How Badly Does Vox Explain Baptism in 130 Words?

Pretty badly.

For those who don’t know, Vox is a website that attempts to “explain” the news in tiny little bits of compressed pseudo-information.

When Sarah Palin made a spectacularly offensive comment about using water-boarding to baptize terrorists, the non-theists at Vox put on their ‘splaining caps and broke it down for us thusly. Let’s go through it line by line.

What is baptism?

Only three words and we have our first problem. What is baptism to whom? Baptism means different things in different churches. There is the actual historical meaning of baptism dating back to the first century, which is the meaning understood by Catholics, Orthodox, and some Reformed Christians. In this understanding, baptism is a channel of grace. It is a sacrament in that it effects what it signifies. The Catechism:

1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.

Those without a sacramental worldview, however, see it merely as a sign or symbol.

Baptism is a common ritual in the Christian church.

In all but a very few fringe groups, it is not a “common” ritual but a central, defining ritual.

Different branches of Christianity do baptism differently

I’m not sure what “do baptism” means, aside from the fact that Vox writers don’t know how to use English particularly well. There seems to be a confusion of two things: the means by which a baptism is performed (immersion or pouring, and the ritual during which it takes place) and the person to whom the baptism is granted.

— some typically baptize babies or children, while others baptize adults —

Vox continues to mash together different ideas, and get them wrong.

Catholics, Orthodox, and some Reformed Christian baptize both babies and adults. Traditionally, the Christian community baptizes a child as the first rite of initiation, but they will also baptize people later in life.

Other Reformed Christians only baptize mature people to signify their belief. This is a misunderstanding of baptism and of  sacramental theology that runs through certain strains of Protestantism, and only in this sense can baptism be said to be a “symbol.”

but the basic idea is that a minister puts water on a person’s head or, in some traditions, completely submerges the person as an act representing a new life with God.

The water would be “poured” not “put.” Put is just the wrong word to use. As for complete submersion, it’s only required for some churches, but others do it as well. A Catholic can certainly have a full submersion baptism if he or she likes to stand around a chilly church dripping wet.

What else is missing in this account?

They make it sound like “putting” water on your head or dunking someone is baptism. Baptism requires both water and the invocation of the Trinity, and usually other words and prayers. You must baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, you’re just splashing someone.

And your faith tradition has to have a non-defective understanding of that Trinity for it to work. This is why the baptisms of Mormons, for example, are invalid: their understanding of the nature of the Trinity is not even close to being grounded in an accurate, historical understanding.

A sacrament doesn’t “represent” anything. It’s not a symbolic act. It actually puts an indelible mark on the soul and actually washes away original sin.

What is the meaning of baptism?

Second question, same as the first:  what is the meaning to whom?

Baptism means different things for different branches of Christianity,

Fair enough, as far as it goes, and at least they’re making a gesture toward recognizing the diversity of thought about baptism. But then they speed right ahead and rattle off a few mushy examples of “what the ritual can symbolize.”

but a few of the key things the ritual can symbolize include admission into the Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, and the start of a new life with God.

“Can” is a weasel word which points up the problem of attempting to summarize something like this is a few quick words, and “symbolize” is, as we’ve discussed, entirely inappropriate for the majority of Christians, who don’t see the sacrament as “symbolic” at all.

It is given special significance in the gospels because Jesus himself is baptized and after his resurrection tells his disciples to baptize others.

Hrm… I’m not sure what this even means. “Given a special significance”? I … guess, but that phrase is just a bunch of words being mashed together by someone who neither knows nor cares what she’s attempting to say. Jesus is baptized. He commands others to be baptized. Baptism is the central sacrament of initiation in the life of the Christian, and its “significance” stretches well beyond the Gospels. The passive voice of “it is given” prompts the question, “given by whom?”

This is what happens when your bold new website can best be summarized as News for Dummies, and is based around catering to low-information Millennials who find Wikipedia a difficult and challenging read. Not everything is reducible to pithy summaries. Heck, Wikipedia even does a better job grasping baptism, and in very few words.

If Vox sees their mandate as “explaining the news,” then perhaps their explanations should not leave people knowing less than they did before.