In Defence Of Religion In BioShock Infinite

What if I told you that Bioshock Infinite was the mostly deeply Christian game I’ve played in recent memory? Because it was. And despite the patience I choose to extend toward Breen Malmberg, the man who returned the game, claiming that it would have forced him to commit “extreme blasphemy”, I cannot let his be the only voice Christian voice commenting on the title.

Of course, the game can be read on so many different levels. It is as complex or as simple as you want it to be. You can read it as a failure in its attempt to comment on game violence through violence. You can read it as a foolishly simplistic attempt at documenting the history of bigotry and racism. You can even read it as a gigantic, apathetic “MEH”; insisting that no ideological group has ever done anybody a damn lick of good.

It is, of course, all of these things — these shortcomings — and more. But in a more radical fashion, I want to share with you the myriad ways that this violent, AAA shoot-em-up has perfectly captured the subversive spiritual energy that first gave bloom to Christianity, the religion in which I was raised.

***

It’s not even a question of digging deeply. The game threw it in your face before you even picked up the controller.

Spoilers for BioShock Infinite follow.

I mean honestly, a game that is bent on exposing the failures of institutional religion? This criticism may strike at the heart of American, cultural Christianity but it actually lies at the heart of true Christianity. There was no fiercer critic of decrepit religion than Jesus himself. As if oft pointed out, he was not killed by the sinners, he was killed by the religious leaders of his day. So in our age, the customs that bring life in one generation are always decaying by the next, and we must not grow so fearful of losing the baby that we neglect to throw out the bathwater.

Complicit in this criticism is a man (and yes, Mr. Malmberg, Booker Dewitt is his own man, though we are more like him than we may care to admit), wracked with guilt over his past misdeeds, who cannot find any way to atone for his sins but by more violence. This feedback loop where brokenness begets brokenness? In Christianity we call it sin. Not merely deeds, but a state of separation; and not just from “God,” but from the meaning of life itself.

"This feedback loop where brokenness begets brokenness? In Christianity we call it sin."

Booker’s meaning of life ends up being a girl, Anna or Elizabeth, whatever you’d like to call her. Elizabeth enters the story as a Macguffin, (“Bring us the X”) but as we grow to know her, she changes the story, in more ways than one. He loves her. Only, he doesn’t know why. Doesn’t yet know she is his daughter. And here, love is portrayed not as Hollywood romance, but as mystery. Love as terror.

“Are you afraid of God, Booker?”

“No, I’m afraid of you.”

Christianity never painted the loving God as a tame God. He was a mystery beyond any of our conceptualization. One Biblical writer helped us to see somewhat clearer when he penned: “No one has ever seen God, but when we love one another, his love is seen through us.” Although loving a concept of God is easy enough for most Christians today, the true prompt of our religion is a commitment to love him by loving the most terrifying among us. Terrifying not because we don’t understand each other, but because we do.

Finally, integral to the story is the critique of symbolic baptism. Not only, the story insists, is it entirely ineffectual at actually wiping away past guilt, it actually redirects the negative energy into something far more terrifying. Sans baptism, Booker is a drunk. With it, he becomes a monster.

"Sans baptism, Booker is a drunk. With it, he becomes a monster."

This is entirely reasonable. A splashing of water was never going to bring redemption. So why is the imagery so powerful? Because the real meaning of baptism, even in Christianity, is far, far darker.

***

Remember Inception? Dom Cobb, chief inceptor, leads a rag-tag crew into the mind of a wealthy businessman, constructing a dense and elaborate plot, leading the subject on a wild-goose-chase to create a single moment, and plant a single thought.

Hold that thought.

***

Bioshock Infinite is ambitious in ways that make talking about the game a daunting task. Should we start with the themes of religion? Racism? Populism? Oh, not enough? What about quantum physics, time travel, and alternate realities?

Some have suggested that by the end of the game, the story has begun to tear itself apart. They’re so right.

