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.
There are almost as many different ways of baptizing a person as there are denominations within Christianity. Baptism is such a divisive issue that it is responsible for an entire branch of Protestantism: Baptists. This denomination can trace its roots back to John Smyth, who decided in the early 17th century that baptism should not be performed on infants, as was the practice of the day, but only by confessing believers. For Baptists, baptism is always done by full immersion, which is how most scholars believe baptisms took place in the early church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, practices baptism via affusion, or water poured over the head, a tradition that proved handy over the years in places that had little access to bodies of water. Catholics understand baptism as a promise between God and the individual that will unfold over the course of the person’s life, which makes sense to start early. Infant baptisms are encouraged, and the church urges parents to baptize babies within the first few weeks.
Perhaps the liveliest baptism you could ever hope to witness is a Pentecostal one. The Pentecostal movement is one of the most emotionally expressive branches of Christianity, and its baptisms often take place in small tanks placed at the front of the church for the occasion. A person walks fully clothed down the plastic steps of the tank and into the water, plugs his nose, and is immersed by a pastor; he often rises out of the water to choruses of “Hallelujah!” and “Thank you, Jesus!” In the Pentecostal Church, “baptism” can refer to this act of immersion but can also refer to baptism by the Holy Spirit, which may or may not occur concurrently with water baptism and is often manifested by a person’s speaking in tongues. The baptism scene from Rectify could have been plucked from a Pentecostal tent revival, except that it would have lasted twice as long and required Daniel to have been much more emotionally expressive than he seems to be capable of.
Indeed, Baptism is fundamentally a religious ritual, and in our increasingly secular age most TV shows have turned baptism into a feel-good symbol of a fresh start, or something else entirely—on a recent episode of Black-ish, the Johnsons’ young twins grew terrified when their grandmother told them they would go somewhere “hotter than hell” when they died because they weren’t baptized. The Black-ish episode ended with Grandma Ruby baptizing the twins in the backyard pool, and in typical sitcom fashion all the conflict that had beset the Johnsons over the previous 30 minutes was solved.
The idea of baptism as a hell-avoidance strategy has a long history in the church, although it’s waned in popularity in recent centuries. In The Inferno, for instance, the first circle of hell is home to plenty of good people whose “merits fail,/ for they lacked Baptism’s grace.” St. Augustine, a fourth-century theologian and philosopher, opined that infants who weren’t baptized would still be condemned, although theirs would be “the mildest condemnation of all.” With the spread of pluralism, though, came a gentler approach. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Christians began undertaking mission work abroad and began to rethink the notion that every person who died without baptism was consigned to hell. In 2007, a commission of the Catholic Church released a document arguing that there are legitimate grounds “for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision.”
But even shows like Jane the Virgin, which whole-heartedly embraces its religious characters—Jane’s virginity is never a joke and her grandmother’s relationship with her church is pivotal—divorce much of the religion from pivotal baptism scenes. An infant baptism carries enormous weight, as the parents are saying that they’re committed to raising their child as part of the family of God. Yet, the priest asked Jane’s son’s godparents if they would “shower [him] with wisdom and affection,” rather than asking them to help the parents in their duties as Christians, as is typically asked at a Catholic baptism. Other than the fact that it took place in a (beautiful!) church, her son’s baptism could have been held at a family picnic for all the religious significance it embodied—Jane read a letter full of generic hopes for her son, and there was no mention of bringing him up as a Christian. It’s a shame that in a show that otherwise depicts religion with such nuance—an earlier scene in which Jane’s grandmother is hospitalized combines praying the rosary with a call for immigration reform—they would gloss over one of its most important mysteries.
Then again, I certainly went into my baptism with mixed motives. I was envious of my friends who had gone before me and curious about what it would feel like to come out of the water, which is why I wish more TV shows considered it with as much care as The Americans.
Paige, the daughter of two Soviet KGB spies posing as an American couple in 1980s Virginia, revolts against the secretive environment her parents created and runs into the arms of a nearby church. Her baptism wasn’t just about a fresh start—it was about becoming a part of something new, something foreign, something strange. “Paige, this is your most defiant act of protest yet,” Paige’s pastor tells her. And although the rhetoric is a bit dramatic, he’s not wrong. Baptism is a protest against every other way of living that would lay claim to a person’s life—against materialism, individualism; against fear; against the notion that we will ever be enough on our own, apart from God. The Americans understands that to be baptized is, in part, to reject the prevailing cultural narrative that religion is a crutch.