Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
Booker Dewitt wades through knee-deep water in candlelit catacombs, searching for the entrance to a floating city. Haunting strains of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” fill the air as Booker passes stained glass windows and walls inscribed with cryptic words: “And the Prophet shall lead the people to the New Eden.”
He calls out to a nearby white-robed man, “Excuse me, where am I?”
“Heaven, friend. Or as close as we’ll see ’til judgment day.”
The choir continues its song all the while: “Is a better home awaiting, in the sky, in the sky?” The city Booker seeks is an answer to the hymn’s prayer, built by a prophet who promised to make America great again.Bioshock Infinite shows the danger of a charismatic leader who is able to harness the power of Christianity while ignoring its central message.
Bioshock Infinite was released in 2013, two full years before Donald Trump’s fascinating, bizarre, and often loathsome campaign become a reality. Some people look at Trump and see a Hitler, or a Hugo Chavez, or a character from Brideshead Revisited. But for me, Donald Trump will always be Zachary Hale Comstock, Prophet and Founder of Columbia and the villain of Bioshock Infinite.
I don’t remember when the comparison first struck me. It might have been when he described the immigrants coming from Mexico as criminals and rapists, or perhaps when he suggested banning all Muslims from entering the US. But at some point I couldn’t listen to Trump without thinking about the xenophobic, hyper-nationalistic, racist quotes and recordings found throughout the game:. I am not alone. I soon found myself wondering what Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, thought about all of this and decided to reach out to him for an interview, which he generously agreed to. I asked him about the Trump/Comstock connection. “I’ve heard that a bunch,” he told me. “Clearly there’s some of the xenophobic viewpoint they share, there’s sort of a populist viewpoint they share, there’s a sort of American exceptionalism viewpoint they share.”
Levine isn’t surprised by the comparisons between Trump and Comstock: “I don’t think [the game] was particularly prophetic. I think that, you know, there have been a lot of characters like Trump in the past who sort of come with a very similar message.” Levine pointed out that “[w]e started Infinite before there was a Tea Party, and I think that when we saw the Tea Party arise similar to Trump, I didn’t really feel surprised by it. The Tea Party is nothing new, Donald Trump is nothing new.” We can see Trump in Comstock precisely because Levine wasn’t trying to portray current movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. Bioshock Infinite is about larger currents in American history: “Comstock was really reflecting the past, but I’m sure he’ll be reflected many times in the future.”
The messages of Comstock and Trump are both old and new, tapping into grievances long held with proposals that seem fresh in large part because they are so extreme. Comstock’s followed believed that he alone saw clearly the rot in the country and was ready to do whatever it took to make things right., He swore that his vision of America as it was, as it could be again, would become a reality. This is a powerful promise and I think that it underlies Trump’s appeal as well. Comstock promised his followers a New Eden, and so does Trump.
It is a promise that Christians especially should be wary of, because it has, I think, a particular attraction to us. I’d love to point out that regular churchgoers tend to oppose Trump and leave things there, but that isn’t good enough; we have to acknowledge his draw for many of our brothers and sisters. Psalm 146:3 reminds us, “Put not your trust in princes,” but it can be tempting to settle even for a bad prince when he comes promising to build the City of God.
“Heaven, friend. Or as close as we’ll see ’til judgment day.”
Heaven. The New Eden. Columbia. A paradise hidden in the clouds, a vision made real by its leader and Prophet, Zachary Hale Comstock. The statues of Comstock that fill Columbia suggest a sort of John Brown figure: flowing hair, wild beard, and piercing eyes that hint at a barely contained mania—a man consumed by fervor, by his mission. This is the man who built Columbia to escape the “Sodom below,” in the words of Columbia’s citizens.
In a different biblical allusion, Columbia is frequently called “another ark for another time.” “What did they see themselves preserving?” I asked Levine. He replied that in “Comstock’s view [America] was so poorly directed that it had to be restarted and restarted adhering to what he would view as originalist principles.” Trump frames his candidacy in the same way. At a recent debate, Trump said, “Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry. I’m angry because our country is a mess.”
However, Comstock’s America goes well beyond simple fidelity to the Constitution. Columbia exists to create a pure America—a pure government, a pure religion, and a pure race as well. The leaders of Columbia see it as their “holy duty to guard against the foreign hordes,” as one piece of propaganda claims.
For his part, Trump has said that “illegal immigration is beyond belief” and promised to close the border on his first day as president. He has said that he would consider establishing a database to track all US Muslims. Trump has even said that he would not hesitate to murder the children of terrorists, maintaining, “When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
Trump doesn’t just remind me of Comstock—it’s like he’s plagiarizing Columbia’s propaganda. In fact, when I asked Levine about how Comstock might view Trump’s language, he brought up that very image, of “George Washington standing in front of this horde of immigrants and foreigners and, you know, they were all caricatures. I think that extremism generally of any kind goes hand in hand in caricature.” Trump’s rhetoric, like Comstock’s, relies on such caricature, casting anything foreign as strange, deficient, and dangerous. America made a mistake welcoming such people and as the New Eden, and its “holy duty” must be to purify itself.
Comstock’s hyper-nationalistic Christianity is the foundation upon which Columbia is built.
