If only TV shows realized they have nothing to do with goodness and fresh starts.
When I was baptized, I wore a Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirt and jean shorts from Limited Too. The water in the man-made lake outside my church was cold and filled with goose poop, but I didn’t care. I was 12 years old, and I had waited long enough. I plugged my nose as my pastor father dipped me back in the water. I had gone in a Christian and come out a Christian, but in those few moments I had been baptized “into the death of Christ,” as the New Testament says, and in that small death of mine was the promise of new life.
Just like 12-year-old me, TV writers seems to love the idea of baptisms—especially when a character is looking for redemption. Take Empire, where Andre, the oldest son in the powerful Lyon clan, decides that the only way to escape the corruption of his family is to get baptized. His pastor makes him confront his family, telling Andre, “Your house ain’t clean if your closets are dirty.” Or take Daniel Holden on Sundance’s Rectify. The show starts with his Innocence Project–like release from death row after 19 years. As viewers, we don’t know whether he’s guilty, and much of the show deals with his reacclimation into society. In one episode, after a long fever dream of a night with a mysterious truck driver and the encouragement of his stepbrother’s wife, Daniel decides he will finally be at peace if he’s “cleansed.” He puts on a button-down shirt and heads to a tent revival, complete with bluegrass band and aboveground pool, and submits to the water.
Both of these characters are new to religion—Andre found it at the end of the first season and Daniel isn’t even really a believer. They’re both looking for this amorphous “good,” to help them escape their past, but despite what TV writers want to believe, baptism and goodness have very little to do with each other.
All religions, insofar as they deal with the supernatural, traffic in “mysteries.”
Baptism in the Christian tradition is a profound mystery—the Orthodox Church, even counts it as one of seven mysteries (communion is another). The mystery of baptism lies predominantly in the belief that an intangible God is present and glad whenever a person is baptized, yet there is still no bullet-point guide of how baptism works.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River was the beginning of his public ministry and was done by a man so famous for the practice that it became part of his name—you know him as John the Baptist. At the time, Jews practiced ritual cleansing—many still do today—and at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his disciples to keep a version of this tradition in place: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Since then, Christians have imitated his baptism in many different ways: some in full submersion, some with a sprinkle on the forehead, some in the river at summer camp. Regardless of the amount of water involved, baptism is always a way in which Christians identify with Jesus in his death. This might sound strange, but a key part of Christianity is that we die to our sin as part of the process of being born again. Baptism is a symbol of the death we have to die before we can be reborn.
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