Beast of America: Religion – A Different America
(Welcome to the first entry in our series “Beast of America” analyzing the various social themes and messages found within Irrational Games’ latest masterpiece: BioShock Infinite.)
I grew up in America.
Only, a different America than the rest of you.
For those of you who know me, or if you talk to me for more than fifteen seconds, inevitably it will lead to me mentioning that I was raised Jewish. In the South.
To say the least, it was interesting. Couple that with the fact that the one raising me was in fact a Cuban immigrant and perhaps you can get a better picture of the critical cultural mass that was my childhood.
There was a lot of wind in my sails blowing from many directions. The Old Testament weight of Judaism, the fire of the lost land of Cuba, and, of course, the rapidly evolving landscape of American existence in the 90s. It’s no wonder I turned so heavily to books and video gaming. They were an escape from the ever-spiraling dizziness that was the labyrinth of my cultural identity.
Being Jewish is a particularly bizarre being. First of all, from a very young age you are told that most of the world hates you, and, for the most part, always has. And if you don’t believe them? They’ve got some history footage to show you.
And they will. Believe me.
On top of that, you’re brought up to believe that Jewish ceremony: Seders and synagogue and a whole bunch of other thises and thats are perfectly normal. You know, so long as you’re with other Jews.
But where I grew up in Dallas (Richardson), and where I eventually moved to in Arkansas (Bentonville) were both pretty bereft of Chosen People.
Imagine, if you would, that it’s Christmas Day. You’ve just woken up and you get that sudden jolt of memory that tells you to sprint down the stairs and tackle that tree because there’s presents GOD DAMNIT! You and the family and a pile of shredded gift wrap and the fake pine needles and the cheap lights every every everywhere. All for you on this very special day.
I really hope you enjoyed it. I really do.
Because you see, we Jew kids?
We didn’t get that.
We got nothing, really.
Chanukah? Sucks. Trust me. Nobody really likes it. Not how like you guys like Christmas.
I remember walking down the street where I grew up around Christmas time at night, seeing every house illuminated in reds, greens, and whites, with robot Santas and wreaths a-plenty and all the holiday cheer you can eat.
And then arriving at my house.
Dark. Cold. Uninviting.
The only house on the street like that. It looked as if nobody even lived there around Christmas time.
And as a kid it was especially bizarre. Seeing all the ads for Christmas on TV. The dozens of movies dedicated to the holiday. The kids talking about it at school and that horrible awkwardness, that first feeling of being an outsider when you had to explain to them why you didn’t celebrate it.
Same for Easter, by the way.
America was, initially, a Christian country, that is undeniable. So, please, don’t think I’m complaining. Quite the contrary. Just about every piece of dry land on the planet booted our Hebrew hineys off the shores. Few spots in America were some of the first places that the modern(ish) migratory Jews settled. My family most certainly included. There were no more synagogues in Cuba after Fidel took over, I assure you.
But, when you grow up a Jew, you definitely notice. You honestly feel like you’re from another planet. You fit in physically, sure, but inside you know there is you and there is them. It’s unfortunate, but it’s undeniable.
That’s why it came as no surprise to me whatsoever that the man who created BioShock Infinite was a Jew, too.
You wanna know what it’s like to be a Jew in America? Or Muslim, I’d assume? Or more or less any non-Christian-based religion?
Play BioShock Infinite.
Remember when you first arrived in Columbia after you got baptized? You wake up in that sky-blue pool of water and see three civilians worshipping at altars dedicated…to Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. Legitimately worshipping the Founding Fathers like a trio of deities.
Remember how unusual those brief moments, those precious words seemed? You almost laughed, it was such a foreign concept to you. And as you progressed through this sacred garden you saw it more and more. People just obviously not believing what you believe, but definitely believing what they believed.
Did you feel like you were a part of that?
Welcome to Judaism.
And it don’t end there, folks.
You progress further and further into the City in the Sky, and more and more it’s bruises and bumps start to appear. The downright friendliness and joy the citizens approached violence and racism with was utterly and thoroughly shocking, not to mention disturbing, disgusting, and just altogether wrong.
But, to me? Not so new.
Calm down, let me explain.
In case you didn’t know, Jews don’t believe in Hell. There is no equivalency in the faith. Punishment for sinners is never discussed. Not really, at least.
And certainly not as permanent as you guys.
I remember when I first learned about the concept of Hell. It was relatively late. 11? 12? Maybe 13? Sure, I’d heard the word (remember: I was raised by Cubans. They can’t get a little fiery from time to time), and seen cartoon devils and stuff. But the true implications were never really explained.
But when they were.
I was not the same.
I underwent a massive crisis of faith, yes, that young. Petrified that I had chosen completely wrong and was doomed to a pretty crappy eternity. I couldn’t believe that EVERYONE wasn’t talking about this ALL THE TIME EVERY DAY. It seemed so monumentally important that why wasn’t the entire focus of all of existence?!
And when I tried to talk to people about it, they were totally chill. Yeah, Hell sucks, you don’t wanna go. Still, I was stunned. This many people knew about so vile a place and were still so a-okay with it?
Like being encouraged to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.
I don’t know whether or not Ken Levine intended for BSI to be reminiscent of growing up a cultural outsider, but, either way, for this guy? It was unavoidable.
Suddenly, I was that kid again, walking down the street, wondering why we couldn’t have lights all over again. I was that scared little boy, fearful of forever fire, with no answers other than to just keep moving and hope for the best.
Nowadays I don’t believe a lick of anything. I still identify culturally as Jewish, but that’s about it. Most modern young Jews I know are like that. Product of this country? Maybe. The weight of an entirely different world can only be shouldered for so long. But that’s heresy.
BioShock Infinite is a very rich tapestry of many different philosophies and points-of-view. But that doesn’t mean it’s beautiful. Cancer is a very rich illness: so encompassing and unavoidable. BSI wanted to take us to a new world, and it definitely did.
But new worlds most likely don’t breathe the same air we do. Gravity differs from planet to planet. Lengths of days always vary.
Simply put: nothing feels right.
But it’s when this happens that we learn the most. Either how to adapt…or how to die.
And suddenly, that ending gains a whole new…dare I say…depth?