taking the plunge


For both believers and nonbelievers, the pageantry of religion can sometimes feel like a whole lot of extraneous fuss. The stained glass, the snakes, the evocation of languages long dead — up, down, up, down, up again, down again. Shouldn’t you just be able to close your eyes and stand alone on a mountaintop wearing a simple shift to commune with the spirits? Even that, though, is a kind of ritual. The externalization of faith, whatever form it takes, is unavoidable. But it is also meaningful to and necessary for religion. All religions share a common attempt to communicate something that is, by all accounts, inexpressible: belief. Religion itself isn’t belief but razzamattazz, and all the glorious rituals and songs and handicrafts are in the service of communication, and thus, community. Years ago, during my youthful days in theater school, a teacher summed up this process quite nicely. “But Stefany,” she exhaled, “no one cares what you are feeling. An audience only knows what you are feeling through what you are doing.” As religious expressions go, I’ve always been particularly attracted to the river baptism though, like most, I’ve only seen them performed in movies and television (and now the internet). River baptisms are inextricably associated with the American South, and with the first few decades of the 20th century, when many of the rituals that made the South alternately special or wretched were in their waning days. On display now in a single room at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City is a wonderful exhibit of picture postcards documenting the practice in the South and Midwest between the late 19th and early 20th centuries called “Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms.”

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.