If/Then Salvation Quandry

Today’s sermon (or what I heard of it before I had to prematurely leave) reminded me of a question I’ve asked several times, in different ways, and which has never been satisfactorily answered. So I’m going to try it again today, not so much in the hopes that it will be any better received now than before, but simply out of a need to  try once more to find a phrasing which suits the nature of the conflict in my heart, and to remind people that this is in fact a problematic aspect of our faith whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

I’m not interested in the how, the specifics. I am interested simply in the if, then; the incontrovertible. The necessary implications of certain factual statements.

Statement: Either becoming a Christian prior to human death is the only means of achieving salvation (and avoiding an eternity in Hell), or it is not.

If it is not, then
1. Most of us are lying/quite misinformed.
2. We may be precluding salvation by evangelizing. If God makes a way for people who never hear the gospel, then by making them hear the gospel we actually give them a greater chance of damnation than they would otherwise have had.
3. While the best route is to become born again and to have a relationship with God during this life — and thus while there is a “reward” for salvation — the potential risk seems to outweigh that. In the cost/benefit analysis it seems difficult to argue that the potential cost is worth the potential benefit.

If it is, then
God has created billions of people who never had a chance of salvation. By virtue of circumstances beyond their control (being human) they are sinners, and by virtue of circumstances beyond their control (geographical, temporal, and/or communicative isolation) they are damned for not accepting a savior they were never offered. They are as culpable for their crime as a wind-up doll which walks off the edge of a table: set in motion by an outside force and lacking the capacity to change their trajectory prior to catastrophe. Nevertheless we, and he, place the blame on the toy rather than the hand that wound the key.

These are the two possibilities I see. Neither sits well with me. Neither is a thing I would want someone to whom I am witnessing to bring up — for in the face of the former, I am wrong, and in the face of the latter, the notion that I am serving a God of love, compassion, and mercy becomes somewhat absurd; at best I must concede that the pre-existing notions of those terms are irrelevant to the entity I’m describing.

Like I said, this is not new for me. And many have tried to respond and will likely find themselves wasting time repeating arguments which have not previously proven helpful to me, so I quite understand if no one responds at all. But there it is, should anyone wish to try. I’m really not trying for a “gotcha” conundrum here. This genuinely bothers me and I genuinely don’t like that.

Meanwhile, have a nice Sunday. I don’t know about where you are, but here, the weather is beautiful.

Bioshock, Baptism, and Blasphemy

In a small-town diner not far from here my father and I bowed our heads and prayed for the breakfast a waitress had just set before us. It’s an everyday occurrence — not the diner, but the prayer. Though sometimes it settles into the dangerous realm of rote, the intention is at least an honest one: pausing to recognize that I’d have nothing, not even the food and drink necessary to keep me alive, were it not for God’s grace. I am an unabashed Christian. I’ve been going to church my entire life, first because it’s what I was taught, and later because it’s what I chose. I have been baptized. I have prayed to have my sins washed away.

And as I prayed this morning, I was wearing a t-shirt featuring Songbird, a creature who figures prominently into the video game Bioshock Infinite. I was also wearing that shirt when, twenty minutes earlier, I read an article about another Christian. I presume he does not own a Songbird shirt. Perhaps he did, and has since burned it. Or perhaps he returned it to the store where he bought it, just as he returned the nigh-unplayed game itself. Returned the game, as it were, because he considered it religiously offensive. Blasphemous, even.

I always try to be cautious when discussing someone else’s faith or morality. It’s a dangerous thing to question someone who acts of religious conviction — to doubt whether he should or should not do something which he feels strongly, spiritually led, to do or avoid doing. But many atrocities have been committed in the name of God; many hands have been stayed when they ought to have been lifted, and for the same reason. Put simply: while it is never my place to judge another believer’s heart, having a critical spirit when it comes to things done “for the faith” is, I think, prudent.

And honestly, I’m a little bit mortified by this particular player’s decision: his justification for it, and the implications thereof.

For the unacquainted, Breen Malmberg demanded (and received) a refund for his copy of Bioshock Infinite on the basis that “there is a section of the game that is so offensive to [his] religious beliefs that [he] cannot proceed with it any further…The player is forced to make a choice which amounts to extreme blasphemy in my religion (Christianity).”

