What are the best baptism scenes in film?

What are the best baptism scenes in film? April 16, 2006

The twins are getting baptized next week, and so am I. I have been baptized before, back when I was an 11-year-old Mennonite, but I’m entering the Orthodox church next week — so, ironically, to bring the Anabaptist (i.e. “baptized again“) phase of my life to a close, I will be baptized again. We’ll be one big soggy family.

And FWIW, the ceremony will take place right before our church’s midnight Pascha service (i.e. our midnight Easter service; we’re on a slightly different calendar than the Catholic and Protestant churches). I vividly recall attending my first-ever Pascha service three years ago, shortly after I had started dating the Orthodox woman who is now my wife, and thinking that this would be a cool thing to raise children with. And now, well, here they are.

And since everything leads to movies in the end, I found myself wondering the other day what a top ten list of the best baptism scenes would be like — but it’s not something I’ve gone out of my way to look for, before, so few examples come to mind. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000; my review) and The Godfather (1972; my comments) are the first two examples that occurred to me, and I remember there being a baptism in Tender Mercies (1983) though it doesn’t stand out as a particularly memorable scene.

As you can see, I’m not necessarily looking for the most uplifting or inspirational scenes — just the most memorable ones. But I’d rather not count movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), which trivializes baptism by making it a matter of ethnicity and not faith, or The Cell (2000), which trivializes baptism by making it the cause of a serial killer’s childhood trauma, or whatever.

Can anybody else think of any other noteworthy examples?

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  • There is one in The Apostle when Duvall baptises himself shortly after going on the run. Hope the baptism goes well!

  • SDG

    I take it that Charlton Heston as John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, waist deep in the Jordan as he manfully resists the soldiers Herod has sent to arrest him, repeatedly ducking them under while bellowing “Repent! Repent!”, wouldn’t make the cut? 🙂

  • SDG

    P.S. What the heck? Why are you being baptized again? When did the Orthodox decide not to accept the baptism of heretics? Or did your first baptism not use the correct Trinitarian formula? Or is there some special reason to doubt that the minister had sufficient intention to do what the Church does?

    The Catholic Church distinguishes converts who are catechumens, i.e., the unbaptized, from candidates, who were baptized outside the Catholic communion. When Suz and I were received into the Church 14 years ago last Saturday (liturgically speaking), we were candidates, not catechumens. Both of us had been baptized; I indeed had been baptized twice, loosely speaking — though in reality no one can be baptized twice, because the sacrament is objectively unrepeatable, and can only validly be conferred on an unbaptized person.

    Indeed, because of the unrepeatability of the sacrament, attempted rebaptisms after a valid first baptism are considered grave sacrilege in the Catholic Church. Where there is sufficient reason to doubt that a baptism was valid, the Church will allow a conditional baptism, using the formula “If you are not baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father…” I suppose it would also be permissible to use the passive voice customary in the Eastern tradition: “If he is not baptized, the servant of God is baptized in the name of the Father…”

    However, conditional baptism is a reluctant concession to necessity, and is not done publicly, lest it cause confusion regarding the unrepeatability of the sacrament. In your case, though, it sounds as if it has been taken for granted that your Mennonite baptism was invalid? What’s the deal?

  • Ha! I forgot to mention this, but I had intended to bracket off all those New Testament movies which depict John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, or the apostles baptizing the early Christians, etc. That said, however, that Charlton Heston scene is a keeper, for sure!

    As for the reasons behind my re-baptism, I am tempted to say, “Don’t ask me, I only worship here.” 🙂

    But what I’ve been told is that the Orthodox accept the baptisms of those who believe there is something “sacramental” about baptism (Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.) but not the baptisms of those who believe there is nothing “sacramental” about it (Baptists, Mennonites, etc.). Basically, if you say your baptism was purely symbolic and not a “sacrament”, the Orthodox will take you at your word and administer the sacrament themselves.

  • Christian

    Steven took the words right out of my mouth. Rebaptism? Ironically, I had thought Catholics *did* require some form of rebaptism, so I appreciate Steven’s clarification.