The dream is collapsing.

But what if it was not about constructing a watertight plot at all? What if the entire game was constructed in order to bring us to a single moment?

What would we find in that moment?

***

In fiction, the villian exists so that we can project our own internal conflicts onto an external source. We do not know how to deal with our own issues, but if we can witness the defeat of a villain we can avoid our interior pain, angst, and confusion a little while longer.

This is nowhere more the case than in video games. Not only is the villain stopped, he is stopped by us, the hero.

What would happen if we realised that we were both the hero and the villain?

How would we then be stopped?

***

At the heart of Christianity is the steadfast insistence that we are all beautiful, but we are so, so far from perfect. We all are, and can be, heroes. We all are, and can be, villains.

"Baptism is actually far more bizarre than we realise. It is a symbol — get this — not of cleansing, but of drowning. It means that something in us is dying."

And as it all spun out of control for thousands of years, we tell the story of how God came down to earth as a person, telling us to love one another before dying a very violent death. And we conjecture that his death had great signifance. In fact, we toy with the possibly insane notion that he actually showed and made a way for us to be free from our sin. By dying.

Baptism is actually far more bizarre than we realise. It is a symbol — get this — not of cleansing, but of drowning. It means that something in us is dying.

Something is being smothered.

“I have been crucified with Christ.” - St. Paul

After taking us by the hand to show us the failure, not just of religion, but of any utopian vision, Ken Levine and team must now show us their version of a satisfying ending.

Smother. Smother. Smother.

We kill the villain, and he is us.

What we find, as the last, haunting notes ring out, is a vision that far more closely resembles Christianity than many of the shadows that have falsely claimed the label in our lives. It is redemption through death. Atonement through sacrifice.

And after the credits roll, we are left, as in Christianity, with merely a hint that something more lies beyond. That death is, perhaps, only the beginning.

***

Comstock’s cult has as little to do with the heart of Christianity as hate-groups like Westboro Baptist do. Indeed, it is as far removed from the teachings of Jesus as the anti-religious comments I’m sure to receive are from the thoughtful and generous atheism I’ve witnessed in certain of my friends.

"It is redemption through death. Atonement through sacrifice."

My own spiritual journey has led me to believe that the mysterious universal(?) that we recklessly refer to as God is far more inclusive than I had ever fathomed, and yet, the road to redemption is a road that leads, perhaps, to a type of death. Ken Levine has, in many ways, failed to craft the perfect game, but I believe he has done something even more important, he has spoken as a prophet.

As I come to these conclusions, it may very well be the result of pre-formed thought patterns; synapses in my brain, firing off in the darkness; looking for connections where there are none. Or perhaps we’re all onto something.

He who has ears let him hear.


Jordan Ekeroth is just a guy. He writes for Gamechurch.com and spends a lot of time wondering if he drinks too much coffee. Follow him on Twitter.


Comments

    I like this article.

    I also like the chance the comments won't devolve into a "lynch the Christians!" mob.

      I'm more in the "Lynch the extremists!" mob, although the best way to do it is with their own arguments rather than rope.

      There is no Christian persecution. No one is lynching anyone. You're being overly dramatic.

      I don't mind religious themes in video games, it's religion in reality I have the problem with.

    This post has been removed by me because it's just dumb to argue on the internet about religion, apology to all.

    Last edited 18/04/13 3:13 pm

      The guy wanting the refund IS religious, so i don't know what you mean by that, he's obviously not 'scared' of religion or prejudiced against it.

      People in the comments weren't 'crucifying' or 'lynching' the guy, most were just confused about his point of view and actions (myself included). The comments below formed their own discussion independent of the article when uninformed people started talking about something they know little about, so sparked the discussion.

      I'd also debate that there aren't that many bigger fish to fry when it comes to religion, there are millions of people who are religious and use it as an excuse to get their own way - change laws, change what children are taught, commit acts of violence etc. I'd say that's a pretty big fish.

