Living under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies
Adams describes baptism as a “lightning rod” topic that has electrocuted many in the heated debates that encompass almost every aspect of the subject (p. 4). It is hard to argue with his assessment. While it is easy to discuss baptism with like-minded believers, talking across party lines becomes so quickly embroiled in conflict that productive conversation seems impossible. Yet this interdenominational conversation is precisely what Adams attempts in Living under Water.
Given the expectations and questions that surround baptism, it is important to understand what Living under Water is not. It is not an argument for a particular view of baptism. It is not a historical survey of the practice of baptism. It is not a study of the biblical passages related to baptism. Rather it is an answer to the question, “What does it mean to be a baptized person?” Adams wants to explore the type of life and discipleship that can flow from baptism, and he intentionally sidesteps questions of who, when, and how in order to focus on the underlying grace of baptism.
Adams pursues his answer to the question of baptism primarily through the means of narrative. The book is filled with stories—real as well as drawn from popular culture—that illustrate aspects of the baptized life. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this narrative approach. On the one hand, Adams succeeds in drawing the reader into the conversation. By telling stories and asking questions, he prompts readers to come up with their own answers. On the other hand, the stories at times function as a substitute for clear definitions and reasoned arguments. Particularly frustrating is that Adams never offers an explanation of how he understands baptism and its relationship to other aspects of salvation. Instead he will simply imply certain soteriological connections, as in chapter 1 when he states that “the entry point into God’s script is baptism” (p. 29), which seems to indicate that baptism and conversion are virtually the same. Later, however, he will acknowledge that one can be a believer without being baptized. In chapter 5, he talks of every part of life coming from “an overflow of baptismal waters, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (p. 88), leading the reader to wonder if he means to say that the Spirit is given at baptism. However, he stops short of making or defending any definite assertion on the subject, leaving his precise thoughts difficult to pin down.
Living under Water is divided into four sections. The first section examines the connection between baptism and identity. Adams argues that, far from being an interesting but peripheral faith event, baptism is the core of the believer’s identity. To be baptized is to be given a story and purpose that shapes the course of life. The believer is brought into the story of God rather than the living in the thousands of little stories offered by the world. Baptism is not just a beginning, however, but it also gives us the tools we need to live a baptized life. Adams reflects on a college baptism he witnessed in order to consider how the biblical images of rebirth, dying and rising, and washing can serve to fuel a life of faith that is not dependent upon the Christian’s feelings or passion but on the grace of God. In the final chapter of this section, Adams warns that the baptismal identity is one shaped by the cross of Christ. To be baptized is to enter into the community of the suffering—a reality that provides both a call to compassionate service and a framework through which to view and redeem the pain of life.
In the second section, Adams looks at the baptized life through the lens of three ancient baptismal practices: exorcism, anointing, and clothing. Since the second century, baptism liturgies have typically included a call to renounce the devil and all his ways. This demand, though it has fallen out of fashion in many traditions, made explicit a truth hidden in baptism: to be baptized is to be liberated from the kingdom of darkness and called to fight against evil. Baptism is therefore a force for social change as it challenges sin not only on an individual level, but also as it has been enshrined in culture and politics. Early church baptisms were also accompanied by a rite of anointing, similar to that of priests, meant to symbolize the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It functions as a type of ordination, a reminder that baptism is also a call to join in the mission of God. Finally, in a traditional practice that many churches preserve today, the use of baptismal clothing reminds participants that they are clothed with Christ. When people from all races and backgrounds wear the same symbolic clothing, they show that they all belong to the same community and share the same core identity as followers of Christ.
The third section considers the problem of baptismal abuse. This abuse has taken many forms. It is a failure to recognize the distinction between baptismal identity and national identity, resulting in an idolatrous patriotism. It is a failure to honor the unity of the bonds of faith, instead choosing racism and oppression over love. It is also the thorny question of what happens when people are baptized for the wrong reason. Some people have been forced into baptism using threats and manipulation. Others have sought baptism for personal gain. Both of these run contrary to the healing, loving grace of God, but, sadly, they are a part of the history of baptism.
Finally, Adams concludes with a section he entitles “Baptismal Hope.” While baptized people have often failed to understand or live up to the calling of their baptism, there is more here than simply the failures of the past. Baptism points to the future. For some, it has offered a foretaste of the healing God intends to bring to his broken creation. Although wracked with so much controversy, baptism is truly intended as a symbol of unity: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Adams hopes that by embracing her common identity, the church can move into a greater appreciation of her baptismal unity in Christ.
Living under Water was clearly born out of this desire for unity. Adams draws on insights from a wide variety of Christian traditions and tells the stories of people from many different backgrounds. It is impossible, however, to write a neutral book that will appeal to all. While ostensibly avoiding the questions of who and how, Adams nevertheless answers them obliquely through the stories he chooses: infants and adults, sprinkling and immersion. He does not insist that readers must agree with him, but it would seem better to clearly state his position from the beginning and write from a definite perspective. This would have given Adams the opportunity to use his own tradition to show how these ideas might be applied. As it is, the book lacks the power of a clear conviction while still remaining controversial due to the nature of its content.
What Living under Water does well, however, is to inspire churches to consider how their baptismal practices inform their discipleship. Does the liturgy communicate the life-changing truth of God’s grace? Does it help believers live out of the death and resurrection of Christ? What does it communicate about identity, suffering, missions, or unity? Adams is right that baptism should be more than a watery sideshow. It is a gift to the church with deep theological, social, and practical implications, and that gift deserves unpacking.