The art of baptism
Lady Bird energized many weary tropes in its compressed 90-minute run time, but its most ambitious revitalization was that of the lapsed Catholic. Saoirse Ronan’s titular character moves through her private Catholic school with silent secularism—her attendance there isn’t a religious statement one way or the other, and the church is a set piece that texturizes rather than defines the film. Though Lady Bird is a character who is opinionated about so many things, she snacks on communion wafers like they come from a vending machine without either reverence or rebellion. She is neutral about religion in a subversive way, and weeks after leaving the theater, I continue to find that neutrality enviable.
I’ve been baptised three times. First, my grandmother targeted the latent Catholic guilt in my lapsed mother, and I’ve been told a priest splashed my newborn head with holy water until I cried. When we moved across the country from my grandmother, my mother told me I was becoming a Baptist. We went to the Gulf of Mexico for a sunrise ceremony, and a pastor held my body under the dawn-colored waves until I choked. Finally, in Tennessee, I was informed I was going to be a Latter Day Saint. This baptism was done inside, in a pool that unsettlingly matched the temperature of my skin. This time it was a bishop who performed the transformative act, and he submerged me until my faith drowned.
In denial, I dragged the corpse of that faith behind me for many years, first identifying as a deist and then as an agnostic before finally admitting my atheism (but only to myself). Even then, it was complicated. I managed to hold onto the fear of god even in the absence of a belief in god, which felt like being afraid of the dark in a room with a broken light switch, and my mother continued shucking Christian denominations like out-of-fashion outfits.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, she moved us to a place called the Christian Retreat just outside of Tampa, Florida. We cleaned the kitchenettes for room and board, and I was sent to the kind of children’s groups where kids were encouraged to speak in tongues and collapse to ground to demonstrate their faith. (A Google review describes the place as having a cult-like atmosphere, which is really understating it.) I had a lot of unsupervised time to fill while my mother was in her own meetings, so more than once I snuck through the corridors of the tabernacle and ate communion bread by the half-loaf. Unlike Lady Bird, I was definitely trying to communicate something.
That kind of parallel—which isn’t really a parallel at all—is why studios spend millions of dollars producing films and why publishers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars binding books. The pleasure of slipping on the skin of someone else’s story (in this case, a story that’s much more clean and uncomplicated than mine will ever be) is timeless, and we will always pay to find new access points to ourselves.