Guest / Limited Access /
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, ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

From Issue:
Read These NextSee Our Latest
RecommendedMystery Shoppers Rate Church Size
Mystery Shoppers Rate Church Size
Over six years, more than 4,000 unchurched mystery guests visited churches of all sizes across the U.S. Here’s what they thought.
TrendingReligious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights? It's More Complicated
Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights? It's More Complicated
The legal context for what's happening at Gordon College, and how Christians can respond despite intense cultural backlash.
Editor's PickNew Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs
New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs
(UPDATED) But Obama won't withdraw memo on religious discrimination.
Leave a Comment

Use your Christianity Today login to leave a comment on this article. Not part of the community? Subscribe now, or register for a free account.

Christianity Today
Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential
hide thisJuly/August July/August

In the Magazine

July/August 2014

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.