Between Ben Carson’s infuriating comments about the Pyramids and the Christian group Answers in Genesis’s news-making plans to spend $92 million on a reconstruction of Noah’s ark in Williamstown, Kentucky, we’re all a bit worn down by Biblical literalism of late.
Fundamentalism may be hot politics and big business, but it doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. For those looking for a more subversive form of Biblical interpretation, however, help is just a few right clicks away. In the niche world of video games, Sunday school stories are getting a makeover, and, unlike big-scale fundamentalism, there’s some actual introspection going on.
Of course, explicitly Christian video games have been popular for decades; alternatives to the violence-inducing shoot-’em-ups decried by the moral majority, these games bring the KJV to the PS3. The only violence in Bible Adventures, for instance, is the barrel you use to stun the animals being gathered for Noah’s ark. These primary-color-filled children’s games are as much about education as entertainment and, unlike Christian music, they fail to mimic the aesthetic qualities of their secular counterpart. This isn’t like listening to Evanescence: You know that Captain Bible is about Jesus.
But then there’s the video game the Binding of Isaac, which just had a remake released, with its take on the Abraham and Isaac story. Originally released for PC and Mac, Binding of Isaac was a sleeper hit that sold a million copies before being converted for consoles. In the game Abraham is replaced by a deeply religious mother who believes that she hears the voice of God. Rather than taking Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him to the Lord (as Abraham does in Genesis 22), pixel Isaac’s mother watches charismatic Christian television and receives a vision instructing her to kill her son. Isaac realizes he is in danger and hides out in the basement. This is where the player takes over, scouring the dungeon-like cellar for items that will help Isaac defeat his God-fearing mother.
As the game progresses, the Biblical themes get stronger as other characters are unlocked. Cain, Judas, Esau, Eve, Samson, Mary Magdalene, and even Lilith make appearances and are vindicated by our intrepid gamer. There’s even a level set in the womb. (As if religion wasn’t already overly interested in the female reproductive system.)
Is this an accurate depiction of the Bible story? Er, no. For one thing, Abraham and company were nomads who didn’t have fully finished basements. (I feel like that was obvious but after Carson’s grain silo pyramids I don’t know what’s obvious anymore.) But concerns for accuracy haven’t prevented generations of interpreters from adding and subtracting details to the story of the binding of Isaac.
In fact, many of the interpretive moves and concerns found in the game have precedents in more traditional forms of Biblical interpretation. In the game, Isaac is a diapered baby, somewhat younger than the Isaac of Sunday School but an age entertained by some ancient Jewish interpreters. The game’s transformation of Abraham into a woman (as if women don’t get blamed for enough in the Bible) is anticipated in ancient stories of Jewish martyrs, in which their mother encourages them to embrace death. As Maria Doerfler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, told me, “[the game is] a misrepresentation of the [story], but not so very different from, say, the mother of the Maccabean martyrs.”
There’s something delightfully subversive about a game that rehabilitates the misunderstood evildoers. But there’s more here: In the dark references to child abuse and religious fundamentalism, the horror side of our Sunday stories is exposed.
By contrast, fundamentalist projects engaged in proving the truth of the Bible test its story selectively. For all of the efforts to find and/or rebuild Noah’s ark (the new venture in Kentucky is only the latest in a long line), little religiously funded archeology looks for evidence of the people who did not make it onto the ark. According to Genesis, almost all of Earth’s inhabitants perished in an act of what can be described only as divine genocide. And yet no one in Kentucky is searching for their remains or hypothesizing about how Noah and his family dealt with the bodies. Even Biblical literalists who hold the Bible to be inerrant look away from its less palatable truths.
When it was released in Germany, The Binding of Isaac received a 16+ age restriction on the grounds that it is “blasphemy.” But addressing the violence of our Biblical stories and the uncomfortable moral standards of ancient religious literature should surely be a part of our modern-day scripture study. This is something that video games can get right when GOP nominees fail. And if they can do it with power ups, so much the better.