Would You Kindly?: in which we consider the role of religion, faith, and theology in Bioshock Infinite

In yet another installment of what is becoming a series on themes in Bioshock, I’m turning in this post to Bioshock Infinite‘s appropriation of Christianity as an element that fleshes out the game’s setting. I have no intention of declaring creative director Ken Levine a man who is “out to get the Christians,” as some have wondered. If 2007’s Bioshock didn’t make Levine an automatic atheist-hater, then Bioshock Infinite cannot be said to be indicative of anti-Christian sentiment per se. I’ve been writing and rewriting this post since my last entry, so it’s taken me some time to nail down exactly what’s on my mind grapes.

The first card of the Rorschach test

As the man [Levine] himself has suggested, the games can be thought of as a Rorschach test. People will only be able to think of butterflies after playing. People take away a message that they are already inclined to believe. So here’s my butterfly.

“DIES, DIED, WILL DIE”: FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM

Midway through 2007’s Bioshock we learned that the writers had co-opted a convention that is, to my knowledge, entirely unique to this medium of story-telling— “complete given objective to progress.” At this midway reveal, we learn that our character has been psychologically conditioned to do what he’s been told when he hears the words “Would you kindly…” And we, like our character, realize that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we had chosen to perform those tasks. The antagonist manipulates the character into doing his bidding by maintaining the illusion of free will. Ken Levine did the same to us by maintaining the illusion of our agency in the story’s unfolding. We had suspended our disbelief at the artifice of objective-completing, because that’s just the way video games work. Well played, Mr. Levine. Well played.

Infinite treats the determinism/free-will dichotomy more directly. The idea of choice, especially moral choice, has been something of a fad in video games. Any RPG that gives dialogue options is ostensibly giving the player choices. BioshockFallout 3, Mass Effect (1, 2, and 3), and others enhance the players sense of agency in the story by giving the impression of moral or ethical choice that will affect not only the short-term outcome of a conversation or mission, but, potentially, massive end-game consequences. For the most part, these “massive consequences” amount to a “good” ending or a “bad” ending that reflect your moral choice. [begin rant] Mass Effect pretended to give three endings. Rather than “good” or “bad,” we got red, blue, or green tints to the ending cinematic. I really wanted the blue ending, but boy-howdy, when my screen turned green, I REALLY felt the weight of my choices two games back. I mean, wow, green! [end rant]

There can be only one.

In the end, every player ends up finishing amid a finite number of possible endings. There is no other way. The architecture of a game and the limitations of technology require a limit to the number of possible endings. Thus choice, ultimately, is an in-game illusion. Infinite throws this up in the air for all to see. Throughout the game, we are given what seem in the moment to be significant choices. They are all different (in counterpoint to the repetitive choices of Bioshock): heads or tails, throw a baseball at an interracial couple or the guy making sport of them, the bird or the cage, interrupt the guy on the phone or let him stab you through the hand (I know that one sounds like a no-brainer, but the situation is more ambiguous at the time). These choices make alterations to characters or environments, but they are always minute and cosmetic. In the end, we learn that there is only one path to solving the problems the story presents.

This same difference in philosophy frequently splits Protestant Christianity into the camps of Arminianism and Calvinism (frequently called Reformed Theology). I wish to avoid making a caricature of either, so it will suffice to say that one of the differences between the two is the very question of free will versus determinism (or predestination). It’s a sticky wicket to be sure: does God make us do everything we do? Or do we have the ability to freely choose? Or is it some mixture of the two, and if so, how can that be? You can see why it is difficult to agree on such questions because some find the notion of predestination comforting, while others find it restrictive. I am of the opinion that, as in so many spectra, the truth lies between extremes. The appropriate term here, I think, is antinomy, a paradox (which fits nicely with the universe-bending of the story). The Kingdom of God is both now and not yet; Jesus was both fully God and fully man; the Trinity is three, yet one; God is wholly sovereign, yet in His sovereignty, He does not infringe upon our choice. All are antinomies, paradoxes that are true but seem contradictory. And this is not exclusive to discussions of faith. Systems that rely solely on rational argument have their own share of antinomies and paradoxes (see the antinomy link for Kant’s use of the term). E.g. …

  • light behaves as particles, yet light behaves as waves.
  • “I always tell lies”—if it’s true then it’s false, and if it’s false then it’s true.
  • I shoot an arrow from point A to point B. If I divide that space in half, I create a point (C) between A and B. I can continue to divide these spaces in half ad infinitum, creating an infinite number of points between A and B. With an infinite number of points through which to pass, the arrow should never reach point B. And yet it does.

“His dying breath has brought me life.”

For all the story’s initial reinforcement of predestination, the end would seem to point to the possibility that the unending deterministic cycle can be broken by … wait for it … love. I know I’m reading my own meaning into this, but bear with me. Granted, the story is not an allegory (for which I have a particular distaste), but there is symbolism here. A Father willingly sacrifices himself to save his child from a pattern of hurt, evil, and death—to break the cycle—and it is she who “drives through the nail,” so to speak. Sound familiar?

