From the Augusta Chronicle comes one of the best opening lines of the year:  “Spencer Evans was consumed in the Spirit when the snake struck.”  And the second sentence is a stunner too:  “The 4-foot timber rattler sank its fangs into the 23-year-old preacher’s left wrist as he rejoiced in God.”

While the story’s accredited to “staff photographer,” it’s an example of what great religion writing can be, full of the magic of good prose and wonder at the limits of faith.  From Ephesus, Georgia, the writer accounts the near-death experience of the “serpent”-handling pastor of one of the 35 or so Holiness Churches “tucked neatly away in the pockets and hollows of the Appalachians.”  Holiness members know their faith is on the outer-limits of social acceptability; they speak in tongues, believe in “literal” interpretation of the King James, and eschew worldly authority.

They trace their roots to George Hensley, a roving preacher from Tennessee who instinctively knew that the poverty-ridden, hard-bitten families of these subsistence farms “needed to see something demonstrative.”  He found it in Matthew 16:18: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Read the entire article here.  For more on the Holiness churches of Appalachia, a 2003 article in National Geographic; articles at Rick Ross Institute; and more information on George Hensley.

(grateful h/t to @davidmetcalfe)