Throwback Thursday: The Sacrament of Show Business

I am not exactly sure where I came across the advice on how to create a “stylish adult baptism” in November of 2012, but I shared the link with my friend Bridgette Raes, who did a short essay on her very good blog (she even quoted me, which made it better). The tips were taken from Style Network’s show “Big Rich Texas”. I’m not sure the show exists any more (who would really care), and the video clip of the preparations for the event has been turned “private”.

Out of embarrassment, I hope.

There are still a lot of articles to read, but a coherent collection of still images isn’t readily available. Most of the writing on the subject ridicules the whole enterprise of turning baptism into an excuse to wear not one, but two, expensive white dresses, hire a caterer, and spend a boatload of money to produce an artificial “event” that is more about the relationship between a “godmother” and “god-daughter” than it is about God. And of course, to be “boobalicious.”

If anything resonates with my re-reading of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, as an illustration that we’ve confused the sacred rituals of religion with the medium of telegenic entertainment, this was it.

In most Christian traditions , baptism is a sacred rite of initiation into the community of believers. It is elevated to the level of sacrament, in which a physical, material thing (in the case of baptism, water) is put to a spiritual use–in this instance, the dying with, and rising again, with Christ. Many Christian denominations call a sacrament an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. Most agree at least on two sacraments–baptism and holy communion. Some, such as Roman Catholics, have an additional five rituals of sacramental standing (confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, extreme unction or last rites). A few Christian denominations, such as the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, do not practice sacraments.

But most Christians agree that baptism has a central place in the Christian life. With the exception of those groups who do not practice sacraments, there is a consensus that Jesus himself received baptism and commanded his followers to administer it (although, interestingly, there is no evidence that the 12 disciples were themselves baptized, nor any evidence that Jesus administered baptism to any person during his earthly ministry).

When it is an adult who is professing faith, s/he has usually undergone a period of discernment which may take a year or more, including instruction in the faith and the implications of membership in the church. It is not something to be done ill-advisedly, or under the pressure from another person in your life (although frequently it does happen when a religiously mixed couple decide they both wish to be full members of one church).

Often, adult initiates (called catechumens) are welcomed into the church at the Great Vigil of Easter. In traditions such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, this is an ancient service celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, and it is a ritual of great symbolic power as well as visual and auditory drama and beauty–the culmination of the entire drama of the Passion of Christ that is Holy Week.

No Christian can treat baptism as a trivial matter. And the beauty and spectacle that often surrounds adult baptism (in the high liturgical churches, at least) marks it as the serious, yet simultaneously joyful, event that it is.

But it is not produced for the opportunity to make television. And even if the best skills in performing and visual art that a congregation can muster are employed, it is not about entertainment.

Most of the commentary about the Big Rich Texas baptism acknowledges the ridiculousness of the “event”, and to a lesser extent, implicitly questions the religious commitment of both the godmother and the baptismal candidate. It makes thinking people–both religious and non-religious–uncomfortable, even if they cannot fully express why.

I think part of it is that it confuses entertainment with what we are at least inculturated to understand as a holy mystery, even if we are not ourselves “true believers.” As Postman says, “By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 122)

There is something deep within us, I think, that rebels against such a crass use of sacred symbols–even if they are someone else’s sacred symbols–as junk television (even if, as Postman again claims, junk is the best thing television does). But we need, as he says, that “aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness” so that we do not lose the ability to “call for the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 119)

And pretty dresses (even of the non-boobalicious kind), expensive cakes, and releasing doves into the air over your expensive swimming pool, just doesn’t do that.

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