In the chapter I sent out last week, a character gets baptized. Now since this was at a time in the conversion of England when most people were first-generation believers, infant baptism hadn’t really come up yet and wasn’t an issue. But I haven’t found yet any reason to believe the Irish church practiced baptism by immersion. Believers’ baptism, yes, but by sprinkling.
I am a Baptist, and I believe baptism by immersion makes sense. If the point of it is to be a public confession of faith, something that gets you wet from head to toe when everyone else (except your pastor) is perfectly dry seems to be a good way to do it, on the most superficial level. More importantly, there’s the overt symbolism of death, burial, and resurrection present when somebody is submerged and then brought up again (while still alive, of course, we don’t carry realism that far).
But when I was doing research for this baptism scene, it was borne in upon me that that is not the way it was done that day. So what was I to do?
I could have done it the way I believe to be correct, and put in an Historical Note saying that in reality she’d have been sprinkled. But so few people read the historical notes — it’s like the subtitle of The Man Who Was Thursday, which explains a great deal, only no one ever notices it. And a subtitle is a lot easier to see than a little note at the back of the book. So that didn’t seem likely. Besides, people who read historical fiction tend to go away believing that things in such a time were the way the authour said they were. In other words, most readers trust the authour to be giving an accurate portrayal. If one of these lovely readers happened to miss the note and goes away believing that one of the differences between the Irish and Roman churches was that the former practiced baptism by immersion and the latter did not, well, I’ve misled him.
Also, and this is my biggest objection, that’s simply not how it happened. To write it any other way would be to rewrite history, and I don’t want to do that. I have a responsibility to wield my sword well and to give people dreams of reality. People have done things I disagree with. I’ve still got to represent them accurately and fairly.
The other option would be to leave the scene as it is, with baptism-by-sprinkling all intact. I could put in an Authour’s Note saying “Note to Chapter XI: look, I don’t agree with this way myself, but that’s how they did it”, in slightly more formal language, of course, but that would be enough. I could also say nothing, but if any Baptists ever read the book and then find out that I’m a Baptist, they’ll probably get after me for espousing heresy or something.
The sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Cities has statues of the Evangelists. Their names are written on the pedestals, but each also has his creature with him. If you couldn’t read, as long as you knew John’s creature is an eagle, you would recognize the man with the eagle as being John. Realistically, I don’t think the Apostle always had an eagle with him wherever he went. It might have been a little awkward for St Luke to have an ox tramping with him into people’s houses. Perhaps Mark wrote in such a hurry because he had a lion breathing down his neck all the time. My job isn’t quite the same thing. After all, I am by definition writing for a literate audience. I’m telling a different kind of story. In the genre of historical fiction, accuracy is one of the most important things, whereas for a painter whose job is to tell the Gospel, he has something that makes most details of historical accuracy shrink — though by no means all. Getting names and dates and places and such facts right is important to telling the Gospel.
The difference is what we are trying to do. The sculptors and painters and illuminators who depicted the Evangelists with their creatures were trying to bring fundamentals of the faith to a mostly illiterate audience. My duty is to bring the past to life, even a very obscure part, which makes my job all the harder and the more important that I’m not furthering misconceptions about the era. I have to try to get the history right. In the artists’ cases, a lot of it was ignorance, both on their parts and on those who would be seeing their work. Even if they consciously thought they were making things different, they were doing so to make it easier to understand who people are. Changing the baptismal customs of the Irish church would not accomplish that.
Is this as big as the Easter controversy or the filioque? No. Should I explain why I’m doing what I’m doing, as a Baptist who likes a lot of old traditions? Of course; why else would I have written this post?
Does this make sense to those of you who might happen to be interested? Objections? Criticism? Does the illustration even make sense?