        This post has been removed by me because it's just dumb to argue on the internet about religion, apology to all.

        Last edited 19/04/13 10:05 am

          I'm not really sure I get what you're saying about 'bigger fish'? So the game is the problem? I don't think it's a problem, it's a game and people can choose to play it or not play if they want. It's not the same as education or air or food or water, people don't need to play this game to stay alive. I don't care if it's pro christian, pro islam, pro buddhism or pro unicorn, if it's a good game it's a good game, and i would play it either way to experience it. There's really no fish to fry at all.

          But wait, you don't stop there...

          I'm aware of evolution being 'safe' in schools in australia, which quite rightly it should be. But it doesn't take much effort to see what is going on in other parts of the world, like America which we have so much in common with, where creationism IS being taught in some schools as a 'possible' theory for the beginning of the human race due to pressure from religious groups. It's not much of a stretch to think that if someone came into power that was very religious in Australia, that they could change laws to force religion down children's throats, where unlike Bioshock they would be forced to endure it, and maybe become indoctrinated. I'm not saying it will happen, or even that there is a good chance of it happening, but it could, and that's not good.

          Don't for one second think that you can equate violence done by religious people, in the name of religion to other crimes. You CANNOT sit there and say that some religious nutcase who flies a plane into a building, who believes he'll get 72 virgins, who believes that the unbelievers/infidels deserve to die and who does so BECAUSE he is religious and his religion DEMANDS him to do it- is the same as some psychopath killing a whole bunch of people in a movie theatre. THEY DO NOT EQUATE. The batman movie killer didn't do what he did in the name of science, or television or video games or anything but his own twisted mind, it was a one off, he was a one off. Sure there are plenty of these one offs, columbine, sandy hook etc but THEY ARE NOT RELATED, most of all they are not related by their lack of religion. You cannot say that every crime committed by a non religious person is linked, like they are all equal and don't add up to the amount of deaths religion has caused. That is bullshit.

          There are crimes about religion, there are crimes about power, money, jealousy etc. Show me the crimes of atheism. Yea, thought so.

          I'm not advocating non-religious violence at all, violence is abhorrent and reprehensible at all times, but to say 'oh yea religion related crimes have happened, but look at all the other bad stuff people have done not in the name of religion' is just deflection, justified by the fallacy that all non-religious crimes are to be lumped into the same category.

          As I said before, if you think the crusades are sooooo old and people should let it go already, then why can't they let religion, which is much older for one thing, go?

          Maybe it's hard for you to be impartial, personally i don't give a fuck. Religion is stupid and dangerous and responsible for a whole slew of horrible things and has been for thousands of years. If you think it's soooo annoying then just shut the fuck up, you're adding to the debate as well, (albeit fence sitting).

          RAH RAH RAH DON'T BE A HYPOCRITE.

            This post has been removed by me because it's just dumb to argue on the internet about religion, apology to all.

            Last edited 18/04/13 8:36 pm

              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ4BrT9Jvns

              Tell me this guy isn't a winner.

                Of course he is, I used severely poorly chosen words, my apologies :)

              So not only are you a hypocrite, you're a coward and disrespectful to boot.

              Have a nice life.

    Incredible article. Absolutely enjoyed that read. "There was no fiercer critic of decrepit religion than Jesus himself. " Great observation.

    The only thing I really take issue is the idea of Bioshock as 'the most christian game' when I think a lot of his points regarding the spritual meaning behind certain narrative/character elements could probably be applied to multiple religions. The only real imagery that is strictly 'christian' is the stuff that I feel is making more of an idealogical commentary on american society.

    I mean, themes of sin and wanting redemption, life after death... Christianity didn't invent these concepts.

    Guess if it's a distinctly christain game its a good reason for me to never buy it.

      Or consume basically any western media. Because if themes of redemption of past sins is inherently christian then that probably makes like half of the media the world produces 'distinctly christian'.