I’ll begin by noting that I, and many other Christians, would outright dismiss this statement as untrue. The baptism scene in question — which occurs within the opening minutes of the game, and remains an important reference point throughout — has little to do with Christian sacrament. In fact, it is a baptism of an entirely different religion — one which renounces the Lamb and Savior we already have in favor of a new doctrine of human endeavor; one which clears God off the pedestal so as to replace him with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

It does not take much to recognize that this is a cult — one patterned after Christianity, for sure, but a cult nonetheless. And your “baptism” makes you no more complicit than one who undergoes a Christian baptism instantly becomes a Christian for having done so. From a narrative standpoint, it is necessary for infiltrating the cult you are trying to steal someone away from. From a religious standpoint, it is necessary for establishing the dangers of dogma.

Yet even if Booker’s undergoing a baptism from this heretical preacher did constitute blasphemy, I am nonplussed by Malmberg’s conclusion that the game is asking him to blaspheme. Perhaps had this occurred in the first Bioshock, wherein the line between player and protagonist is far less distinguishable, the experience vastly more personal, I might understand. But Infinite makes it very clear that you are playing through Booker — that he is not you, that he has done things you would not, that he will likely continue to do so. His actions are not, strictly speaking, your own.

Booker is not a Christian. He does not believe in God or sacraments. For him — like the many atheists who have played Bioshock Infinite — being forced to undergo a baptism is, at worst, an obnoxious inconvenience. I’d hope no reasonable atheist would feel that by getting baptized in this game, she had somehow been baptized for real. And as a believer, you ought to be able to personally consider his actions blasphemous without feeling culpable yourself.

Yet Malmberg’s words belie an inherent inability to dissociate himself from his character’s actions, which begs the troubling question of the many other actions he’d be committing in the game which don’t bother him. He admits to having been a big fan of the previous two Bioshock games, both of which feature gratuitous murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, often in ghastly ways. One notoriously violent action is taken out of player hands — you are, just as with the baptism, forced to commit it (by following a command prompt) in order to progress. If Malmberg is so concerned about culpability in Booker’s sins, what then of Jack’s? Certainly a violation of the Ten Commandments must rank higher than an action whose sinfulness is, clearly, not even taken for granted by all believers.

It’s a point seemingly lost on Malmberg, who goes so far as to say “The difference here is that you are forced to make a decision that violates those beliefs in order to continue with the game – which is not something I have run into very often.” One would think a guy who knows the relevance of “A man chooses, a slave obeys” had encountered being forced to murder — a violation of Christian beliefs — at least once before, and would know better.

Of course, Malmberg doesn’t know it, having not played past the opening of the game, but there actually is something to be said for those who are religiously offended by the latest Bioshock.

Infinite‘s problem isn’t in what it shows, but in what it abstains from showing. Irrational has crafted a fantastic cult and a society which has taken real-world extremes to their utmost expression. If Rapture demonstrated what happens when you take God completely out of the picture without questioning it, then Columbia shows us what happens when you focus on “God” completely without questioning that focus. Or, more accurately, what happens when you focus on one person’s understanding of God without questioning it.

We live in a world with an increasing tendency to produce superstar religious leaders, who sway millions with their messages, often (tragically) towards values which are contradictory to actual gospel teaching. One needn’t visit an imaginary world to see charismatic leaders convincing a lot of well-meaning people of terrible things. Just last week I heard a rap song which specifically called out a dozen or so “false teachers” who are currently well-respected in the American church. This is a thing which does happen. Portraying it in a critical light is something I applaud Irrational for daring to attempt, especially in an industry which tends to punish cerebral exploration (though happily that is beginning to change).

The issue with Infinite is that it provides no foil. We are given the negative side of religion, the religious, racist zealots who toss around epithets like candy and say horrible things while metaphorically crossing themselves. What we aren’t given is a real Christian: a person who is a “good guy,” who isn’t a hate-filled bigot, but who still believes in God and baptism and salvation. For a game which celebrates grey areas so much, the binary nature of religious representation is disappointing at best. One could argue the game actually implies that none of the evil in the game would exist were it not for religious faith of some form.

The original Bioshock offered Tenenbaum: a brilliant scientist who realized that her faith in science and in Ryan had led to terrible things, who did not repent of science but rather of her unscrupulous pursuit thereof. Industry was the God of Rapture, and she renounced the religion without renouncing the God. It’d have been nice to see someone like that in Columbia — a person who saw the dissonance between the original Eden and this so-called new one, rejecting not Comstock’s God but Comstock’s understanding of Him.

Without a voice like that, Infinite risks tossing the baby out with the bathwater, offending believers who feel lumped in with the zealots because the game fails to provide a representation of true faith for them to relate to. I wasn’t offended when Booker chose to undergo a charade baptism and I couldn’t stop him. Nor was I offended when he told Elizabeth that he had more regard for her than for “God.”