    Peter, your response is interesting. It seems that the validity of your previous baptism is based on YOUR understanding of what happens in baptism, rather than GOD’s. But whatever the case, you’re saying that Anabaptists don’t subscribe to baptism as a “sacrament,” right? I had thought all Protestants held to at leat the Lord’s Supper and baptism as sacraments, so this is news to me.

  • Actually, that’s a good analogy, Christian, because Anabaptists don’t believe that anything “happens” during communion, either. To Orthodox, Catholics, and certain other churches, there is a “change” that comes over the bread and wine, and thus it is “sacramental”; but to Mennonites, it may be something that is done out of obedience, but it’s “just a symbol” and has no “sacramental” force, per se. As with communion, so with baptism, I imagine.

    As for “my” understanding of baptism vs. God’s understanding of baptism … I dunno, considering that Anabaptism began as an explicit rejection of the sacramental baptism (especially of infants) that had been practised by the Church for its first millennium and a half, I’m not inclined to say that the Anabaptists are on God’s side, here. For a couple years now, I have said that if I were to meet Conrad Grebel, who performed the first Anabaptist baptism in Zurich in 1525, I would ask him who the heck he thought he was.

  • As merely an Orthodox layman, here is my understanding as relayed to me by several priests.

    The normative rule for reception into the Church is through baptism, but the Orthodox I think are pretty good at recognizing that rules are not laws and in some cases accomodations must be made.

    As one priest put it to me:
    “The Church in her mercy and compassion, when necessary, can embrace a heterodox rite, fill the formerly graceless form with grace and so provide a person an avenue of entrance into the Church.”
    (Keeping in mind there is a different understanding of Grace between most protestants and Orthodox.)

    This is often done through “Chrismation” as in my conversion from trinitarian baptism (pentecostal) to Orthodoxy, however that is generally an exception to the rule and requires the permission of the Bishop.

    In practice, in our widely pluralistic environment we find ourselves in, you will find various implementations of this, depending on a Bishop’s discretion for what is best for the salvation of the individual.

    In any case, the Orthodox (and I believe Catholics) would not term this a “re-baptism” as there is only “One baptism for the remission of sins”.

    Hope this helps. (and welcome correction if I’ve mistated Orthodox practice)


  • Would you include symbolic baptisms in your hunt, or specifically Christian ones? I can think of several of those in Tarkovsky films, heck even V for Vendetta has a baptism by rain scene.

  • FWIW, I’ve been baptised twice, once as an infant (into the Catholic church) and once as an adult. I think most adult baptism places, despite often viewing it as non-sacramental, would say that if you didn’t mean it yourself then it doesn’t count.

    I’m curious now though to wonder what would happen if I re-converted to Catholicism?

  • Also coming, from an anabaptist background (previous to being called to orthodoxy) I know that the typical mennonite or baptist church would have you re-babptized as an adult if you were baptized as a catholic or orthodox baby. As they do hold to the belief that there are no such things as sacraments you must take the logical step of affirming your faith publically or else it doesn’t “take”. So really it’s the same thing, the meaning of the act has changed not only for the baptizee but also for the baptizer & the Church as a whole.
    Having a completely different view of baptism (that of a sacrament) I see no contraversy in the orthodox church baptizing anyone into the church (especially babies). After all, any other tradition would do the same wether they really advertise it or not.
    I must note also that it’s not imporatant that one who has been baptized previously under a seperate Chritian tradition, gets baptized into the orthodox church, they may also be chrismated instead (upon request). The important thing is that they come into the church…period. It’a a “We don’t care how you get there, as long as you get there” kind of thing.
    Oh yah & best baptism is the almost baptism of Bart Simpson when Homer goes flying throught the air to grab Bart, right before the water touches Bart & a drop of water lands on Homer instead & Bart says “Homer, you took a baptism for me!” or if we are counting the symbolic baptisms, the one in Shawshank Redemption when Sam reaches the end of the sewer tunnel & stands in the rain with outstreched arms, is a good one.

