I enjoy the Bourne Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum movie trilogy because the big story arc deals with the issue of identity. Fittingly, the story begins and ends with baptism scenes. I don’t think Robert Ludlum, the author of the original books, was a Christian, nor do I think the director of the movies is. From what I can tell, it’s a pure coincidence that this parallel exists. But I’m struck by it. And I think it sounds a note in our culture.
We get to know Jason Bourne at his first “baptism.” He is unconscious, adrift in the ocean off the coast of Marseilles, France, with two gunshot wounds in his back. Rescued by a fishing boat, he struggles to recover his memory from the fog of amnesia that cuts him off from memories of his life prior to being pulled out of the water. By tracing small clues, he learns that he was a highly trained CIA assassin with the name Jason Bourne. He decides that he will start a new life and leave his old life behind. Bourne had been tasked with killing an African dictator, but had given up on his mission because of the man’s children. When he aborted his mission, he was shot twice and fell overboard into the ocean. Jason Bourne’s attempt at starting a new life ended with a “death” of sorts.
But the CIA won’t let Bourne go so easily. They pursue him, eventually pushing him to expose the whole façade of lies and intrigue that hides the assassin program from the public. In the middle of the third movie, Bourne explains why he is so reluctant to kill others: He wants to undo all the wrongs he had done before. By the end of the third movie, Bourne acquires classified files, discovers that his past name was David Webb, gets the files into the right hands to expose the CIA, and escapes by jumping off a building into the Hudson River. For a moment, we’re uncertain if CIA villain Noah Vosen succeeded in shooting him. But then we see Bourne swimming away. It’s another “baptism” scene that reminds us that we first met this man when he was almost dead in the ocean. This time, his attempt at starting his new life has finally succeeded. He knows who he really is – David Webb, the man he was before he became the lethal assassin Jason Bourne, the man he now knows he should have always remained.
These “baptism” scenes illustrate this man’s central struggle: to shake himself free of the corrupt identity that he had willingly chosen, to fight the forces which want to keep him in that corrupt identity (either that, or kill him), and to return to the man he was.
Curiously enough, these “baptism” scenes are a decent analogy for each human being’s central struggle: to shake free of the corrupt, false identity that we willingly chose, and to return to the person God always meant for us to be. Jesus wanted to mark people with a baptism. An expression of dying and rising, cleansing and renewal, baptism represents the change in our identity. It anchors us in the biblical story of God bringing forth life on the other side of water – the waters of creation in Genesis 1, of the flood in Genesis 6-9, and of the Red Sea in Exodus 14-15. Each time, God was bringing people to a garden land – the garden of Eden, the vineyard of Noah, the promised land of Canaan – which represented the God-nourished life and the promise that God will one day renew His entire creation.
Water images still seem to be a popular and fairly intuitive symbol of renewal. Ella Henderson, in her song “Ghost,” says, “I keep going to the river to pray, ‘cause I need something that can wash out the pain.” Recovering from an emotionally manipulative lover isn’t easy, especially when the “ghost” of his presence lingers. We’re left to wonder what “river” she goes to. To whom does she pray, and for what does she hope that ‘can wash out the pain’?
Intuitively meaningful images can’t necessarily stand by themselves, or mediate all meaning. They need to be drawn into a larger story. Christians can connect these yearnings to be cleansed, washed, and renewed to a larger story and a deeper meaning. Of course, that story and meaning flow from the God who honors all our stories, who has pursued us in the person of Jesus, the one who has gone through an actual dying and rising to give us his new life. So every Christian baptism can serve as a poetic bridge between Him and the yearnings for cleansing in our culture, however detached or unfocused they may be.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.