BioShock Infinite‘s Columbia is steeped in religious imagery. When you first arrive, you pass through a welcome center that’s essentially a cathedral to Comstock, complete with smaller shrines to both Lady Comstock and Elizabeth in the wings. You have to accept a formal baptism in order to enter the city proper (curiously, this ceremonial entrance is only available to white people, leaving me to wonder if a similar sort of ritual is necessary for the people of color who are imported to provide manual labor). Once you’re in the city, the Founders’ propaganda borders on iconography with beatific posters bearing Comstock’s likeness and huge statues of him and various Founding Fathers looking almost divine.
This is a place that devoutly believes it’s the true heir to American ideals, and it wraps all that rhetoric up in a nice pseudo-Christian package.
The important thing to remember here is that Comstock’s theocracy is pseudo-Christian. He borrows heavily from fundamentalist Christianity in terms of rhetoric and presentation, but everything about Columbia’s dominant culture is entirely antichrist.
This is an important point to make, because some people have gotten upset over the use of Christian imagery in defining the cult of Comstock. There was one guy who actually demanded a refund from Steam because he played through the first thirty minutes of BioShock Infinite and then stopped because he just couldn’t bring himself to accept Booker’s forced baptism on grounds that it felt like blasphemy to him. That’s an interesting scenario for highlighting how BioShock Infinite‘s parody of Christianity can range into uncomfortable territory. It’s hard to suppress the impulse to ridicule the refund guy, because this seems like a case of failing to distinguish between the narrative actions of the protagonist and the actual actions of the player (Booker is very much a fully fleshed character with a distinct personality, unlike typical silent protagonists from other games; from a narrative standpoint, the player has very little control over dictating how Booker reacts to story events). Nonetheless, I understand the conviction that comes with a deep allegiance to a particular set of beliefs (as I’ve noted before, the violence of BioShock Infinite struck me as highly problematic, and it drove me to modify my playstyle in order to minimize exposure to the most grotesque displays because I don’t think violence should be glorified; if I had deep convictions about the significance of baptism, even a fictional one, then I could see making the same decision about participating in the game’s narrative that refund guy did).
The point of that digression is that we can all recognize that Comstock’s religion is parody, regardless of whether we’re comfortable engaging with that parody. Of course, it’s probably a good idea to consider why Columbia’s theocracy would make some people uncomfortable. I think it’s related to the fact that there’s not a whole lot of distance between what Comstock demands of his followers and what many American Christians believe about following Jesus.
Take a look at this pastor that Zack Hunt highlighted at The American Jesus to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
It’s probably tempting to say that this guy’s an extreme case, but there are other stories like this one where a church has repeatedly used firearm giveaways as a method of attracting attendees. It’s a trend that’s apparently based on proof-texting Luke 22:36,
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
Just ignore the fact that the next two verses explain that Jesus wanted the swords present at his arrest to fulfill the Messianic description found in Isaiah 53 about being “numbered with the transgressors.”
Going back to BioShock Infinite, Comstock’s religion demonstrates a more overt theology of salvation through might (and completely erases Christ and his example from the picture, even though Comstock’s own baptism was ostensibly a Christian one), but there’s not really a significant difference in meaning from Christians who see self armament as a divine command. This line of thought goes further, though. If God wants us to defend ourselves, the next logical question is what are we supposed to defend against? Comstock claims proudly that it’s people of color and the wrong kind of white people; Christians who twist Jesus’ words aren’t necessarily so bold, but there’s definitely some kind of enemy they’re thinking of, and it’s certainly not a spiritual one.
Turning away from the parallels in theologies of violence against the Other, I want to consider briefly the eschatological parallels between Comstock and certain strains of American Christianity. Perhaps my favorite bit of creative repurposing that BioShock Infinite engages in is the use of the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” to draw together the themes of Booker’s search for redemption and the escapism of Columbia’s inhabitants (fun fact: I’m primarily familiar with the version of the hymn as it was sung by Maybelle Carter and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which has a different set of lyrics and changes the line from the chorus “Is a better home awaiting” to “There’s a better home awaiting,” which is great if you want to emphasize the eschatology of the song, but disastrous if you want to retain the sense of doubt that best sweetens any kind of hopeful thought, particularly in connection with the grief that the song originally expressed; thanks to BioShock Infinite I’m now familiar with the earlier lyrics, and I much prefer them).
I’ve typically interpreted the circle mentioned in the hymn as representing a sort of continuity between the community of Christians and God. In a framework that assumes the fallen nature of the world, imagery like a broken circle seems particularly powerful, since it represents something that’s clearly not what it should be. BioShock Infinite takes that image and upends it, since the metaphorical circle in that story relates to Booker’s looping back to stop Comstock from ever coming to power in Columbia. It’s a reversal of the typical broken circle image, as the way to fix the problem (from Booker’s viewpoint) is to create a time loop that terminates on completion (don’t try to think too hard about the causality of this game’s ending, because it involves timey wimey things like the fact that without Comstock ever existing, Elizabeth would never be kidnapped as an infant and acquire her quantum powers, which are necessary for killing Comstock in the first place). That the completion of the loop also involves Booker’s own death at the moment of his not/baptism brings in ideas of redemption inherent in the hymn’s meaning about a reunification with loved ones after death.
Of course, there’s also that second half of the chorus, “Is a better home awaiting / In the sky, in the sky?” which evokes both the rapture (commonly depicted as a seizing up of people into a heaven situated above us) and Columbia (which in turn evokes the first BioShock‘s setting, the city of Rapture). Here’s what I particularly like about the use of “Will the Circle”‘s earlier lyrics: that question ties in with the larger themes of the story as a whole, which is critiquing the escapist attitude inherent in American exceptionalism and Christian fundamentalism. Is Columbia really a better home for people, when the cost is subscription to an ideology that demands you elevate yourself at the expense of others who don’t fit your description of humanity? Is an eschatology that focuses on escaping what’s perceived as an unfriendly world at the cost of failing to develop real loving relationships with our neighbors really a better thing to hope for?
Bioshock Infinite‘s religion is definitely a parody of American Christianity; it just happens to be one that hews pretty close to the source material.