Last year, I became aware of the book The Erotic Baptism. I was warned that it was the worst–or at least strangest–thing in all of Christian culture, and why would you even say that to me, you know that means I’ll have to read it, but whatever. The book claimed, quite openly, to be a work of Christian Erotica, one that centered on John the Baptist. So it had that going for it. A quick search brought up a smattering of negative reviews: two one-star Amazon reviews and a few secular blog posts which touted the book as a bizarre, unintentionally hilarious disaster.
So I bought it. To begin, we talked about the book in an episode of the podcast. We joked about it quite a bit, but I also tried to be fair. It was a fun time, but I felt like I needed to write something. I know what it feels like to have your art flamed in the public square: it feels like everyone is passing around nude photos of you and laughing.
At the very least, I owed The Erotic Baptism a thoughtful review.
So, yes. Let’s not kid ourselves. This book is very strange.
And that’s okay.
I would argue that Christian culture itself is inherently strange. We can’t help it: We were told in Sunday School that Christians are supposed to be a peculiar people. We grew up hearing the word “worldly” used as a pejorative. Even as the high-end faith-based movies careen into the mainstream, even as another generation of youth pastors sally forth with hazy visions of engaging the culture, Christianity will always be separate and will always be odd.
Strangeness is just in us, imprinted on our spiritual DNA.
Enter the mysterious author. The architect of The Erotic Baptism is “Faith Angell”, ostensibly a woman from California, according to the brief bio. There is no contact info, no clues to her identity. The book was self-published in 2014 and there are no further titles under her alias. But no one plans to write a single 12-page book. My best guess? She was stung by the reception and retreated, shelving any future installments in the process.
This leads into my biggest question from The Erotic Baptism: was it meant to be taken seriously?
“I would like to be like a sheep to you,” she said to John.
In some ways, the book would make much more sense if it were intended to be funny or subversive. Is it? Who knows. Lacking any definitive evidence, we must tentatively accept The Erotic Baptism for what it claims to be–an earnest attempt at Christian Erotica.
By way of a plot, The Erotic Baptism is both simple and murky. The simple: Bethel, an 18-year-old virgin girl, witnesses John baptize Jesus and decides that she has been chosen to baptize John…by having sex with him. The murky: uh…why a sex-baptism, exactly? I realize that, as erotica, the plot must dictate that…well…Bethel and John have sex. But straightforward physical attraction would have been okay. Instead, we have a baffling confluence of spiritual and romantic elements that get twisted together until passages like this pop off the page:
…his true baptism is waiting for him, between my eager thighs,” Bethel thinks to herself.
Bethel and John meet up later and begin a night of passion. The narrative dances: one moment we are getting detailed, explicit descriptions of John’s genitals, the next we are sifting through some of the most surreal sentences Christian culture has ever produced:
It was her first orgasm, and she was glad to have experienced it through Christ.
The fact that John and Bethel do not first marry, or make even some token gesture of commitment, is puzzling. While I am no prude who requires fiction characters to be saints, I simply do not understand this narrative choice: it would seem that the purpose of Christian Erotica–and the mechanism that creates the erotic tension–is to have the characters more or less play by the rules of Christianity.
As I read, I spent a fair amount of the time laughing. Sometimes I was laughing because I was slightly uncomfortable; sometimes I was laughing at the sheer audacity of the text. Faith Angell, whoever she is, is not afraid to raid the noun supply: scepter, canyon, snake, staff, chasm, pole, and love button are all repurposed for her erotic ends.
Yes, love button.
So is The Erotic Baptism a bad book? No. It is a strange book, but it is not boring. It is unique. It is written with a straightforward eagerness that is by turns refreshing and haphazard. So is it a good book? Well, I wouldn’t call it that either.
John’s manhood thrashed within her, touching upon each edge of her lust-filled canyon
In 2004, Roger Ebert struggled to review the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In his column, he explained:
My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist?
I think that’s where I leave The Erotic Baptism. It exists in a very strange place, at an intersection of tastes that most Christians will avoid. But you know what? Putting out a book is a risk. It takes guts to open yourself up to criticism. The Erotic Baptism exists, and that’s something.