But the city was destined to be a crooked thing and eventually collapse, for Comstock’s Christianity is sinister in nature. “What’s the source of that?” I asked Levine. How did his religion get so twisted? “[L]ike most political/religious movements that become negative, they start from a place of pain and somebody trying to fix their pain.” Comstock uses religion to address his pain, but his Christianity lacks the Cornerstone itself. Levine isn’t a religious man, but he told me that “forgiveness is to me the power of Christianity. Where I see the people come feeling they’re broken feeling they’ve done things they can’t reconcile and Christ gives them an opportunity to process that. And I think to me that’s the part of religion I get.”
However, “forgiveness is fairly alien to Comstock. Until he recognizes what he’s done and gives up the benefits of his sin, how can he ever really reach a point where he forgives?” For Levine, Bioshock Infinite is “about remorse and about redemption and about coming to terms with what you’ve done, [about asking] can you possibly really atone for things.” Booker’s journey is a pursuit of redemption, of forgiveness for his sins. Levine says that Booker “has an opportunity to redeem himself where Comstock says, ‘You know what I did was fine, in fact I should do more of it.’” Unlike Booker, Comstock doesn’t hate his sins; he elevates his sins and makes them a defining element of Columbia. As such, the city becomes an ark for evil, with a false prophet at the helm.
That image of Comstock is important to Levine: “I say false prophet even outside of any supernatural element it was a story of somebody who purported to believe in something but actually didn’t. He didn’t get the message [of forgiveness] which I think is pretty clear in the gospels.” Bioshock Infinite shows the danger of a charismatic leader who is able to harness the power of Christianity while ignoring its central message. Comstock, like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, built a Church of Christ Without Christ. But even though his religion is a perversion of Christianity, Comstock is a true believer, a zealot.
Is Donald Trump even…interested in religion?
This is a man who is, in the words of Ross Douthat, “a proud flouter of the entire Judeo-Christian code—a boastful adulterer and a habitual liar, a materialist and a sensualist, a greedy camel without even the slightest interest in squeezing through the needle’s eye.” Precisely. Trump, like Comstock, sees his sins as his greatest assets. He holds up his womanizing, greed, and anger as virtues.
Most troubling is that, like Comstock, forgiveness seems alien to Donald Trump, whose theological musings on the subject include statements like, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture” and “When I go to church and when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of forgiveness. I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed. I say let’s go on and let’s make it right.” In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Trump wondered, “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?”
Why are some Christians willing to support a man who seems to love his sins and is baffled by the very heart of their faith?. Again, look at Comstock. He was a prophet, but he was also a soldier, a fighter who offered himself as a leader and protector to those who wanted the chance to fight for the America they had always wanted.
This is exactly how Trump casts himself to Christians: as a fighter, their fighter. I expressed my bafflement to Ken Levine at Trump’s promises to make stores say “Merry Christmas” but he pointed out that “I think there is a sense that ‘we are losing and we’re going to take whatever win we can get’ and Trump is offering really pathetic small wins but he’s offering wins.”
His supporters believe that he is able to deliver these wins because they see him as successful. It’s easy to mock Trump for his gaudy taste in décor and tacky displays of wealth, but Levine reminded me that “there’s a snobbishness of looking down your nose at that wealth and makes you not understand how appealing that lifestyle is to people who don’t have a lot of money.” To those who have little, Trump represents the epitome of success. And to a spiritually impoverished evangelicalism, an evangelicalism that is tired of losing, Trump’s promises may be overwhelmingly attractive.
“Was the strongman persona part of Comstock’s appeal as well?” I asked Levine. “Sort of, ‘here’s a guy who’s going to fight for us?’” He said, “There’s a strongman notion which is, ‘This is a guy who doesn’t [just] talk and takes no bullshit and he’s not gonna let little pussies walk all over us.’ And I think that there’s something extremely powerful about that.” Trump is “a warlord, right? All leaders to some degree are glorified warlords.” Comstock embraced that role, so does Trump. Though he claims that Christianity “is under tremendous siege,” Trump promises a Christianity on the offensive: “Because if I’m [President], you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else.”
In Columbia, it is impossible to see where Christianity ends and nationalism begins; American exceptionalism has become the civic religion. Levine told me he wanted to design a “ridiculously beautiful” Columbia and to convey “idealization of the past. That there was a time when everything was beautiful and perfect.” This longing for an idealized America of the past is something that in my experience seems common among many evangelicals, even those who do not support Trump. There is a sense that we lost our way as a country, that we have squandered the plans God had for us.
As Christians, we want to believe that our country is a fundamentally just and good one. But love of country can easily become what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry calls “divinely ordered nationalism.” When we confuse our devotion to country with our devotion to God, we are ripe for a Comstock, a Trump. Men who feed our nationalistic hubris and reassure us that God is on our side, that we are still that City on a Hill, that we can still be great.
This is exactly what Comstock promised. Columbia didn’t just float to escape the world. Like Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, it was built to travel the world in a display of America’s might and reach. Comstock promised his followers paradise and power and he promised to punish their enemies. Christians “don’t exert the power that we should have,” says Trump. But if he is president, he’ll lead us to the Promised Land. Trump is the Comstock we’ve been waiting for.
Comstock promised his followers a renewed America, a literal City of God—“I mean there’s a reason [Columbia is] in the clouds,” said Levine. It would be a refuge for true Christians and true Americans. But the City of God cannot be built by false prophets. Columbia represented an ideal America, but as Levine, reminded me, “That time never existed; it will never exist.” Columbia, founded in anger, fear, and hate, was doomed from the beginning, and so is Trump’s America. Columbia fell from the clouds; Trump’s America will never get off the ground. Only Christ can build the city we long for.
“Is a better home awaiting?” Yes, but not yet.
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