This past weekend, Sarah Palin made some comments about waterboarding and baptism that got folks talking. Including me.
Getting in on the action is Vox, a new left-wing media outlet headed up by Ezra Klein. Vox claims to do explanatory journalism. Here’s a portion of a piece explaining baptism:
What is baptism?
Baptism is a common ritual in the Christian church. Different branches of Christianity do baptism differently — some typically baptize babies or children, while others baptize adults — but the basic idea is that a minister puts water on a person’s head or, in some traditions, completely submerges the person as an act representing a new life with God.
What is the meaning of baptism?
Different branches of Christianity put different emphases on baptism, but in general, the ritual represents admission into the Christian church and is symbolic of the forgiveness of sins. It is given special significance in the gospels because Jesus himself is baptized and after his resurrection tells his disciples to baptize others.
OK. So it’s not quite right to say that some branches of Christian baptize babies while others baptize adults. Or, rather, it’s better to say that some branches baptize people of all ages (e.g. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) and some only baptize people who have reached a certain age. And the basic idea is not just that a “minister” puts water on a person’s head or submerges them, though water is standard in a Christian baptism. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …
Emphasis mine and point being that water and “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are traditionally key here. Water on its own is not sufficient.
And while some Christians say that baptism is a symbol or representation, and in fact this is not the worst explainer of that view, it is not true that this is the view “in general.” Numerically and historically speaking, most Christians view it and have viewed it as a sacrament. Back to the Catholics, here’s what they say about it in their catechism (I discussed the Lutheran catechesis on baptism earlier this week):
1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),4 and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.”5
Note that this doesn’t “represent” admission to the church but is that admission. It doesn’t symbolize forgiveness of sins but, as we learn in Acts 2:38:
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And so on and so forth. Now I know that for all the unity that does exist around baptism, different Christians have different views. But this explainer is embarrassingly inadequate, imparts false knowledge and poorly serves readers.
The problem isn’t that the authors did a really bad job of even coming close to explaining the significance of baptism as a sacrament as opposed to a symbol, it’s the childish arrogance of thinking that 117 words would be sufficient to do so with any level of intelligence.
Alan Jacobs discussed a problem with the Vox model of “updating” explainers (that is, correcting them) without noting said changes. The top-down one-way model on display has serious limitations. But as this baptism explainer shows, brief answers on complex topics will always come at the expense of nuance, depth, historical context and truth. These too-brief explanations also show how ideology will dominate an explanation to the exclusion of other perspectives. Like I said, this is not a bad explanation from an evangelical perspective (though it must be noted that it doesn’t even cover all evangelicals), but in so being, it crowds out the sacramental or non-symbolic view entirely.
And as an Episcopal priest friend says, “The whole idea that you can explain complex ideas in two minutes, as Vox claims, is downright terrifying. Applying that idea to a sacred text and the theological fruit of thousands of years of reflection just reveals (as it were) how shallow our culture has become.”
In that regard, I’m glad to have seen this vignette of the flaw in this approach. Others have pointed out serious errors with other Vox explainers. We should all avoid the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect of knowing how botched one Vox explainer is while thinking another is fine.
So in a way I’m glad this explainer was so bad. I know precisely how much stock to put in future explainers.