      No, that's a silly reason not to buy it because, like all "art", it's entirely subjective. While the theme revolves around a Christian ideology, it's not a distinctly religious game.

      Why? Be open minded an experience everything. Just because it's a game that has elements of christian values (for the sake of the story) doesn't mean you'll suddenly turn into a christian by playing if that's what you worry about.

    My problem with this reading of the game is that it imposes Christianity because the author is Christian. Themes of redemption are by no means inherently Christian (as others have said here already).

    I could make a convincing argument that Bioshock Infinite was the most Nietzsche-ist game we have seen. Off the top of my head; Booker and Elizabeth become ubermensch by the end of the game because they take complete control of their destiny. This is despite 'going under' (to use Nietzsche's term) and losing control of themselves. Elizabeth literally goes from being trapped into becoming an overman/ubermensch. It also involves a rejection of society (Booker rejects both the Vox and the Founder's beliefs) in order to determine one's own virtues. Throughout the game Booker discovers his best virtue and applies it absolutely in the final scenes.

    Through this reading we could take the Luteces' as representing Nietzsche himself - they are the prophets of the Ubermensch. Comstock however is an example of everything Nietzsche hates - a religious man who uses religion to bind the society.

    Edit: Shit, now I really want to write an essay about why Elizabeth and Booker are ubermensch.

    Last edited 18/04/13 2:04 pm

      Great interpretation. However you do seem to be suggesting that there is only one possible reading of a text, a notion which many literary critics would take issue with. You and Jordan both bring intriguing thoughts, and I don't think either of you are necessarily more correct than the other.
      (and please do write that essay - I'd read it.)

      Last edited 18/04/13 2:40 pm

        Sorry if I was vague in what I was arguing - my point was that to say the game is deeply christian seems arrogant to me, exactly because there are about as many ways to interpret good media (like Infinite) as there are lighthouses in the sky.

        I understand that this is just the author's interpretation, but I would suggest he only came to that interpretation because of his upbringing, and I hope that he doesn't exclude other interpretations from his consideration. Because it is exactly that type of willful ignorance that leads to so many problems in the world.

        I was also raised in a Christian household, but lost my faith in my early teens, so of course I may just be acting out my disagreements with organised religion here.

        Last edited 18/04/13 3:01 pm

          Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying.

          I think we're generally in agreement, though my feeling is that he isn't trying to offer his opinion as the only correct one, and so I don't think he's really being arrogant. Additionally, I don't think he came to that opinion solely because he was brought up in a Christian environment - being raised according to an ideology isn't a requirement for interpretation of media using said ideology. You didn't have to be raised Nietzschean to see his philosophy in the game, after all. He may be more inclined to see Christianity in texts because of his upbringing, but I don't think it drowns out other potential readings he might think of.

          Agreed on your point about willful ignorance too.

            I agree with Tooshay's original point. I mean, sure it's totally valid to have a christian reading of the game... But when it overlaps with many other known religions, isn't it inaccurate to call it a 'deeply christian' game? I'm not attacking someones right to have a unique reading on something... Hell, the fact that we're all evaluating a games spiritual worth is something I'm very impressed by. But I suppose I just balk at the assumption that spirituality equals Christianity simply because it's one of the more dominant religions of the western world.

      The Author states this himself in the last paragraph:

      As I come to these conclusions, it may very well be the result of pre-formed thought patterns; synapses in my brain, firing off in the darkness; looking for connections where there are none. Or perhaps we’re all onto something.

