While tmatt has his guilt folder, as the child of a Catholic and a Jew I simply have guilt. And I’ve felt an unbearable weight for more than a month now to write this post about news coverage of those de-baptism ceremonies.
If you’re not familiar, in the past year or so, atheists and agnostics have held a few ceremonies in the United States and Britain to publicly “de-baptize” those who no longer are or want to be known as a follower of Christ. Here’s an example from Religion News Service. It opens with Jennifer Gray, a 32-year-old who had been baptized as a child:
In a type of mock ceremony that’s now been performed in at least four states, a robed “priest” used a hairdryer marked “reason” in an apparent bid to blow away the waters of baptism once and for all. Several dozen participants then fed on a “de-sacrament” (crackers with peanut butter) and received certificates assuring they had “freely renounced a previous mistake, and accepted Reason over Superstition.”
For Gray, the lighthearted spirit of last summer’s Atheist Coming Out Party and De-Baptism Bash in suburban Westerville, Ohio, served a higher purpose than merely spoofing a Christian rite.
“It was very therapeutic,” Gray said in an interview. “It was a chance to laugh at the silly things I used to believe as a child. It helped me admit that it was OK to think the way I think and to not have any religious beliefs.”
This story is oh-so better than one on the Westerville de-baptisms last summer. That one of the AFP was cliched and pre-packaged. This one from, Religion News Service, is detailed and well reported. Most impressive, if only because it is such a rarity in religion stories, reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald actually does a theological comparison:
Atheist Gary Mueller recently mailed his de-baptism certificate to St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord, Calif., and asked to be dropped from its baptismal record. The church told him, in effect, that he was all wet.
“While we do not remove a name/person from a Baptism register, we can note alongside your name that ‘you have left the Roman Catholic Church,’ ” the Rev. Richard Mangini replied in an e-mail. “I hope that God surprises you one day and lets you know that He is quite well.”
In Christian theology, baptism can’t be undone. If a Southern Baptist renounces his or her baptism, then that person is usually presumed to have never received an authentic baptism in the first place, according to Nathan Finn, assistant professor of Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
For mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, baptism is commonly understood as a sign or means of grace and a covenant that God maintains even when humans turn away, said Laurence Stookey, professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He said “de-baptizers” misunderstand baptism when they caricature it as an attempt at magic.
That we needed a story about people renouncing the Christianity of their childhood to actually discuss what different Christians believe is more tragic than ironic.
But MacDonald is often a reporter to look to for stories that outshine the competition. Maybe I’m still deferring to him for placing ahead of me in the American Academy of Religion’s newswriting contest last year, but I’m hard pressed to think of a MacDonald story that I’ve had a problem with. Maybe he’s found an upside to fulltime freelancing: You don’t have the luxury of growing soft and lazy.