Searching for Sunday: Baptism
I am happy to have begun reading an advance copy of Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching for Sunday. So far it’s my favourite of her three works, but I’ll get to a final review when I’m done. In the meantime, I’ll give some reactionary thoughts to each section as I read. The book is organized around the 7 sacraments (in Catholicism/Orthodoxy; only 2 are considered sacraments in Protestantism), but much more than the sacrament itself, it’s about the theme traditionally attached to that sacrament.
The first chapter is what is for many the first sacrament they experience: baptism. We can debate a lot of things about baptism, particularly whether it is appropriate for a child or whether it should be chosen by believers, but we aren’t going to here. One of the factors I already appreciate about the book is how she sidesteps around some topics that have often been cause for division by focusing on the core ideas that we share.
The related idea is that of identity. Baptism symbolizes the grounding of our identity. We are loved by God. We are made into new creations in Jesus. We are washed clean by God’s forgiveness. Those define us as Christians (the first one defines all of humanity).
And yet, we are baptized by humans. Rachel expresses how sometimes she wishes she was baptized again. She’s a completely different person than when she was baptized. Notably, she doesn’t have anything to do with the church in which she was baptized. As she makes clear in many places, she’s very thankful for many elements of her Evangelical upbringing, but there are definitely a lot of ways in which she doesn’t fit there anymore. Remembering her baptism also reminds her of very real differences between her and those who baptized her.
I could sympathize on this point. A little over a year ago, the man who baptized me declared on my Facebook wall that I was no longer a Christian because I thought it was harmful to abandon your sponsor children on the off chance a gay person was involved in processing your gift. Thinking back on my baptism, I have no regrets, but I also can’t help but have that memory alongside the powerful symbolism of the baptism itself.
An early church controversy is relevant here. After one of the more successful persecutions across the Roman Empire, many Christian leaders recanted. Many were left asking what this meant for their baptism. Did it become void since it was performed by somebody now outside the Christian family? They ultimately concluded no, baptism is still a good thing even if performed by somebody now outside the Christian family.
To me, that messiness is a part of life. Trying to wipe it from the sacrament tied to identity would be pretending that messiness was not a part of your life. My past with that church – almost all of which was positive, nothing like that Facebook attack – is a part of my identity, so in some ways it is appropriate that it is brought up alongside my baptism memories.
Youth Group Identity
On a lighter note, Rachel talks a lot about her youth group years. I was not heavily steeped in Christian youth culture for most of my teenage years. I mostly discovered a lot of those things in my late teens, largely by myself through the local Christian bookstore and this new-ish thing called the Internet. This past week when I was at my parents’ for Easter, I picked up a bunch of old CD and DVD cases that had been sitting there for years so that we could sell them off or donate them. About 3/4 of the CDs were Christian music. I actually still do like a lot of it and would probably still listen to it if I listened to music more often in general. There were a lot of memories attached to those CDs, many of them positive but with some shame thrown in at what a “Jesus Freak” I was – I even had that in my first Gmail address, thanks to DC Talk.
I also spent 4 years at a Christian camp and was crying laughing a couple of times as Rachel described some of the incredibly dangerous games that were (and are) somehow completely acceptable to subject children to. I’m younger than Rachel, but most of them were at least somewhat familiar to my time and I am curious how many of them are still allowed. There is of course Chubby Bunny, where you have to fit as many marshmallows as possible in your mouth and still say “chubby bunny”… without choking and dying. There was one which involved eating a banana shoved through panty hose on your head. Not long before my time the camp I worked at banned a game which was known to lead to broken bones and at least once a kid through a car windshield that was parked too close to the field.
I really have no point with this section except to acknowledge this as part of my identity as it was Rachel’s. It was a shorter period of time and I had a lot less of that culture around me, but it’s still an important time. All of these experiences – positive and negative, when we clearly felt God and when we felt like God had betrayed us – are all part of who we are.