be. When stepping out in faith could literally cost that person her life—and when not doing so could cost her her family—there is no way to avoid the question of what is genuine and real about that faith and what ultimately matters most to her. It’s all the more complicated when faith is so intimately, inextricably tied to family. As Kayla sings to her unconscious father at one point, “I never really could see God, ’cause all I ever saw was you.”
Taking Up Serpents ends on a note—more than one note—of “ambiguity,” to use director Alison Moritz’s word. Kayla’s devout and subservient mother ends her husband’s life for unexpressed reasons—is she trying to free herself or her daughter or her suffering husband? As this is happening off to one side of the stage, an ecstatic Kayla finally finds her own vision and her own freedom from her parents’ stifling faith. And yet, also at the same time, we see a flashback of young Kayla, just as ecstatic, forcing herself to touch a snake for the first time.
With all of this going on simultaneously, the moment feels a little cluttered, but it also forces the audience to ask whether faith might offer just as much joy and enlightenment as the freedom from faith is said to bring. While that idea naturally appeals to the religious viewer, most Christians will recognize that the faith of Kayla’s parents is a faulty and corrupted one—one that puts the Lord to the test, as Jesus explicitly warned us not to do (Matt. 4:7; Luke 4:12). Perhaps the opera’s strongest takeaway, then, is the idea that faith is so powerful and so transcendent that, when mishandled, it can do even greater damage than serpents.