This Week on Sleepy Hollow: Plague, pestilence, and magical healing power of baptism.

Review of Sleepy Hollow, Episode 5

Fair warning: if you’re a student of history or literature, watching Sleepy Hollow every week will make blood shoot out your eyes. (Fortunately, I am a political scientist and as such immune to the abuse of knowledge—I even occasionally actively encourage it.) This week, we learn that the colony of Roanoke, which mysteriously disappeared in 1590, was actually led to safety by the ghost of Virginia Dare (the first child born to English colonists). Safety from what? From Pestilence, the Horseman of the Apocalypse (except not really) who wants to break into our world by means of a deadly plague. Today the colony has been rediscovered near Sleepy Hollow, and the world is once again in danger. Will Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills stop the horseman before he escapes the spiritual realm and unleashes a disease so powerful that not even the mighty CDC will be able to contain it (and not just because they’re on furlough)? Will Ichabod’s possibly-dead and witchy wife—whom we now learn is trapped in Purgatory—be any help? And will Orlando Jones continue to be awesome?

As always with this show, there are any number of subjects for Christian reflection on display. [Spoiler alerts from here on out.] We’re told that faith is what you’ve got when there’s nothing left, or possibly that true faith is faith in yourself and in your role in God’s plan. We’re also shown someone asking for a sign, for a little extra from God (beyond what he has already provided) just to show that they’re on the right path. And of course as I’ve already noted, there’s the whole Purgatory quagmire.

But maybe most interesting for the readers of Schaeffer’s Ghost is the idea that baptism is what purifies and saves. When Ichabod and Thomas (the boy from Roanoke who is inadvertently spreading the plague—long story there) catch the disease, Abbie surmises that the only cure is for the two of them to be baptized in the waters of the lost Roanoke colony. The claim is that water is a purifier, and that using the right ritual water is what saves the lives of those infected.

Now, I have no intention of approaching this from a scientific or biological perspective. In that sense, there may very well be some water out there that cures disease, and that if only you bathe in it you’ll be cured of what ails you. I suspect that such is not the case, but engaging that issue is beyond my expertise in a number of ways.

What I am much more interested in is the view of liturgy, ritual, and sacrament on display here. Specifically, the false view of ritual at work. One of the ways in which Christianity is a unique religion in the world is that it declares that you are not saved, reconciled to God, or brought into a personal relationship with Jesus by your own actions. We are saved by the work of another. Christ’s life, death, baptism, obedience, etc. have all been counted as ours, so that if we believe this good news we are forgiven for our sins and reconciled to God. (Colossians 2:9-14) In other words, we are not justified by what we do, we are justified by what we believe—that is, by faith. This has the effect of undermining the worldly perception that we can affect or even control the supernatural by means of ritual and liturgy. Over and over we see the Biblical writers decrying the attempts of worldly religions to achieve righteousness, holiness, or purity by means of ritual.

Unfortunately, one way such worldly religion regularly creeps back into Christianity is by the elevating of good and Biblically-ordained rituals to the point where they begin to replace faith. In the case of this episode of Sleepy Hollow, we see baptism being held up as the means of purification. As Christians, we understand that baptism is a mark of obedience and an evidence of faith; it is the sign of a relationship that exists because of the work of another. It is not the source or beginning of that relationship, and it does not provide purification from either sins or disease. (Though within this understanding of baptism there is a good deal of disagreement—if you’re looking for a good introduction to the debates on the issue, I recommend this work.)  It is important that we stand firm on grace and faith as the bedrocks of our salvation, not on ritual or external ceremony. Cultural portrayals like Sleepy Hollow are fantastic opportunities for us to be able to engage with the world and explain how Christianity differs from everything else out there, that we believe that we are saved not by our work (even in a good ritual), but by the work of Christ on the cross.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change the plot of this episode of Sleepy Hollow. As I mentioned at the beginning, the historical and literary ‘mythology’ behind the show is ridiculous enough that I think it would be silly to assume they’d get Christian theology right as well. The creators of this show consistently put out an entertaining program, and I am quite happy to see them continue to play fast and loose with reality.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO., where there are many horsemen but none who carry the plague. 

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