SPOILER WARNING: We are about to spoil Bioshock Infinite and its ending. We advise not reading this until you have finished the game yourself.
No, seriously. Stop reading. You have been warned.
Bioshock Infinite involves religion right from the start. Before your feet even touch the ground on the floating city of Columbia, words like “sin” and “prophet” are thrown directly in your face. It’s relatively easy to accept this as a non-offensive backdrop to the game’s well-crafted story. Though the villain is a religious extremist, religion itself isn’t demonized any more so than capitalism was demonized in the original Bioshock.
But that might change for some in the final sequence where the game seems to imply something more. After all, it’s not too often that a story’s villain is explicitly referred to as “born again” in the name of Jesus, and even rarer is the idea that the exact moment of baptism is the birth of a monster.
Does rejecting a baptism mean the same thing as rejecting Christ? Does Bioshock Infinite’s ending say, “If you become a Christian, you might become a villain?” Just what is writer Ken Levine trying to say about Christianity (if he’s trying to say anything at all)?
Baptism followed by fire
In the game’s final scenes, we learn that Elizabeth is really Booker’s daughter, Anna. The game’s antagonist, Comstock, stole her from Booker (well, “stole.” Booker initially gave her up willingly), eventually leading to the events we play through in Columbia. What follows is a trail of death and destruction, and if a particular vision of the future is right, it leads to even more chaos and at least one city in flames.
Booker, following Elizabeth and the Luteces through time and space, decides that the only way to prevent any of this is to go back to when Comstock was born and smother him in his crib. But the moment he was “born,” it turns out, was the moment of baptism — when Booker DeWitt became a Christian and chose the new name Zachary Comstock.
Unfortunately we aren’t given much else to go on in terms of Booker’s journey to becoming Comstock. We don’t know what other events may have transpired to make Comstock into the tyrant that he is. What teachings was he listening to? What actions was he taking? What actions were taken against him?
We can infer from certain voxaphone messages found in the game that Comstock didn’t try to atone for his sins so much as he tried to justify them. He didn’t feel forgiven, he felt like he had been given a purpose for his actions. He feels that the only way to repay blood is with blood, but he doesn’t see that that was exactly why Jesus died in the first place.
In reality, the moment Booker accepted the baptism may not have been the true birth of a villain at all. When Booker wonders aloud if he could go back in time to kill Comstock before he did any of his horrible things, the Luteces tell him “Things get set in motion,” and “How would one know how far back to go?” It could be, then, that Zachary Comstock could have existed as a healthy and happy Christian man who never met Rosalind Lutece and never stole Anna from his parallel universe self.
But as it stands, the story chooses the moment of baptism as the ultimate moment of decision. We are still treated to two characters born out of the same mold: The man who claims to have accepted Christ, who uses religion as a tool for villainous power, and the man who rejected religion who lives a flawed but decidedly non-tyrant lifestyle.
“You think a dunk in the river’s gonna change the things I’ve done?”
Baptism is an important symbolic tradition that even Jesus himself went through, but it’s not magic. The act of being submerged in water does not save, does not wash away sins and does not make someone a hero or a villain. A person’s destiny is still up to them and their choices. All who are baptized are not Christians and all who are Christians are not baptized.
It wasn’t baptism that made Comstock who he was. It wasn’t the presence of the Holy Spirit that made him a manipulative tyrant. It was his choices–and his alone.
It’s no secret that some people who call themselves religious, people who call themselves followers of God or Jesus, can do very evil things. People like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, or members of the infamous Klu Klux Klan. Not to mention destructive and terrifying cult leaders such as David Koresh and Jim Jones. False shepherds do exist, in that sense. But while Comstock constantly refers to Booker as a “false shepherd,” it never seems to occur to him that he is the one deceptively using religion in a way that is contrary to Biblical teachings. He is the real false shepherd, while Booker, if anything, is merely another lost member of the flock.
The idea that religion can’t quickly and easily fix a person is a sad reality that some find hard to accept. While Booker is the kind of person that some Christians would love to point to and say “That man would be completely different if he just went to church,” the answer is never really that easy. No one is beyond saving, even Comstock, but forcing them to submerge themselves in water — as is done to everybody who wishes to enter the city of Columbia — isn’t the solution.
“Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.”
Booker sans baptism isn’t exactly the best of people, either. After all, we’re talking about an alcoholic with a gambling addiction who is willing to sell his own daughter in order to get out of debt.
Or is he? In that moment when you are forced to hand over Elizabeth to Robert Lutece, an action you as the player have no choice but to do (a sensation Booker himself also claims, saying “What choice do I have?”), Lutece says, “Mr. Comstock washes you of all your sins.”
Maybe Booker’s “sins” are merely his debts, but maybe it’s something more. Maybe, after all this time, Booker is still desperately searching for redemption. Maybe Booker, like Abraham in the book of Genesis, is willing to give up his own flesh and blood if that’s what he truly thinks God wants.
Or maybe he really is only selling his daughter for a monetary sum. Either way, Booker is an extremely broken man who keeps grasping for an easy way out, hoping to make up for his past in one simple motion.
“No… I’m both”
In one man, Booker DeWitt, we see the possibility of at least two very different futures. Every choice someone makes can have different consequences. Some good, some bad, some neutral. Anybody could be Booker or Comstock.
So is Bioshock Infinite condemning religion in the same way it condemns racism? I don’t think so. At most, it speaks against religious extremism. It condemns blindly following an ideal without thought to the repercussions. It beats you over the head (perhaps too much, in fact) with the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Comstock embraced religion for the wrong reasons, and he proceeded to use it as a tool for his own benefit rather than the benefit of others. That doesn’t mean the religion was wrong, it means the man was.
In fact, if you boil down what caused much of the tragedy seen in Bioshock Infinite’s past, present and future, it wasn’t religion: It was science. Without Rosalind Lutece playing God and messing with alternate realities, Comstock would never have his “visions,” Anna would never have been stolen, Elizabeth would never have been given the power to destroy New York, and so on. The intellectual minds of Columbia are as at fault as anyone else for the city’s fall. This doesn’t mean science itself was at fault — just its misuse.
The most unfortunate part of Infinite’s story is that there aren’t any positive examples of religion to compare Comstock against. In a universe in which Comstock exists in “a million worlds,” surely one of them would be an upstanding Christian man, no? Surely one of them took Jesus’ message to heart and cared about others more than he cared about himself. Maybe in one world, Zachary Comstock found true peace in religion, and others knew he was a man of faith not because he boasted about it, but because of the love he showed others.
Maybe in another world he gives all he has to the poor, spending his days helping others and his nights singing hymns. Maybe he doesn’t spend enough time with Lady Comstock or maybe he has a bit of a temper. No man is perfect after all, baptized or not. But he would be the kind of sincere Christian you can find in our own world, if you look hard enough.
But I guess that wouldn’t make for a very good shooter.