Movies and tv shows have probably included more scenes of baptism than any other distinctly Christian ritual—wedding ceremonies aside. One that stands out as especially detailed (yet problematic) is the baptism of an escaped convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Delmar and his companions, Pete and Ulysses, are on the run from a posse when they hear heavenly singing in the forest. The song is "Down to the River to Pray," and it's being sung by a parade of white-robed baptismal candidates moving toward a river where a preacher is dunking them under water. Delmar joins the group and comes up from the water, shouting, "The preacher done washed all my sins and transgressions!"—much to the amusement and cynical dismay of Ulysses.

Many Christians find the scene bittersweet. On the one hand, its solemnity, sincerity, and beauty are inspiring. On the other, it raises questions about how well moviemakers understand baptism. The preacher dips the baptismal candidates almost mechanically—quickly and without words. He doesn't even know who Delmar is, and Delmar's declaration has little in common with the beliefs of churches that dunk converts in a river (or baptize by another method).

Why is baptism such a popular trope in popular storytelling? Perhaps because it is, or can be, visually dramatic. Or maybe because it's also a divisive issue and can add a dimension of tension to a plot line or scene. Baptism has long been a point of conflict and even division among Christians. Almost every denomination has its own twist on baptism. I realized this when I attempted to join the only English-speaking Baptist church in the European city where I studied theology. I came as a card-carrying, ...

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