Seeking descriptions of baptism in modern literature

Giovanni GuareschiMy friend Alison is compiling a set of 40 short readings for Lent (I’ve posted a few of my own over the years), each of which is about the experience of baptism. She is especially keen to find descriptions of baptism in modern literature. So far, she has readings from Wendell Berry, Sara Miles, Marilynne Robinson, Vincent Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Giovanni Guareschi, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Kloefkorn, and others, including some from Dr Luke’s Book of Acts. She is also considering readings from Annie Dillard, Barbara Taylor Brown, Annie Lamott, Langston Hughes and others.

Alison is looking for suggestions for additional readings, particularly those from Indigenous, Asian, or African writers.

So, any suggestions folks?

12 thoughts on “Seeking descriptions of baptism in modern literature

  1. Is there one in a Don Camillo book? Or is the picture just a random example of modern literature? :)
    Apart from that I’d be interested to hear more about this set of readings when they’re available, if possible.

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  2. @ Mike, Yes. There’s an entire chapter titled ‘A Baptism’. It begins thus:

    One day the church was unexpectedly invaded by a man and two women, one of whom was Peppone’s wife.
    Don Camillo, who from the top of a pair of steps was cleaning St Joseph’s halo with Brasso, tuned round and inquired what they wanted.
    “There is something here that needs to be baptized,” replied the man, and one of the women held up a bundle containing a baby.
    “Whose is it?” inquired Don Camillo, coming down from his steps.
    “Mine,” replied Peppone’s wife.
    “And your husband’s?” persisted Don Camillo.
    “Well, naturally! Who else do you suppose gave it to me?” retorted Peppone’s wife indignantly.
    “No need to be offended,” observed Don Camillo on his way to the sacristy. “Haven’t I been told often enough that your Party approves of free love?”
    As he passed before the high altar Don Camillo knelt down and permitted himself a discreet wink in the direction of the Lord. “Did you hear that one?” he murmured with a joyful grin, “One in the eye for the Godless ones!”
    “Don’t talk rubbish, Don Camillo,” replied the Lord irritably. “If they had no God, why should they come here to get
    their child baptized? If Peppone’s wife had your boxed your ears it would only have served you right.”
    “If Peppone’s wife had boxed my ears I should taken the three of them by the scruff of their necks and . . .”
    “And what?” inquired the Lord severely.
    “Oh, nothing; just a figure of speech,” Don Camillo hastened to assure Him, rising to his feet.
    “Don Camillo, watch your step,” said the Lord sternly.
    Duly vested, Don Camillo approached the font. “What do you wish to name this child?” he asked Peppone’s wife.
    “Lenin Libero Antonio,” she replied.
    “Then go and get him baptized in Russia,” said Camillo calmly, replacing the cover on the font.
    The priest’s hands were as large as shovels and the three left the church without protest. But as Don Camillo was attempting to slip into the sacristy he was arrested by the voice of the Lord.
    “Don Camillo, you have done a very wicked thing. Go at once and bring those people back and baptize their child.”
    “But Lord,” protested Don Camillo, “You really bear in mind that baptism is not a jest. Baptism is a sacred matter. Baptism is . . .”

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  3. If Alison is going with contemporary literature, why limit the readings to the sacrament of baptism? Even more interesting might be the deployment of water imagery to suggest a sacramental experience, an epiphany of some kind, often of new birth. For example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is, er, saturated with water imagery. And there is a wonderful scene in Kent Haruf’s Benedicton where the character Alison joins some other girls/women in a farm tank for an ecstatic skinny-dip. And if I remember correctly, there is a remarkable scene in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away where there is both a baptism and a death by drowning.

    Any help?

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  4. Hi Kim, Flannery O’Connor’s description of baptism is in ‘The River’ (at least in my book!), but I’m not sure I want to put in a drowning of a little boy in a book of reflections for a congregation. Thanks for the suggestions of sacramental experiences, but this year we are investigating the act of baptism with intent (however muddled that intent may be), as members remember their own baptisms, and newcomers ponder the possibilities. Baptismal imagery in literature? Another year, perhaps – Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, David Ireland etc. – all totally saturated! Alison

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  5. Thanks for the extract, Jason, which of course leaves us wanting more. I love the interaction between Christ on the cross (in the movie he literally was on the cross talking to Don Camillo, as I recall), and the way in which Camillo so often gets it wrong, and then discovers that the communist guy has got it wrong too…and then somehow something good comes of it all. Brilliant books.

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  6. Since Marilynne Robinson was mentioned in the post I would guess the baptism of Lila by John Ames (“Lila”) is included. I’ve just reread it. Very special.

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  7. Flannery O’Connor has two separate stories that relate to baptism…in the River as well as The Violent Bear it Away. I did not “like” the violence of the baptism in TVBIA, however, it does provoke one to think about what we mean in baptism. That is, it is not just a senitmental experience but rather a sacramental one.

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  8. Alison, I wonder if you’ve misread Kim’s comment and his invitation to think about sacramental experiences involving water? His comment reminded me of some of the things that Richard Kidd is arguing for in his essay (which you have read) published in Reflections on the Water: Understanding God and the World through the Baptism of Believers (ed. by Paul Fiddes). I don’t imagine that Kim is pitching too far wide of your plate.

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