BioShock Infinite: Baptism of the Human Heart
Youth pastor Ashley Dusenbery offers his personal perspective on the use of baptism in BioShock Infinite.
SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't finished BioShock Infinite and don't want to know what happens, don't read this article. Nothing in BioShock Infinite is off limits in what follows.
One of the toughest questions people ask me is the question, why? Why did my daughter die? Why do I have cancer? Why can't I find a job? Why are people sometimes so nasty to one another? I work in a church. And a church is supposed to be a safe place. It's supposed to be a place where those genuinely longing for meaningful answers can go to sincerely struggle. So, naturally, as the caretaker of a local church, much of that struggling happens right in front of me, and I consider it a privilege to sit with people in the trenches of their inner wars. It is a war indeed, for the question that needs an answer, that persistent question, why, often has no answer accessible to finite human beings. And so in the absence of any kind of peace with God over his sometimes inscrutable, often painful plan, people of faith struggle. That's not always a bad thing, I think.
So what does that have to do with a video game? I finished Irrational's excellent BioShock Infinite recently, and I've had a little time since then for my mind to process the intense intertwining of story, character, setting, and atmosphere. My mind has gone to the places it is prone to wander to, the theological. Religion is a huge theme in Infinite. Religion touches almost every aspect of the game's narrative. The antagonist, Comstock, is a self-styled prophet and leader of a pseudo-Christian, religious cult-city, Columbia, suspended twenty thousand feet in the sky by a mysterious, quantum, science-fiction-y force. Booker DeWitt, the protagonist, seems at first to be motivated by a desire to wipe away a financial debt by rescuing a young lady from a tower in Columbia, but the game wastes no time at all in indicating that DeWitt has a deeper, moral debt that is not so easily erased. Images and language of water, baptism, washing, and rebirth all build upon one another in the telling of this story. There is even a baby who turns out to be the lamb of Comstock's prophecy.
Let me stop here and say that as a Christian and an ordained pastor, I was not in the least bit offended by the use of these decidedly Christian themes. For the most part, things like Christian baptism were used to move the story as well as I have ever seen them used in secular media. Levine appropriately tied rebirth to baptism. Part of what baptism represents in Christianity is dying as an old self and being raised to a new life. In Infinite, baptism is explicitly used three times as far as I can remember. The first time is when DeWitt is admitted into the city of Columbia. The second time is at the end of the game when DeWitt is offered baptism, which he rejects. The third and final time is when it is revealed that DeWitt and Comstock are really the same person, Comstock being the seemingly inevitable product of Booker's religious rebirth through baptism. Baptism in that instance is the means by which DeWitt dies for the sake of undoing all the evil that he and Comstock will bring about.
In each instance, baptism is used as an appropriate symbolic plot device for the point at which the players find themselves in the story. It's the initiation of a new and profound mission, a rebirth of DeWitt towards an ultimate destiny. It's the rejection of a salvation that DeWitt finds cheap and inadequate, preferring to seek the accomplishment of his mission in order to wipe away his debt, an ultimately futile effort. It takes Elizabeth bringing him back to the baptismal pool for him to fully grasp the profundity of his true debt and what that debt has earned him as a result. Even though there is death but no new life in the final baptism that ends DeWitt's and Comstock's lives, it functions quite well as a plot device given the kind of setting that these characters and their story inhabit. Levine wasn't aiming to speak theologically about the true meaning and use of Christian baptism. Therefore, I have no problem with him taking baptism and using it to tell a story separate from the Christian story.
These Christian themes and the religious tone of Infinite serve a story that seeks, I think, to answer a fundamental question about human existence: What effect does my free will have on reality? One of the huge revelations of Infinite was that the setting of this BioShock game and previous BioShock games exist in the same universe. In an instant, the players find themselves transported from Columbia, the city in the clouds, to Rapture, the city from the original BioShock at the bottom of the sea. These two dystopian cities exist in this multiverse in which the will of man has created an infinite number of branching universes. There is no road untraveled by the choices of humankind. Each road and each fork is itself a separate reality, a distinct universe of existence.
In case you are thoroughly confused, welcome to the club. Let me try to explain. The premise behind Infinite is that every choice each person makes leads to a new reality, much like in the reboot of the Star Trek movies. Spock traveling back in time started the new cast and crew of the Enterprise on an entirely new timeline and new set of adventures, a new Star Trek universe, if you will. Similarly, in Infinite, the reality of Comstock's Columbia and all the evils that flow out of that city in the clouds exist in a universe created along one branch of one choice made by one man, Booker DeWitt. Interestingly, baptism is the vehicle by which this choice is made. If DeWitt accepts baptism, he will rise from the water having taken a new name and new life. He is no longer Booker DeWitt, but he comes out of the water Zachary Hale Comstock, the Prophet of Columbia. And so reality branches for the millionth time in a nanosecond, and another new universe of existence is born, this one not so pleasant as the game's opening hour would lead you to believe.
So what does this game have to do with the person in the pastor's office asking the hard questions of life? What does it have to do with you as you try to be a good friend to someone who is hurting? Or what does it have to do with your own struggles? Why is my life like this and not the way I want it to be? I think this game is an attempt, in a purely secular way (I don't mean that disparagingly), to offer hope and comfort when our lives branch in a way that we don't expect or in a way that brings suffering. It offers hope for us to think that there is a reality in which a version of us exists that isn't suffering in whatever crisis we find ourselves. At any moment and with every choice, we are creating universes of possibilities of happiness, misery, or something in between. What we do has meaning outside of ourselves.
As I experienced BioShock Infinite, I found hidden within the story it was telling a narrative of human choosing apart from the existence of God. It was a moment both precious and profoundly sad. It is precious because I believe that behind the searching questions this story has explored through the medium of video games is an impulse that comes directly from our creator. It is the impulse to search, explore, and pierce to the marrow of the mystery of our existence as human beings and seek an answer to the question, why are things not the way they are supposed to be? This game has left me thankful for Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games for so beautifully telling this story. It is sad to me because the multiverse their exploration has led them to is hellish. Just below the luminescent, idealized surface of Comstock's Columbia is a nightmare of racism, oppression, greed, and violence that the player must survive to reach the end, only to find out that the whole time, Booker was doing battle with the products of his own heart.
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