Brief Book Review: Death by Baptism

Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear
By Frank G. Honeycutt

Who should read this book? Frank Honeycutt, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, wrote this book for pastors (and worship leaders).  The book is aimed at Protestant audiences in general and at times to Lutheran audiences in particular. The text is quite accessible. Readers who wish to understand some of the challenges and potential of preaching about and practicing baptism in Protestant churches may find this book useful and interesting.

Main point: The author’s central argument is that American culture is permeated by insecurity and fear, especially fear of death. Repeatedly, the author returns to the claim that in baptism a Christian has already died the death that really matters: “We have already died in these ancient waters, now beyond the reach of any perceived threat to life” (p. 28).

Why does it matter? Why is this book significant? Grounded in the author’s decades of pastoral experience, this book confronts head-on truncated understandings of baptism as “fire insurance” against eternity in hell or as supernatural guarantee against misfortune. The author advises preachers to address the fears of people today by examining in their sermons the fears of Jesus’ early disciples, situating those fears in the “love and promises of Christ” (p. 3). The author also argues against celebrating baptism without preceding catechesis and formation, outlining for adults a four-stage process that mirrors the restored Rite of Christian Initiation in the Roman Catholic Church. While carefully preserving the characteristic Lutheran emphasis on grace over works, the author quotes Dallas Willard’s quip that “grace . . . is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning’ (p. 103).

What intrigued me: The author discusses the baptismal practice of a congregation where, after a baptism, the assembly processes to the adjacent church cemetery. There, water left over from the baptism is poured onto the burial plot which the baptizand will one day occupy. I am not sure how widely feasible this practice may be but it is certainly full of rich symbolism.

Pushing back: I offer three points here. I wonder if the author’s emphasis on baptism ends up obscuring Eucharist.  In the book’s closing chapter, for example, the author quotes James K.A. Smith on how the cadences of worship “are the rhythms where we learn to be free . . . The point of the sacraments is that they are embodied conduits of grace that nourish new habits.”  The author follows up with “Baptism is a one-time dunking with daily implications for ongoing conversion” (p. 146). True enough. Yet the weekly rhythm of worship features Eucharist far more often than it features baptism. The idea the baptism is ordered to Eucharist makes no appearance in the text here or elsewhere.

The author does not connect discussion of fear of death with the shift in early Christian centuries from Christ as Good Shepherd to Christ as Pantokrator and fearsome Judge. This shift played a part in the emergence of magical thinking about sacraments, including baptism.

The author’s treatment of baptismal promises / renunciations (e.g., on p. 104) does not draw on recent figures such as David Batchelder or Debra Dean Murphy, each of whom has addressed the question of taking baptismal promises / renunciations seriously. Along these lines, the author also does not draw on important ancient homilies on baptism / initiation by St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom.

Implications. That death in baptism puts biological death in a transformed light is a key element of this book. Would that more of us clung to this belief with greater frequency and tenacity.

Honeycutt, Frank G. Death by Baptism: Sacramental Liberation in a Culture of Fear. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. 192 pages. $19.99. ISBN: 9781506470047.

REVIEWER: Timothy Brunk

9 comments

  1. This is a nitpick, because I have not read the book to give it context, but I found the quote “baptism is a one-time dunking” disrespectful.

    1. Hi Rita,
      The author writes in a colloquial and informal register throughout the book. I probably should have noted that in the “who should read this book” section. There are at least two other references to baptism as “dunking.”

    2. I am not certain what might be disrespectful in the comment. Baptizo means to dip or, more colloquially, dunk.

      Unfortunately in actual Roman Catholic practice the appropriate formula would seem to be I trickle a few drops of water over you.

      1. I have long thought that whoever originally said ‘you have to get the crown of the head wet’ meant ‘you have to push them right under’. I know Paul Bradshaw disagrees, and can point to the sources, but I cling obstinately to my opinion (which is of no importance).

  2. In defense of “dunking”!
    Here in Ireland the word is often used for how we can take a hard, dry piece of food (like what we call a “Ginger Snap” biscuit/cookie which is difficult to bite or break), and dip it in our cup of hot tea.
    What was hard becomes, in a few seconds, totally soaked and sodden and soft – transformed!
    This is an image I’ve used when speaking of Baptism in water and the Spirit. We are utterly soaked through with the life of the Spirit, and become appetizing food for the world.
    This is the dying and rising in Christ. This is the transformation into a fountain of living water.
    Of course, it doesn’t help when we just pour a spoonful of water on the head of the candidate. I’d like to see every Catholic church furnished with a font which offers the possibility of the fuller immersion, and at least offer the option. Then the clothing in the white Baptismal garment takes on added impact.

    1. I look at the pavement around immersion fonts and think I’d never ever want to be on them when they are being used, as they appear to be designed without any consideration for slipping on wet pavement.

      “Dunking” in the context of baptismal liturgy is like “cremains” in the context of funeral liturgies: they are words that are not needed (“immersing” and “remains”, respectively, more than suffice), and mostly serve to make the utterer seem clever or technical, and thereby get in the way of good communication.

  3. Some of the comments seem to suggest that my objection to the word dunking stems from disapproval of immersion baptism. Nothing could be further from the case. I’ve been a passionate advocate of immersion baptism for forty years. Rather, my objection is that the word calls up trivial associations — the fun fair, donuts and coffee (or ginger snaps, as you prefer) — while immersion baptism is about the most serious of themes: death and rising from the dead to newness of life (and no, I don’t think a soggy sweet however tasty is an appropriate analogy). Jesus was not “dunked” into death. He truly died and his paschal mystery is the turning point of the world. In short, the metaphor of baptism is as much unlike a fun fair or coffee klatch as it is possible to be. There is a name for the sort of humor that draws a parallel comparison between something deeply respected and serious to something light and frivolous. It is called burlesque.

    To be immersed is a much more respectful term.

    1. “There is a name for the sort of humor that draws a parallel comparison between something deeply respected and serious to something light and frivolous. It is called burlesque.”

      Aptly stated.

  4. Two comments on “dunking”:
    1. It seems that for some, it has negative or dismissive connotations. This is not the case in the usage I’m used to.
    2. As I would use the word in relation to Baptism, it’s a metaphor, not an equivalence. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used to suggest a likeness between them. It does not suggest that they are equivalent. There’s no suggestion that the one being baptised is the same as dipping a piece of difficult-to-chew food into a cup of tea. The point is the transformation. We can be tempted sometimes to make a similar mistake by treating a parable as an allegory. When Jesus told a story of the unjust steward who faced dismissal taking dishonest steps to protect his future, Jesus did not recommend dishonesty. Rather, he made the point that the children of this world may exercise wisdom for their purposes when the children of light fail to take the appropriate steps for the life of the Kingdom.
    Perhaps comments could now bypass Rita’s “nitpick” in order to focus on the substance of the book which, like Rita, I have not read.

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