Maybe it’s confusing that Christians can’t seem to see rain in a film without naming it baptism. Maybe you’re a Christian who would like to more readily see God’s active presence in the novels you read and movies you watch. Either way, this post will help by explaining how Christian sight is formed to see God in secular culture.
For context: this is post #3 in a series on symbols. The first post covered the origin of symbol and ritual, using the example of water. The second discussed Jesus’s remix of symbols, his followers’ ritualization of that remix, and the way we understand those rituals today, continuing with the example of water.
In this post, I’ll discuss the way some Christians — or, at the very least, how I — understand cultural narratives that use elements of symbolic or ritual meaning in the Christian community. I’ll stick with the symbol of water and point to the presence of baptism is present in the film The Shawshank Redemption. (Although this could also be done with many other symbols and concepts, such as breath and blood or the practice of witnessing martyrs; maybe future posts).
If you’re interested in other narratives that contain symbolic baptisms, click here to download my list of 15 movies and novels!
Pointing to the Shared Nature
Ok. So we covered how symbols develop based on the natural, inherent function of an object or element. And we discussed how those became symbols and rituals within just one community of people — Christians.
An object used in a ritual or as a storied symbol is always pointing back to its inherent function.
And in a sense, if you begin to see that object as important in a certain way, you learn to see that object as a living symbol. The object’s presence is always pointing to the inherent function because it now has become inseparable.
And if you’re in a community that uses the ritual, the presence of an object will trigger associations with both its function and its symbolic and ritual meaning.
I tried to make a simple diagram of this and it got complicated quickly, but maybe it helps:
The linking factor is actually the natural function of the object that is inherent to the object and that the object cannot avoid. Spiritual formation simply trains sight for the link. The link doesn’t necessarily exist “naturally,” but it does exist, in a very real way, in our worldview.
This is getting a bit abstract, so let’s turn back to our water example.
Water and Baptism Share Rejuvenation
Water always points back to its inherent function of providing, sustaining, renewing life.
Water, for Christian practitioners, has a storied meaning: the Spirit hovered over water before the creation of the cosmos; the waters of the Red Sea parted to liberate the people of Israel; Jesus refers to himself as living water.
On top of that, water is used in the ritual of baptism, which carries all those stories and then has its own stories on top of it — both the community stories in the ways we “remember our baptism” (for instance, in my church, the priest uses rosemary branches to “sprinkle” water on the congregation) and also in our individual stories.
Much of our time in spiritual formation is spent near water, wet from water, telling stories about water — all in ways that point it back to water’s inherent function as life-giving and add texture to that narrative by saying that God (and God in Jesus) is life-giving.
With water and baptism, that visual looks something like this:
The link is that both water and baptism point to renewal of life — the former on a physical level, the latter on a spiritual level. Through stories and practices that link water to this spiritual level, it becomes natural to begin to see water as operating at both levels all the time. The world is infused with the holy. The lines between the sacred and the secular blur to the point of becoming inconsequential.
Christian View of Symbols
In film and story, objects that are often used only for their original, natural, inherent function.
And then Christians claim that there’s something more going on, that it’s a symbol for this Christian ritual or moment.
We’re not claiming that the director/author/creator intended the moment to point to Christ. Rather, we’re claiming that Christ — the force that energizes the cosmos with an abundance of goodness and love — is present in the object that the director chose to use.
Baptism in The Shawshank Redemption
Let’s look at the infamous “baptism” scene in The Shawshank Redemption. Imagine Andy’s escape from prison on a cloudless night. He crawls through the sewer and emerges into the clear night sky, covered in shit, wipes himself off, walks away. Pretty anticlimactic, right? Lacking in some sense of hope and rejuvenation.
On a very practical level, the rain is necessary to clean off the protagonist for the audience’s eyes, to literally wash away the shitty image of despair and to give the audience a feeling of cleanliness and newness.
On a non-religious symbolic level, the filmmakers may have thought the rain provides an image of freshness and of cultivating new life — the rain marks the possibility of new life for Andy just as it does for young plants.
But Christians have a storied history of water, moments and narratives that adds texture to the way we view water. In the Episcopal Church, the following prayer is spoken over the water immediately before baptism, summarizing the stories that we remember when we engage with water:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus
received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy
Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death
and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
Through the lens of Christian narrative and symbol, Andy is being delivered out of bondage, is moving through a resurrection moment, is entering everlasting life right in the midst of this world.
That is not to claim that the director intended the moment to be baptismal. The link exists because water by its inherent nature sustains life. The symbol will always be connected to baptism for those whose eyes are trained to see — not as its progenitor but as a sibling — because both have their root in water.
Some More Baptisms
If you’re curious about other baptismal moments of film and literature, I made a free resource for you! In the free resource library, you’ll find a list of baptismal scenes from film and literature. It’s good for discussions with your friends about the meaning of baptism. Some of them are great to talk with kids about the transformation that occurs in baptism. If you’re in a preaching position, it’s an excellent resource for sermon illustrations. Get access here:
Christian Spirituality of Symbols
When Christians point out the ways in which non-Christian narrative hold Christian truths, the intent isn’t to oppress or appropriate the art for their own purposes.
The intent is to show that God is active and alive in the world, to reaffirm for ourselves the truth that there is something in the world that is concerned with humanity’s well-being and sustenance and rejuvenation.
On a physical level, perhaps that something is simply the intermixing of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. But on a spiritual level, that something is the divine force of the created cosmos who manifests in molecules and manipulates them for the sake of our