The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 12: Baptism

December 4th, 2012 by

This week I continue to explore theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.

For background on the general subject, you may read my introductory comments in Part 1 here.

Today in Part 12: Baptism.

I never thought I’d be able to drag out into the light of day my honors thesis from college, but since it was on the roots of baptism in primitive Christianity, here we go!

Ritual washing has been a part of multiple cultures throughout history, typically tied to the idea of purification. The tradition existed in ancient Judaism and involved both “cleanness of the flesh,” but also elaborate washing rituals concluding with the immersion of the body in water. Thus it is not surprising that a person like John the Baptist should come along. “I baptize you with water for repentance” as he did, immersing people in the Jordan River including — according to all the Gospels — Jesus himself.

Here is how the baptism of Jesus is described in Matthew 3:13-17:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Looking at this metaphorically, we have here a story in three parts:

* Presentation: Jesus presents himself to John the Baptist to be baptized.

* Immersion: Jesus is baptized.

* Revelation: Jesus is acknowledged as special.

Consider this ‘baptism’ scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption:

Again a story in three parts:

* Andy crawling through shit to escape prison [descent into Hell].

* Andy plunges into the river [Baptism].

* Andy emerges from beneath the water and sheds his old ‘skin’ [clothes], revealed as a new man… a free man [Revelation].

Here baptism is a symbol of purification, a transition from prisoner to human being.

There is also the idea of “baptism by fire,” originating in the 19th century referring to a new soldier’s initiation into battle. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, we see a combination of elements — water [sea] and fire [bombs, bullets]:

Again a story in three parts:

* Captain Miller and his men on boats plowing ahead toward landing [Baptism].

* Captain Miller and his men land immediately in a bloody battle [Initiation].

* Captain Miller and some of his men survive [Revelation].

Here baptism serves not as a capstone, but a transition into a major struggle. What this suggests is baptism is a multivalent dynamic capable of serving a variety of narrative needs.

Broadly speaking as screenwriters, we may consider baptism metaphorically to represent the immersion of the Protagonist into the New World, the second movement in the Hero’s Journey, what Joseph Campbell called Initiation. Plunged beneath the water as the trial. Rising up reborn as a New Person.

Tomorrow: Congregation.

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