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Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential
Image: Keith Negley

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, ordained Baptist—with my letter of recommendation from another Baptist church. The pastor and deacons explained that in order to become a full member, I needed to be re-baptized because my baptism had been an "alien immersion." I grew up and was baptized in a Pentecostal church. (My baptism may not have been Baptist, but it certainly was dramatic: I was 10, and it was in a gravel pit outside Des Moines.) I declined being re-baptized.

At least that Baptist church cared about baptism. Some churches today fall on the other end of the spectrum. For example, the Evangelical Free Church of America provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination's autonomy, it's a local church matter.And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. This stands in stark contrast with the New Testament and all of Christian history. For the apostles and faithful Christians after them, baptism was a necessary rite of passage for joining the church.

While Christians generally agree that baptism is important for discipleship, many have divided over its correct meaning and practice. Paul's words to the Ephesians—"There is . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (4:4–5, emphasis mine)—seem to be wishful thinking. Baptism is an issue over which the church has split into innumerable denominations.

Water That Divides

In line with Cyprian (a third-century bishop of Carthage), most Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and some Protestants believe baptism is the "laver of salvation." According to this view—known as "baptismal regeneration"—the water does not save, but God saves at baptism. An infant or adult believer is freed from condemnation and given new and eternal life. Protestants who affirm baptismal regeneration insist faith is necessary for salvation. So the faith of the infant's parents and of the congregation stands in until the child is old enough to confirm his or her personal faith.

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Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential