Saturday, November 7, 2009

Baptism, Rites, and 'in Christ' Identity

I am putting the finishing touches on my SBL paper, Baths, Baptism, and Patronage and I thought I would post some of my reflections on Richard DeMaris' The New Testament in its Ritual World, first chapter. So, here they are. DeMaris rightly notes that scholars should question the ‘taken-for-granted status of baptism’ within the early Christ-movement (15). He also recognizes that ‘baptism’, in 1 Cor 1.10-13, is ‘the cause of controversy’ and ‘not a basis for solving’ the problem (16). Furthermore, ‘Paul implies that the conflicting loyalties that threaten group unity stem in part from who baptized whom’ (16). So, ‘Paul’s forgetfulness…betrays’ his ‘uneasiness about his involvement in baptism and his unhappiness that the rite has contributed to divisiveness among the Corinthian house churches and within them’ (16).

DeMaris calls into question the idea that baptism was a rite of initiation or a rite of passage and rather suggests that it should be understood as a boundary-crossing event with a primary focus on ritual and crisis rather than the ‘derivative status’ which focuses on ‘faith, sacred symbol, and sacred story’ to ‘inform or dictate what ritual is about’ (this is also a critique of Horrell (1996: 80)) (20, 22).

DeMaris points out that rites are public experiences and ‘not simply two-party transactions, between buyer and seller, between baptizer and baptizand’; rather they affect ‘existing social relations’ (24). He suggests that baptism ‘which brought new members into the group, was in effect a mechanism for crossing the domestic threshold and establishing kinship bonds’ (25). DeMaris suggests that ‘in the first-century Mediterranean world…family identity outweighed individual identity’ (25). However, DeMaris emphasizes the need to cut existing social ties but I would suggest that these existing ties remain expect in those places where they conflict with identity in Christ (e.g. idolatry and immorality).

DeMaris is correct to note that rites can generate conflict as easily as they can reduce it (27). So, baptism may actually be contributing to difficulties in interpreting the social implications of the gospel. DeMaris describes four aspects of rites that suggest that they contribute to ‘social crises’ and conflict (33). First, rites can misfire and produce ‘unintended consequences’ (27). I would suggest an unintended consequence in Corinth related to the patronage associations with Roman bathing practices (the argument of my SBL paper). Second, rites reinforce ‘social hierarchies’ (29). A trip to the bath likewise reinforced social hierarchies (just like the locker room did in Jr. High School, but I digress). Likewise, the asymmetrical relationship between the baptizer and the baptizand could have contributed to power issues within the Christ-movement. Third, rites present an ‘idealized situation’ that is not commensurate with reality (30). I would suggest that if language such as 1 Cor 12.13 was employed during the baptism, confusion could have arisen with regard to the continuing significance of ethnic identity and status categories in Christ. Fourth, ‘context is crucial for determining a rite’s effects’ (32). The social setting influences the effectiveness of a rite, especially in the context of its impact on existing social identities (e.g. baptism and circumcision and/or Eucharistic and dietary practices). If, central to Paul’s mission is the continuation of previous social identities in Christ (1 Cor 7.19) then, one should expect to see confusion, debate, and disagreement over how these identities continue in various social settings.

DeMaris also appears to disagree with me with regard to the continuing significance of previous social identities in Christ. For example, he writes ‘In the case of baptism, it would have concretized, enacted, and finalized the departure of individuals from their former social identity and their entry into a new identity’(31). Furthermore, ‘If baptism made the transition from old to new possible, the reality of living simultaneously in both persisted. The tension between ideal and real undoubtedly posed problems for members of the early church’ (31).

DeMaris notes with regard to 1 Cor 10.1-5 that ‘Paul stresses the clean break and new allegiance that ritual signals in his retelling of the Israelites’ Exodus and Wilderness experience – a thinly veiled reference to baptism and eucharist (10.1-5)’ (31). Though, he is correct to note that Paul is concerned about their inconsistency between lived and ideal experience. I would suggest that DeMaris overstates the discontinuity between Israel’s experience and that of those in Christ, in that he overlooks the comparative nature of Paul’s rhetoric in favor of a contrastive reading of the text (cf. 2 Cor 3 where Paul presents a similar argument). The implication of DeMaris’ approach is that ethnic identities and other existing identity position are irrelevant ‘in Christ’ rather than seeing the issue the way these continue ‘in Christ’, which would be an equally ‘messy’ scenario (31).

Well, so what do you think about DeMaris' work on the ritual aspects of baptism?

Whilst working on this, I came by a guitar solo that I couldn't pass up...passing on (thanks Greg Amburgy for the 'heads up'). Enjoy...

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