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March 6, 2011 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Snakes—especially the poisonous varieties—evoke a primordial dread in many people, a response sometimes even attributed to God’s curse of enmity between Eve and the serpent in the second chapter of Genesis. Yet as Pete Enns has written, the reputation of the serpent in Genesis and other near eastern texts is complex and mysterious rather than uniformly evil, as the snake seems to have represented aspects of both immortality and wisdom. In the Matthew 10:16 Jesus himself suggested that the “craftiness” of the serpent was not something necessarily to be feared or condemned, but claimed as wisdom when in combination with the “innocence of doves.” Snakes, then, are an interesting example of a natural and spiritual symbol that is equivocal and multifaceted, calling forth both fascination and unease in equal measures, all but requiring us to maintain such competing thoughts and feelings at the same time.

That mental balancing act is nearly the definition of irony described by poet and scholar Matt Boyleston in his recent essay “The Language of Paradox: Irony and Poetry”, in The City:

“Irony describes a poet’s recognition of incongruities and his controlled acceptance of them, or in [critic Northrup] Frye’s words, that irony ‘takes life exactly as it finds it.’ Irony, in this case, is the understanding that life is paradoxical and then dwelling fully in that paradoxical state.” (The City. Volume 3 Issue 2 (Fall 2010): p.19.)

Boyleston continues by saying that for Christians this sense of the irony is not a mere literary curiosity, but something central to our understanding of what it is to be human, the paradox of living both as created in the image of God and in rebellion against our Maker:

“One can only properly understand what it means to be human if one clearly places each of these states, Man’s creation in the image of God and Man’s fallen nature, in an ironic relationship in which one never affirms one state at the expense of the other. . . . If poetry is truly . . . the language of paradox, then to understand fully our paradoxical state as Christians is to dwell poetically. And still further, one must use the language of paradox to properly educate a student concerning this paradoxical, this ironical condition of man.” (p. 20)

Boyleston’s commitment to this sort of education is displayed not only in his classroom and essays but in his poetic work, too—including the piece featured below by which we may connect the discussion of snakes and irony with the regular theme of The BioLogos Forum, that Christian faith and evolutionary biology need not be understood as contradictory commitments.

No fan of the Enlightenment idea that something must be “true” (as in verifiable in a reductionistic sort of way) to be affirmed, Boyleston has said that his interests lie in things that have “resonance with cultural memories of origin and relations to community: What is liturgical, repetitive, cyclical?” Yet, as poets and scientists share an attentiveness to the natural world, Boyleston’s account of looking for creatures at the intersection of science and myth is book-ended by divergence and convergence, concepts that are key to understanding what we find in the biological world.

“Coppermouth” does not propose a solution or instruct on how faith and biology ought to intermingle, but calls us to the practice of searching, always summoned forward by the author of both the World and the Word. In both his analysis and his imagery, then, Boyleston helps us see that cyclical, ironic tensions are not things to be denied or merely mitigated, but are the essence of the human state, compelling us to come together in community in the name of the One who exemplified “dual natures.” In the paradox of the craftiness/wisdom of the biblical serpent, in the irony of faith and science coming together yet remaining apart, we can recognize the tension between what we know and do not yet know, between who we are and who we one day will be.


by J. Matthew Boyleston

We trace divergence.

We are in an old van
on an old bridge
looking for signs:

a snake slip, a warm nest,
the traces of the thought
when we all were one.

The earth has Alzheimer’s.
It forgets all it ever knew
leaving bits and pieces of a shattered
personality flashing up
at us when we dig deep.

The evolutionary herpetologist
from the county zoo with thick waders
and a rusted S-hook
is down on his hands and knees
peering into a dark swamp

and we students fan out in all directions
searching for the Coppermouth,
extinct ancestor
of moccasin and pit-viper,
a slithering rumor
that someone somewhere had heard tell.

Our Gullah translator,
comes back with filtered stories
and the feral bodies
of two boa constrictors
let loose in the swamp.
But beneath the stories,
there is something here.
Wounds that don’t respond
to anti-venom
like a door that won’t open
with a key that fits,
the occasional sloughed skin
with patterns only vaguely
similar to ones we know,
even, perhaps two rotten fangs
tacked to the rafter of a hunter’s lodge.

If such a species were still alive,
we must find it, if only to show
us the process of our combination
and how different we’ve become.

If only to remind us of the God
who looks down on us saying:
come together all things
in my name.

©2009 J. Matthew Boyleston.

A native of South Carolina, James Matthew Boyleston received a BA in English and Philosophy from Furman University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Carolina, and his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He now serves in several teaching and administrative roles at Houston Baptist University, including Interim Associate Dean, College of Arts and Humanities, and 
Chair, Department of English. His scholarship and poetry have been published in more than two-dozen journals, with his research interests running a wide gamut of topics at the intersection of history, literature and theology: the English Renaissance, Reformation and Civil War; Calvinism, Reformed Theology and Anglo-Catholicism; the relationships between Irish and Southern literature; Modernist and contemporary poetry; and sacred music, liturgy and artistic worship. As he mentions in this video of a reading of “Coppermouth,” he also has “a disturbing and intimate knowledge of snakes.” Additional information may be found here.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #53477

March 7th 2011

What is the point?

Other than what should be obvious, which is, snakes are part of the web of life, created to be good by God and nature, even though many people are afraid of them.  Ecology is right, Darwinian conflict is wrong. 

Michael Thompson - #53483

March 7th 2011

I am just curious how snakes became venomous and how they evolved hollow fangs? one or the other could not have been an advantage on its own, if they somehow formed together it is quite a remarkable coincidence!

John VanZwieten - #53700

March 9th 2011


Venom came first, and there are still snakes that have venom glands but not fangs.  Just last year it was determined that fangs developed first toward the back of the mouth (where many non-fanged species excrete their venom), then moved forward in some lines.

Google “snake venom fang evolution” for a number of helpful links.

Headless Unicorn Guy - #53892

March 10th 2011

Upon reading, I took this poem as Cryptozoology.  Here we have herpetologists searching for a Cryptid—“Coppermouth”, an extinct ancestor of Copperhead and Cottonmouth.  Or is it extinct?

The rumors of Coppermouth without any unambiguous hard evidence… 
The snakebites that don’t respond to any known antivenin… 
The mystery bits of shed skin matching no known scale pattern… 
The native translator/guide speaking his exotic language (Gullah is spoken only on a couple islands off the Georgia Coast)... 
This is the stuff of Cryptozoological adventure!

Coy O. coker - #55776

March 27th 2011

Note in the Picture of the skin of the snake in “Coppermouth”
The “Rows” of “Diamonds on the skin are arranged in diagonal Positions
If each of the individual diamonds were numbered they would create a
Double Diamond Pattern that is revealed in the mathematical system that Newton
searched for called “The Cryptogram of the Almighty”
This mathematical pattern is found throughout God’s creations and
is considered God’s mathematical and computer code. Newton wrote of this 
hundreds of years before the computer was invented. 

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