For who is “God” to Booker Dewitt? Who is the God of Bioshock Infinite? Does He exist? What do His followers look like? Sadly, we don’t know, because Irrational never bothered to tell us. The god of Columbia is a sham, his followers delusional bigots. What god, precisely, should Booker fear? Respect? Love?

There is an argument to be made that Bioshock Infinite is religiously offensive. You just won’t find it in Breen Malberg’s refund request.

Straw Men & Fire

Matthew 3:11

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Most people, if they’re being honest, are only familiar with these words because of 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie they likely enjoyed, featuring a protagonist for whom they likely rooted. It is a very violent film, based on a very violent comic book, both of which have achieved great popularity in spite of the fact that, at base, V for Vendetta is a celebration of terrorism and anarchy; so much so that the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the story’s lead has become the symbol of international cyber-terrorists “Anonymous.”

Intriguingly, though most can quote the poem few seem to actually remember the reason for its inception; they remember November 5th, but they have forgotten why it mattered: a terrorist plot was ended, a person who would cast a nation into bloody chaos was prevented from doing so. Regardless of how you feel about the authorities against which Fawkes (or V, for that matter) rebelled, you’re a strange person if you are truly pleased by the idea of blowing up unarmed civilians. Somehow the victory of the real November 5th is trumped in this movie by its reversal: a terrorist plot successful, for which its audiences cheer, and for which the date is now remembered; fiction has usurped reality, and the message of the poem now serves an antithetical purpose to its creator’s intention.

The interesting thing about V for Vendetta, then, is how it glorified Guy Fawkes — traitor and anarchist — in a way which the world at large seems to have embraced. Today it is not uncommon to come across a person wearing a trademark mask of the man’s face, symbolically becoming him. But for years the only thing people wanted to do with Guy Fawkes was to burn him. And every year, on November 5th, remembering him, that’s just what they’d do: create a straw-filled effigy, and burn it, as if in some token way the burning of a straw man were the same as actually destroying perfidy and anarchy.

As a culture, we seem intent on repeating this act, not yearly but daily. We see violence and evil all around us, sometimes manifest in truly ghastly ways, and our reaction is not to root it out of our hearts and minds but to find a scapegoat somewhere and toss it on the pyre. For over a century, America’s pyre has been stoked with art. And as the flames climb, they don’t consume the true violence in the world; they merely illuminate its daunting, terrifying scope.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how easily people conflate depictions of violence with condoning violence. I’ve met many a person (particularly in Christian circles) who seems to be of the mindset that watching a violent film or television show (nevermind playing a game) is inherently wrong, that exposure to the violence is akin to delighting in it. In the whitewashed fantasy world wherein these people would have all media reside, there is no violence, because violence can never breed any good.

I find the Christians the most entertaining, in that respect, because my immediate response is to question whether they’ve ever read the Bible. If a work of art is inherently sinful because it shows atrocities (and may, even, suggest that those atrocities are acceptable), then what of the Old Testament? What of the crucifixion? What of the fates of the apostles? Surely God knows that showing these things is an affront to God?

I don’t mean to equate Yahweh with Ares, but I think it’s rather laughable to suggest that violence is inherently useless in the telling of stories. It is, and always has been, a part of life, and the question ought not be “is it violent” but “what does its use of violence communicate?” In the case of scripture, the violence merely illustrates the consequences of man’s disobedience, and affords a contrast to the paradise Christ will usher in in the end of days. It illustrates the suffering undergone by a scapegoat so that the true perpetrators may avoid the fate they deserve — and, of course, hopefully repent. If there were no violence, there would be no power in reconciliation — without war, the value of peace is unfelt.

We understand when we read the Gospel, or when we watch The Passion of the Christ, that the violence was necessary to facilitate a greater good. But what of travesties? What of events like those in Aurora, in Newtown? Is there anyone so jaded as to say children needed to die? That they deserved it? I suppose there probably are such jaded people, but then there are Guy Fawkeses in every culture. The rest of us, those with compassion and reason, shake our heads in disbelief.

To some extent, the year’s violence continues to illustrate the same thing as did the blood-soaked wars of the Old Testament: the wages of sin, the constant consequence of rebellion, the result of generations pushing God out of their lives, hearts, and minds. That is not to say that tragedy is revenge: God is not reactionary, He does not say “oh yeah? well how do you like this?” like some petty schoolboy. It is rather more like we have removed the guard rails along a narrow mountain road, kicked God out of the driver’s seat, and then wondered why the un-steered car was not miraculously kept from flying off a cliff. Bad things happen when God is kicked out of our lives — not because he sits there on the side of the road with a remote control and veers us into hazards, but because of the inevitability of driving blind. It is culture in general that is to blame for what has happened — innocent lives are the collateral damage of the bad decisions made by generations past and present.

