Thomas F. BEST, Baptism Today: Understanding, Practice, Ecumenical Implications. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008. pp. 447. $ 39.95.
Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618.

Great book! It provides descriptions and interpretations of eighteen individual baptismal rituals, analysis of what unites and divides churches about the celebration and understanding of baptism, challenges to both its understanding and celebration by pluralist, secularist, and / or non-Western cultures. It does this in clear prose reflective of the twenty-five diverse contributors whose churches represent a wide range of baptismal rituals and practices.

The use and non use of these rituals and the disagreement over the role and meaning of baptism in a Christian’s life represent deep divides in Christianity. The radically diverse views are a significant challenge to understanding Christian ecclesial identity. A book such as this provides the reader with the state of the question regarding this, to many theologians, essential part of Christianity.

Every group of people, especially institutions, have ways of bringing people into the group and recognizing when they are “really” part of them. Christian churches are no different in the need for and the employment of traditional means for doing these things whether these “traditional” means are from Christian religious history or from the culture within which the particular church exists. Since institutions survive for generations, the means of recognition must be part of each generation – thus traditional in some sense. For the Christian churches who acknowledge the Spirit’s formative ecclesial role throughout their history, water baptism, in its variety of forms, plays that role. For those Christian churches that emphasize the individual’s current personal deep felt experience and / or the individual’s understanding of the bible, they look to more current cultural expressions as the means through which the Spirit acts – sharing their religious experience in understandable language, dance, or music. Many times the ritual act of baptism is also included among these cultural expressions. Thus all Christian churches have a rite of passage and almost all have a baptismal water ritual of some kind.

This is not any group of people we are describing but a Christian group of people. God as Holy Spirit is seen by all as essential to becoming part of this group. The Spirit is responsible for this person’s entry as expressed through the baptism of adults or of infants and other actions and prayers associated with joining the group. No matter whether a church understands baptism more as an affirmation of what has happened (experience of sins forgiven and salvation in Jesus) or as an efficient cause of what happens (sins forgiven, membership in the church, joining with Jesus), water baptism is there for many; the Holy Spirit is there for all.

Every Christian group of people is always a group. When someone becomes a member they are recognized as one of the group. What the one baptized, upon entering the group, says is his/her reason for joining it must be acknowledged by the group – here, the church. Thus by their confession of belief individuals are recognized and affirmed as being one with the belief of the particular church: communal and individual faith and passage into church membership are united in ritual by all Christian churches.

But is this church at this moment in time and this individual at this moment of baptismal time part of something more than themselves? Certainly all would agree that both individual and community are related to each other and God differently after the act than before it. What that difference and relationship is joins the other great divisions present in Christianity such as age of baptism, mode of baptism, words for baptism, and the necessity of water baptism itself for membership. If you are to understand Christianity, you must understand baptism. How a church sees baptism will demonstrate its understanding of itself and its relationship to God. This book enables you to discover the great variety of understandings that constitute modern day Christianity.

When we gather together a history reflecting the similarities and differences of a two thousand year religion, we may forget that this religion exists in the present not the past. The present is significantly different than the past in its pluralism of cultures, secularism, and inter religious dialogue and confrontation on the macro scale of the hermeneutical quest. On the individual, micro scale, freedom of choice, religious ignorance, spiritualities, individualism, and niche marketing shape identity. The simple rite of passage described in anthropological literature and applied by many liturgical theorists is always recognized as such by the tribe within which it is found. Baptism is not understood by many Christian people as it is understood by the theologians no matter what their ecclesial background. The research by the World Council of Churches that this book represents is needed and must be celebrated. But the actual understanding of the people must be surveyed and wrestled with. We look forward to the joining of this research when it is done with that presented in this book. Hopefully the combination will lead to a deeper sense of togetherness in the Spirit.

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