“THE LORD FORGIVES EVERYTHING, BUT I’M JUST A PROPHET… SO I DON’T HAVE TO”: ABSENCE OF ACTUAL CHRISTIANITY

The depiction of Christian-esque-ity in Infinite is clearly from the perspective of one on the outside looking in. Controversy erupted before the game was even released because of rumors of negative depictions of Christianity. And I’ll be honest: I’m allergic to the “hay fever” brought on by Straw Men. However, Bioshock Infinite does not portray Christianity per se.

“THE WORD OF THE PROPHET”: CHRISTIANITY AS CULT

I.e., the Book of Mormon

Infinite‘s depiction of Christian-like symbols and lingo cannot be taken as indicative of true Christianity. It is intentionally, I think, a caricature of American Christianity as seen through a modern lens. The bigotry and jingoism depicted in the game doubtless bears some truth, but those are not the trappings of Christianity, but of the culture of the time. In fact, the beliefs of the Founders party seem to bear closer resemblance to heretical offshoots of Christianity such as Mormonism. These sects often claim Christianity, but Christendom doesn’t claim them. Z. H. Comstock, our villain, maintains a cult following through self-serving propaganda and deception, exalting himself to near-divinity. Simply put he’s a charlatan, and there have been countless prominent figures of similar character who have led churches. But it is folly to conflate the man and the message.

Interestingly, the camp opposed to the Founders party, the Vox Populi, quickly regress from the oppressed to the oppressors. With a cult-like adherence to ideology, they violently enforce their equally extreme perspective on the citizens of Columbia. In short, it seems the message is that extremism of any kind, regardless of what side of the aisle you prefer, is detrimental. Certainly, we can agree that blind adherence to any ideology is fraught with danger.

“WHEN A SOUL IS BORN AGAIN, WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ONE LEFT BEHND IN THE BAPTISMAL WATER?”: BAPTISM AND FALSE CONVERSION

Baptism itself is purported as the means of salvation. Christ’s work isn’t mentioned.

The notion of baptism is key to Infinite‘s plot and characters, both overtly and covertly. Over and over again, we see the imagery of immersion. As many know, immersion is not the only method of baptism within the Christian church, but it is a very powerful image. There are numerous Old Testament instances in which the sea, submersion, etc. are used as indicative of or allusions to death, the grave, and judgement. (E.g., the Red Sea overrunning Pharaoh and his chariots in Exodus, or Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale.) Baptism in the New Testament takes up the same symbolism, and I should note that baptism is just that—a symbol, a public, outward sign of an inward, spiritual change (or at least the beginning of one). In immersive baptism, one is plunged beneath the water as a sign of the dying off of the sin. Like many Christian ceremonial practices, it is intended as a reminder via reenactment of something Christ did for us. By His literal  death and reemergence, He opened a way for man’s redemption. In so doing we formally and publicly acknowledge our intention to imitate Him.

Baptism in Infinite never even alludes to this understanding. The act is treated as the salvation itself, not the symbol, effectively implying works-righteousness. Biblical Christianity is based on the very opposite of salvation-by-works: salvation by grace through faith. This treatment of baptism may confuse players who lack much understanding of  Christian doctrine, but in the end it says more about the player than it does about Christianity.

Infinite perfectly reflects the problem with a great deal of the American church, and indeed, with secular society’s ignorance of orthodox Christianity—a lack of the Gospel. While the game appropriates the trappings of Christian-esque culture (the buzz words like grace and forgiveness) for the characters who are religious extremists, those characters lack any genuine understanding of the nucleus of their “faith,” which is the Gospel message.

Ironically, the game does parallel certain elements of the Gospel in the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, albeit without the definitively encouraging ending that the Gospel gives. But I think that one should take care before announcing that the game attacks Christianity when, in fact, it seems to defame a cheap imitation—what many modern secular Americans perceive to be Christianity. They’re taking issue with a ghost, not the Holy Ghost.

Some References and Resources:

“Designing the Cast of Bioshock Infinite.” GameSpot. 26 February 2013. (relevant material around 5:00 mark)

“Does David Barton, Evangelical Host, Think ‘Bioshock Infinite’ [sic] Has Anti-Christian, Anti-Conservative Undertones?” Huffington Post. 26 April 2013.

Holt, Mytheos. “Is the Video Game Being Called the ‘Best Game of the Year’ Anti-American and Anti-Conservative?” The Blaze, 29 March 2013.

Lahti, Evan. “Interview: Ken Levine on American History, Racism in BioShock Infinite: ‘I’ve Always Believed That Gamers Were Underestimated.’” PC Gamer. 13 December 2013.

McGrath, Tori. “Player Recieves [sic] Bioshock Infinite Refund Over Religious Themes.” Game Breaker. 17 April 2013.

Petitte, Omri. “BioShock Infinite Artist Almost Resigned over Game’s Depiction of Religion,” PC Gamer. 1 March 2013.