Saint Augustine speculated that evil is, like cold, not a thing but rather an absence, of God rather than of heat. It is not so much that we, as humans, are evil as it is we lack God, and therefore lack good. And while some people — as the Newtown shooter — lack the capacity to differentiate, plenty of other acts of violence are perpetrated by people who have no such lack but act anyway. Just as not all mentally ill people will do terrible things, not all terrible things are done by mentally ill people.

Whether you like it or not (and who would), “normal” humanity is Godless, and therefore prone to bad things. Anyone who disputes this is welcome to observe any young child, who must be trained over the course of years out of an inherent posture of disobedience and selfishness. The first word many children learn is “no,” because they’re constantly doing things they oughtn’t; once they’ve learned it they immediately turn it back on us, refusing to do things they ought.

I’m not unique in suggesting the ills of this nation (and by extension, the world) are due not to religion (as John Lennon banally chooses to “Imagine”) but rather to its lack. In his parting words as President, George Washington notes that

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Washington’s aims were broader in scope than mine here — I’ll leave his suggestion that anti-religion and anti-American are synonymous to linger — but the salient point is that if our country or world seems to be coming apart at the seams, the first question we ought to ask is whether we’re being true to a system of living which believes that absolute good and evil exist and that there is a higher power to which we are accountable for upholding those absolutes.

For in a world of moral relativism, in which “what’s good for you may not be what’s good for me,” and where every person lives however he or she sees fit, there is no basis for denouncing another’s decisions, even if those decisions include slaughtering other people. Because true tolerance demands that no worldview, however abhorrent from our own, is condemnable, absent a metric for condemnation. The extent to which we feel compelled to cast judgment mirrors the extent to which relative morality is a sham. If you felt anger or resentment in the wake of the Newtown shootings, you don’t actually believe people should be able to live as they please. In which case I suggest you figure out who or what determines what’s absolutely right or wrong.

The existence of absolute truth (and thereby our culpability) is a tough pill to swallow. We are by nature arrogant, and though we will never come close to producing anything so grand as a planet or galaxy we still think ourselves incredibly awesome, and praise one another as such. When bad things happen we refuse to look within but point to external sources as the corrupting influences that tarnish our otherwise perfect Selves.

This is why, in the wake of Newtown, a new rallying cry seems to have gone out (not least of which — and this not lacking in irony — from the NRA) to cleanse ourselves of those filthy things called video games, whose depictions of violence are destroying our youth and leading to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Aye, games.

Just this morning I read an article about a movement in Connecticut to gather and, quite literally, incinerate violent video games. Despite explicit assurance that other media are equally viable for burning (books, the obvious analog, are not mentioned), and that this isn’t meant to suggest that games are actually related to the shooting, the implicit message of this and similar rallies is that the violence of our youth is due to entertainment; the unstated suggestion is that were there no games to corrupt the kids, schools would be peaceful.

You see, games are merely this generation’s Guy Fawkes effigy, burned at the altar where television, film, the novel, and the theatre have all taken their sacrificial place. Just last night I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a community’s hysterical jingoism (and a death or two) were all instigated by one boy’s enthusiasm for a comic book. This story was written over fifty years ago; had the episode been made today, I have no doubt the boy would have been a fan of Call of Duty. Sadly, I also have little doubt that the true message of the episode — our frightening capacity to be carried away by a fear of the unknown Other — would have been lost behind the scapegoat’s specter.

Now, I have no qualms with people whose reaction to overt displays of real-life violence is a revolt against unnecessary exposure to violent entertainment. One can only stomach so much. And when it comes to what much violent media communicates via its violence, it’s undoubtedly true that many games, films, shows, etc. say nothing at all at best, and glorify violence at worst. Moreover, as most violent media (of the truly graphic variety) is made by, for, and marketed towards adults only, I’m fully behind any movement which removes that content from the hands and eyes of children.

But let us keep two key points in mind as we raise our pitchforks and cheer while the effigy burns.

First, depictions of violence can be used for valid, potentially redemptive purposes, and the inclusion of brutality does not always (or even often) correlate to acceptance or celebration thereof.