  • Good call re: The Simpsons, Gabe. (And re: Shawshank, too, if we are counting metaphorical baptisms like the already-mentioned one in V for Vendetta. If we are, then I could also toss in films as disparate as A History of Violence and Because of Winn-Dixie.)

    As for baptism vs. chrismation, I actually told Fr. Lawrence that I would prefer to be chrismated, because I did not want to give the impression that my Mennonite baptism didn’t mean anything to me; it very much did, and still does. But I also recognize that Mennonite baptism is, historically and theologically, a conscious rejection of the sacramental reality to which Orthodox baptism points; so I have no quibble with the bishop’s decision that I be baptized again.

    As for Catholicism’s “conditional” baptisms, I wonder how broadly those are applied. E.g., are Mormon baptisms accepted as “baptisms”?

  • I’m late to the conversation, but one of the most memorable baptisms I’ve seen on film was the ultra-freaky baptism sequence in The Last Temptation of Christ–warranting an R rating all the way. It’s not particularly inspiring, it actually gives me nightmares, but hey, you asked. And since Last Temptation is pure fiction, I believe this passes thru the “New Testament movies” disclaimer you mentioned before.

    Also, didn’t The Omen have a memorable baptism scene, also for the wrong reasons?

  • TransatlanticGirl

    There’s also a baptism scene in ‘Ed Wood’; Wood’s entire crew joins the Hollywood Baptist Church to get funding to make another movie. Neither inspirational or freaky, but fairly amusing, as I recall. “Do you reject Satan and all his ways?” “… Sure.”

  • I seem to recall a baptism scene in The People vs. Larry Flynt.

  • Peter, I’ve been following some of your path for a bit–I remember first encountering you on the Yahoo! orthodox-converts list, and I think we both probably vacated that list at about the same time. My wife and I were received into the Church a year ago February, and all I can say is that being on the other side of the door, “part of the family” as it were, is a very illuminating experience. Congratulations, and even though you and I have never met in person, “welcome to the family” seems to be an appropriate thing to say.

    As far as “re-baptism” goes–the non-denominational fundamentalist church my mother started taking me to when I was eight insisted on baptizing me a second time, since the first had been an infant baptism and was therefore invalid as far as they were concerned. With respect to Orthodox reception of converts–the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople) deals with this at some length. My wife and I were received via chrismation, but we both had had baptisms that were Trinitarian AND by threefold immersion (which is the standard). I’m not familiar with how Mennonites baptize, but an attitude of trusting one’s bishop is a good way to begin one’s life in the Church.

    For baptism scenes in movies–I’m also fond of the *other* scene in The Apostle, where Robert Duvall is watching the Catholics perform baptisms out on the water. “We get ’em done differently, but we still both get ’em done,” I believe is the line. I don’t agree with the substance of the scene (anymore), but I appreciate the tone and spirit that’s behind it.

    Prayers for the rest of your Holy Week, Peter.

    In Christ,


  • bender

    Can anybody else think of any other noteworthy examples?

    Black Robe — a French missionary priest baptizes several Huron Indians. (a fictionalized story of the real-life conversion of the Huron)
    Black Robe at Amazon

  • RC

    Isn’t there a baptism scene in Mystic River?

    –RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

  • I think Big Fish is to baptism what Babette’s Feast is to the Eucharist.

  • ira

    Come to an Orthodox-Mennonite dialogue on worship on March 22, 2008. Go to this link for more info. http://justanapprentice.wordpress.com/

  • Three films come to mind fairly quickly: first, The Mission offers one of the most compelling and inspirational scenes in which DeNiro is first forgiven by his enemy and fully immersed into the River (reminding me of Flannery O’Connor’s short story); second, Frankie Schaeffer’s abyssmal 1989 horror flick Headhunter shocks the spectators with a cheap thrill of a demon exploding out of the baptismal pond; finally, one of the most moving is Mary Pickford’s Tess of the Storm Country, in which she boldly brings a dying illegitimate baby into a church and baptizes it. And as one person noted, O Brother, offers two hilarious scenes of baptism.