      Yes, and any reader is entitled to any reading of any story they want, but the game is undeniably more focused on a christian reading as seen in the explicit use of christianity throughout to move the story and character's motivations

      Tooshay
      I'm 99% sure that you've hit the nail on the head. Everyone knows that Bioshock 1 & 2 are strongly influenced by Ayn Rand's work (especially "Atlas Shrugged"). For several days now, I've been posting that Infinite is strongly Nietzschean (especially "Thus Spoke Zarathustra").
      Even a cursory look at his wiki page, and you'll see that Nietzsche was:
      1) Really into "Eternal Recurrance"
      2) Against nationalism
      3) Against Christianity (in a sort of pitying way)
      4) Ethically postmodernistic and touted a type of nihilism
      5) Strongly against racism and anti-semitism
      6) Into the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy
      7) Into perspectivism
      8) Against extremism of any kind
      9) Into "the will to power"
      10) (Most importantly) Really into concepts of the Übermensch
      (I could continue, but you get the point. ALL of these qualities are exhibited in Infinite!)

      I would have to disagree with you in this regard: I only see Elizabeth as the true Ubermensch (as Nietzsche would describe). As a reminder, the Ubermensch is really the next step in humanity's evolution (again, as Nietzsche saw it). She was the one that had the superhuman powers. In a nutshell, Booker chose to "believe" in Elizabeth as the alternative to his "eternal circle", and in some way "redeemed" his life through his decision. This juxtaposition of a belief in God to a belief in the "super human" is right in line with Nietzsche's belief that "God is dead"
      ["God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? MUST WE OURSELVES NOT BECOME GODS SIMPLY TO APPEAR WORTHY OF IT?" (my emphasis)
      —Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125,]
      Furthermore, Ken Levine actually says (in his interview with The Real Giant Bomb) that the political and religious themes in Infinite are only a surface layer of the deeper philosophy underlying the game. He also a hints at a form of nihilism represented there, as well (in his Gamespot interview).

      Any thoughts on this? Is Nietzsche the "Rand" of Bioshock Infinite, or can someone find a better match? I've really searched the net for anyone mentioning this, and this is the only page I've found.

      Cool.

    Shit, I really need to buy this game outright. Half an hour on my mate's copy just doesn't cut it.
    And spot on with the comment about baptism. Even if you don't subscribe to it, Christian theology is deeply nuanced and wildly interesting.

    This was a great article. Very impressed with the description of baptism. What struck me about Bioshock infinite was the question of repentance. It really highlighted to me the truth that repentance is not simply an act or decision to stop doing bad things, but rather a long, intense process of changing the desires of ones heart.

    Awesome read. World needs more Christians like you.
    Find god in things not, GOD HATES FAGS.

      Thanks, I just spat water all over my desk.

    This makes the game sound quite intriguing. It's a shame first person perspective games make me sick.

    Great article and some interesting comments as well - not often you get both together.

    Oh, if only the more vocal Christians were as smart and understanding as this guy.

    Top article, I read the whole thing and everything.

    How spoilerish are the spoilers in this article? I read the other article about the Steam refund, I thought that wasn't major spoilery, so..?

      This one is very "spoilery". Do not read if you haven't finished the game.

    Off topic, but the author mentions that Jesus was a fierce critic of the religious leaders of his day. I happen to be a fierce critic of religious leaders today. I dont claim to have any super powers, but my hair is long and im nice enough. Perhaps i should start a cult, and in a few hundred years maybe some people will write a blog about my exploits, thus creating the Book of DogCat......I like it.

      It'd probably be pretty rad, apart from the whole 'living virtuously' thing.

      Although... now that I think about it... Jesus drank like a fish, the disciples all carried swords, and I seem to recall they hung around brothels a bit - so even if they didn't 'do' anything, maybe there was plenty to look at.

      I rather suspect your stereotypical straight-laced teetotaller would probably be quite horrified to have met the big J in person.

      You'd have to eclipse all that good living with a pretty spectacular death, though. You up for that? Not sure I would be.