Second, a straw man is a straw man. Destroy all the violent media in the world and there will still be violence in the hearts of men, because they are spiritually cold. Doubtless the world’s problems can be solved by baptizing them in fire; all that remains is recognizing what kind of fire that is.

three and twenty

You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve sat down to write something here. How many ways I’ve begun. How many angles from which I’ve lined up the shot, only to decide the lighting wasn’t ideal, the exposure too great, the lens too scratched. Or, perhaps, you would believe, because you know: sometimes things happen in our lives we don’t know how to articulate. At such times you make a choice: fret about the words you’ll never find, or give up on keeping chronicles and let yourself get caught up in the moment.

I opted for the latter. Boston was a whirlwind which, having whisked me away for awhile, flung me homeward headlong.

First, what didn’t happen: I wasn’t fired. I didn’t quit. I didn’t hate my job. I didn’t chicken out, and I didn’t lie. Those seeing a homebound Bogert needn’t add another tally (for, of course, you’re keeping track) on the list headed “Adam’s Failures.”

Now, what is happening: I’m studying for GRE (as soon as my review book arrives from Amazon tomorrow; that is, my second review book, because ironically the guy who moved home to focus on test preparation managed to leave his test prep materials in Upton). I’m scouring vast repositories of information in search of a graduate program that will mold me into what I finally, firmly, determined I need to become: a professor.

Lastly, what will happen: I’ll continue to do a small amount of remote work for ten24 under title of independent contractor (because, hey, we liked each other). I’ll take the GRE in early October, and give my professors a heads-up that I’m hoping they’ll recommend me. I’ll see if substitute teaching is a viable option now that I’ve had my fingerprints taken and sent off to OSPRA. But mostly, I’ll write.

Because push has come to shove, and I can’t stand that I spent a year not doing what I expressly believe I was born for. I was created with a distinct proclivity for criticism and curiosity, a need to understand “why” and an inability to simply accept “because” in reply. Where I find answers, I feel drawn to pass them on to others, a trait tedious in conversation but perfect for written discourse. What I lack in generation of ideas I make up for as one heck of a conduit.

Don’t mistake that for pride. At least, not arrogance. Read instead a watch recognizing it was made to tell time, and to tell time better than a compass or a sextant; a tool embracing its purpose.

There is, I’m coming to appreciate, a difference between self-love and selfishness. I’ve exhibited little of the former and much of the latter, and it’s long past time for that pendulum to swing the other way. We are called to love others as ourselves; ergo, to love others more I must also learn to accept who I am and embrace it. That doesn’t mean ignoring faults or flaws, but it does mean zooming out and refocusing on the bigger picture.

In that picture there are three loves: Christ, Geekhood, and Arguing. I know that last one doesn’t really seem like a passion proper, but there it is: I like to be right, and to know why I’m right, and I am driven to establish rightness wherever I see a wrong. Like the metric in last year’s Catherine, I tend to view life as a spectrum between chaos and order, and I’m pushing ever on towards the latter.

I’ve never struggled with not arguing enough (your eyes rolling yet?), but the other two passions seem to ebb and flow a bit too much, so henceforth (hear me, hold me to it) I plan to be extremely intentional about “plugging in” to both.

That’s where you, faithful reader, may have a role in all this, because as it stands I’m pretty much coming from a clean slate insomuch as news, articles, podcasts, and communities (for gaming, anime, devotionals, sermons, etc.) go. If you have favorites, pass them along. If you want to start a dialogue, let’s talk. If you want to set up a game night, let’s play. If you want to organize a Bible study, let’s plan.

Meanwhile, as I begin to write, and as I consider undertaking some sort of professional endeavor, I have become acutely aware of my dependence on friends and family for publicity. Not that I expect you to take to the streets over this blog, but perhaps someday in a month, or three, I will have something I do need shared, at which point it shouldn’t be a chore or burden, but mere reciprocity between friends.

I’m blessed with an extremely talented, creative group of friends. Some write, some preach, some sing, some play, some record. Many do all of the above. And each, carving a niche in the web, relies heavily on people like me to feed and water the seeds they’ve planted, to bounce ideas off of, to reap and sow encouragement. Remember that selfishness I mentioned earlier? That’s me expecting y’all to celebrate my work while I ignore yours.

So that’s going to stop too. Right here.

See that, back there? It stopped.

I’m going to be intentional about investing in the lives and passions of my friends. And if you count yourself among that group, and you have some project you think I should check out? Consider these ears officially opened.

This post is long and rambling and I’m going to draw it to a close in a moment. After saying nothing about turning 23 and embarking on a new year, I felt like a progress report was necessary. But that’s all this is: a report of work in progress, to which I’m merely adding a few to-dos. Other goals are coming along swimmingly. I’ve been consistently in the Word for three weeks. I’ve lost about 15 pounds.

And autumn, my favorite time of year, is already rustling through these New England trees, bursting with promise.