ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD
Irrational Games has always had a knack for creating video games which transcend the traditional “entertainment” standard. Irrational has always been dedicated to cultivating a universe that interacts with both haunting and perplexing narratives. Their latest installment is no exception as Bioshock Infinite delves into a world where the player is forced to wrestle with subjects pertaining to xenophobia, religious fanaticism and deceptive nationalistic fervor. Creator, Ken Levine, wanted to address these subjects because they are too often casually glossed over in U.S. history. Bioshock Infinite provides a unique avenue to converse about Christianity and its affair with xenophobia, religious extremism and an unchecked nationalism. My task will be to provide a brief synopsis of the game, a socio-political interaction and a theological conclusion that favors baptism over nationalism.
Give Me That Old Time Religion: A Synopsis
It is 1912, Booker DeWitt is an estranged and mysterious man who desires to be free from his “torturous past.” Booker is provided with an opportunity to make amends for his former day sins when he enters into a contract to bring his employer “the girl” which will “wipe away the debt.” The girl, Elizabeth, can be located in the floating utopia of Columbia which is an idyllic city that has succeeded from the U.S. so as to maintain racial, national and religious hegemony.
Upon entering Columbia, Booker witnesses a group of individuals being baptized prior to their entering the city. Throughout the game, baptism is both concretely and abstractly associated with rejecting former religious and political loyalties so as to substitute one’s beliefs with the dominant narrative of Columbia. As he attempts to make his way to Elizabeth who is being held captive, Booker is continuously confronted with the dominant narrative of systemic racism that maintains the idyllic way of life for the exceptional few who identify as patriotic Anglo-European Christians. Zachary Comstock, the antagonist, adds religious zeal to Columbia’s xenophobia as he characterizes himself a prophet who’s mission is to create a true “City On a Hill” where ethnic persons either endure hard manual labor, or perpetual humiliation through propaganda.
To make matters worse, Booker discovers Elizabeth to be Comstock’s daughter. Moreover, Elizabeth possesses the “god-like” ability to open doors to other dimensions (possibilities). Comstock’s intentions are less than honorable when it comes to his daughter as he seeks to convince her to join him so that he might use her as a WMD to assimilate (both in the present and the future) all of humanity to his dark ideal. There are poignant moments throughout the story as Elizabeth and Booker develop a companionship leading Booker to forgo his original intentions of relinquishing her to his ominous employer. Booker concludes that their freedom will only be attainable through murdering Comstock.
Booker and Elizabeth successfully infiltrate Comstock’s lair where they meet Comstock in the flesh. Booker violently ends Comstock seemingly signaling the finale. However, Elizabeth is convinced that in order for Comstock’s flame to be fully snuffed they must go where Comstock’s “soul” came to exist. This leads to an elusive and complex cut scene where Elizabeth opens numerous doors until she finally opens a doorway to a previous baptismal scene where Booker is beckoned to come and “wade in the waters.” To Booker’s horror, he realizes that he is Comstock. More specifically, Booker realizes that through a past baptismal experience the “soul” of Comstock manifested itself in an alternate reality which led to the creation of Columbia. The reality wherein Booker chooses baptism results in him becoming the religious tyrant of Columbia known as Comstock.
The reality wherein Booker rejects baptism is the preferred reality as he avoids becoming Comstock. Therein lies the dynamic tension of the narrative and the ultimate reason for Elizabeth drowning Booker at the baptismal scene so that the possibility of Comstock ceases to exist. Through his drowning, the vicious cycle of death is brought to a climactic halt.
…It’s Good Enough For Me
Baptism, within the narrative of Bioshock, is the paradigm for a perpetual cycle of death. While this interpretation has caused harsh critique from the Christian community, Bioshock’s negative sentiments toward baptism have validity both historically and presently.
Historically, James Cone exposes the hypocrisy of Anglo-American-Christians using their race and nationality as a means to oppress ethnic communities. The lynching of blacks is one example of “American-Christianity’s” macabre history. For Cone, “White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion, and White liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian[ity]… There was no way a community could support or ignore lynching in America, while still representing… the one who was lynched by Rome (133).” Despite these American-Christians being baptized, they continued to promote perpetual cycles of death by embracing national norms that were antithetical to scripture.
Presently, it is no secret that U.S. goods are manufactured by corporations that disregard basic human rights. However, the dominant narrative of our nation is one that promotes unlimited consumption despite the high cost of “low prices.” By and large, American-Christians have participated in this cycle of perpetual death because 1) we are told that we must and 2) we desire to be “good citizens” who support our economy. Walter Brueggemann has stated that, “[U.S.] economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones (35).” Indeed, U.S. Christians struggle to remember the reality that Christ came to baptize us into His life-infusing Kingdom where the captives are released and the prisoners are set free (Mt 11:5; Lk 4:18, 7:22). When we forget this, our baptismal confession becomes null and void and our economic practices perpetuate a cycle of death.
Let The Cycle Be Broken: Baptism
Baptism, traditionally, has signified a commitment to an alternative way of existence that affirms a new sort of citizenship. Dissimilar to Bioshock interpreting baptism as a perpetual cycle of death, I propose baptism to be the paradigm for permanent rebirth (Mt 3:1-12; Mk 1:1-8; Lk 3:1-18; Jn 1:19-28; 3; Rom 6:4). This rebirth manifests itself through the sacrament of baptism symbolizing a rejection of “deathly narratives.”
As seen above, Bioshock, James Cone and Walter Brueggemann successfully demonstrate that religious extremism, systemic racism and nationalistic consumerism promote a perpetual cycle of death. Brian Bantum affirms baptism being the paradigm for permanent rebirth in his book when he asserts, “The transformation of the believer through their participation in the baptismal waters is one that marks them as new creatures and ones who no longer are marked by the economies, the joys, the passions, or the politics of the… world (155).”
Furthermore, Bantum states that Christians “exist in the world in ways that disrupt the patterns of racial [stereotypes], cultural maintenance, or national loyalty. As the ‘Letter of Diognetus’ suggests, they become a strange people who ‘live in their own countries, but only as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land (169).'” Living into this baptismal confession will inevitably result in ostracization by those who desire to remain within the system–by those who hope to maintain Comstock’s narrative of hegemony. And it is perhaps, for this very reason, that I find solace in Alfred Tennyson’s poem as he eloquently avers,
Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be.
They are but fleeting certainties,
And You, O Christ, are more than they.