      Last edited 19/04/13 3:37 pm

    Jesus was a Buddhist monk who wanted to preach Buddhism to the west but it turn into a new religion. Every religion was originated from one religion just like the our human race

    As a non-religious person, this is a great article. I found it poetic that Booker (seemingly) let himself be drowned to stop the villain he would be in millions of other lives, and more importantly give his daughter a shot at a better life. I will add that Christianity in non-poetic terms, in realist terms, doesn't sit well with me in that regard. The notion that people are born sick and then commanded to be well, or die to be atoned for some kind of sinful nature they were actually created with.. Also that the only way to absolve sins was through a bloody sacrifice, it doesn't make sense to me, and I don't think its healthy living to die. I'd rather live to live. But thats an aside, still a great article on Bioshock Infinite through christian eyes

      I think that the death of Christ (the "bloody sacrifice) as a way to "absolve sins" shows us how serious God sees sin. If sin weren't a big deal, God would probably just tell us what we hear all around us anyway; just chill and try to live a good life.
      Also, being born with a sin nature is only a thoretical concept. What it comes down to is: can you go even a day without doing what even you, much less God, consider sinning? (Btw, even Jesus said that lusting and hating were the same as adultery and murder). If you're honest (and few choose to be), you would have to say that you have (and continue) to break God's commandments (yep, there's 10 of them). If you're on even a deeper level of honesty, you'll agree that you're not that great of a person after all. (Remember, a person needs to only steal one thing to be called a thief.)
      That's where the sacrifice of Christ starts to make sense. The best thing is, you don't have to go to church, give away your money, or even play through all of Bioshock to make things right.
      Simply believe that you're wrong, and that what Christ did (in His sacrifice, and all that) was the way to make you blameless in God's sight. Yes, you'll still go about messing things up (which is why so many Christians today look kinda foolish), however, your standing with God will be perfect forever.

    I'm glad it resonated with you, but it's just the way you're looking at it.

    I could spend parapgraphs talking about why it was essentially an Atheist game, and that wouldn't make me any more or less correct than you. Games are both art and literature, and as such are vulnerable to projection from the experiencee, open to interpretation.

    Although I learnt and thought nothing new from reading this article, it's pleasant to see some of the more level-headed religious folk making their voice heard, and I honestly salute you for your efforts and your well-written article.

    The Baptisim didn't bother me that much, It was the KKK that made me mad :P

    I will give kudos to Irrational for daring to tackle the subject of religion, if not successfully, certainly in a unique way.

    But I have to say that from my secular stand point it has zero meaning and absolutely no value at all. There are 7 billion people alive on earth and around 6 billion of them do not follow a Christian doctrine. That number is increasing rapidly.

    The event is relevant only to one segment of the global community. So well done Irrational on tackling a subject that has no relevance at all. It is interesting reading the article and how the writers own perceptions play with the idea as well written as it is, it is pseudo-intellectual pap justifying a belief in something that can not conform to any known laws of physics.

    Great article, don't necessarily agree with a lot of it, but it's awesome to see well written, well thought out stuff here. Thanks Jordan.

    I thought it was a great story for a video game. It had some plot holes but they always do and this had much less than most. It also didn't flow well in the middle part of the game. The combat was actually much more offputting than any religious references though. It was just mundane and boring after an hour or so.
    I understand games are popular with violence in them but at times in this game it just felt like you had to be violent because the author loves violence not because you could have done it differently in game.

    I agree with what others around the net have said. Taking the game to task over religious point of view is pretty weak when the largest aspect of the game is extreme gore. Especially using that hand weapon with the spinning blade.

    I played through the whole game to see the ending which was amazing and probably one of the best video game endings i can remember but i didn't have alot of fun during most of the game.

    At first the world was interesting , checking out the fair , being able to interact with a shooting gallery and other activitives . Then other than a few levers and vending machines you don't interact with anything much after this initial outing in the world.

    So much more in the RPG side of things could have been done to expand on and make this game so much more fun and interesting to play but instead they chose the easy way out and tried to to turn the combat into Gears of War style obviously to appeal to far more people. Still it is a shame to create a beautiful world in a game and not fully realise it.

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