“No, Says the Man in the Vatican”: Religion as Spectacle in Bioshock

As of today, February 26th, we are officially one month away from the release of Bioshock Infinite. I don’t know about you, but I feel like a kid at Christmas, if all that kid had heard for the last six months was uncle Ken hinting about how great her present was gonna be.

Goddamnit uncle Ken

Today also marks the week-and-a-half anniversary of my roommate beating Bioshock, and I had tons of fun watching her play with immense, childlike enthusiasm while trying not to blow the big tweest.

Somewhere between chuckling about Eve’s Garden and finding out that Hephesteus was aptly named, I started thinking about religion in the context of Bioshock. Despite the boldly antitheist nature of Rapture, the city in which Bioshock takes place, the player is confronted with many elements that relate to religion in some fashion. From locations boasting the names of Greek or Roman gods, to the ADAM and EVE pumping through the main character’s veins, religious symbols dot the player’s stomach-turning advance through the destroyed Randian nightmare that is Rapture. With so many religious references, one might begin to wonder how to connect those dots.

Firstly, many buildings and levels throughout the game are named after classical religious figures. The player first encounters this schema in Neptune’s Bounty, a fishing wharf appropriately named after the Roman god of the seas; it continues throughout the game with Arcadia (a pastoral utopia in classical literature, and a park and farmer’s market in Bioshock), Hephaestus (Greek god of  fire, metalworking, and sculpture, turned monumental factory in Bioshock), Apollo Square (Greek god of . . . you know what? Read the list), and so forth.

The more you knoooooow

If you’re like me, you got a few finger-snaps out of the lesser-known figures on this list, and noticed that locations were generally christened in accordance with the characteristics of their namesake. Many of the names are quite clever—Mercury Suites, for instance, is physically separated from the poorer Apollo Square, and is home to many of the game’s richest and most notorious criminals; it’s named after the god of financial gain, boundaries, and thieves. (Ha ha.) Overall, the names just tend to make sense for the location they’re attributed to: Olympus Heights is where the rich live, Hestia Chambers is Atlas’ “hearth,” and at Prometheus Point the player receives the “fire of knowledge” as Big Daddy Jack is created.

From a symbolism and meta-analysis perspective, these names work very well and add an extra layer to the narrative—but from a story perspective, this convention gets tricky. Why would a society that is not only de jure atheist, but militantly antitheist (the first thing Jack sees after entering the lighthouse is a banner decreeing, “No Gods or Kings. Only Man,” and many of the crates in the Smuggler’s Hideout are filled with contraband Bibles) name their buildings after famous and infamous gods?

You’re gonna see that face in your nightmares tonight.

It doesn’t stop at buildings, either—several Rapture businesses feature classical symbolism, like Lady Venus Brand Fruits, whose logo is an image of goddess Venus/Aphrodite holding a mythical golden apple. In many cases, the purpose of this schema seems to be a way to assign power, giving each location a sense of importance anchored by its patron namesake. But again, why would a society that is philosophically opposed to religion so happily utilize—and therefore recognize—the power of these symbols?

A similar question comes into play in regard to Christian mythology, which also features in Rapture, but in a decidedly different fashion. Excluding the smirkingly named Eve’s Garden gentleman’s club in Fort Frolic, few locations bear the name of Christian symbols (aside from, well, the city itself, hearkening to the return of Christ and deliverance of the faithful in Christian mythology; try to puzzle out how Ryan missed that one). However, something more intrinsically important to the game does: ADAM and EVE.

Prepare for a horrified audience in 3, 2…

The benign cancer cells which make the use of plasmids possible and the energy that fuels those plasmids, ADAM and EVE are the arguable progenitors of the splicers, and together bring about the fall of humanity in Rapture. Once again, this works well on a symbolic level, but not as effectively in a story sense. With these chemicals, the citizens of Rapture again seem to accept the intrusion of religion into their supposedly antitheist paradise with little complaint—even Andrew Ryan, a virulent opponent of religious influence in society, approves of and facilitates the collection of ADAM through the Protector Program. Though giving a product of such power and importance a name associated with mythology would seem to run counter to their ideals, this goes unnoticed by all characters of note.

At least they’re still faithful to capitalism!

It is possible that the antitheist nature of Rapture is not quite as steadfast as Andrew Ryan claims. Despite his castigation of religion as parasitical and his rejection of “petty morality” (presumably including, but not limited to, the form followed by Christianity), hints exist to show that the people of Rapture are not as committed to this ideal as he is: Fontaine’s smugglers profit greatly from the shipping of black market religious material, for instance. There is also something to be said for desperation in Rapture driving people to seek solace in religion, such as various splicers who can be heard praying for help and cursing enemies as devil-worshippers. Further, there is simple insanity to take into account—Dr. Steinman, the plastic surgeon battled in the Medical Pavilion, claims to have been inspired to mutilate his patients by Aphrodite. However, while these examples are interesting in their own right, they don’t answer the question of religion in Rapture’s larger context. Why associate the city’s own powerful symbols—its grand and impossible undersea buildings, its nature-defying plasmids—with rejected religions? Why recognize the power of those characters and symbols, and by doing so, reverie them?

I personally puzzled over this for quite some time. These symbols are on such prominent display that they can’t be ignored; however, I couldn’t think of a single explanation for how this association could logically work. Around and around I went, trying to make it make sense, to a frustrating lack of avail. It just wasn’t clicking. There was no way to consolidate these two ideas effectively if you were going to think about these religious symbols on anything more than the most superficial level!

And . . . that is the answer.

If we understand anything about Rapture by Bioshock’s end, it should be this: Rapture is a farce. Lauded by Andrew Ryan as a restriction-free paradise for the world’s movers and shakers, Rapture is a Randian wet dream of leaving behind the “parasites” of the outside to live in a secluded utopia of the best and brightest. However, in time those ideals reveal themselves to be shallow constructions. When Andrew Ryan’s “free market” system sees the rise of Frank Fontaine, he stages a hostile government takeover of Fontaine Futuristics, becoming the very sort of government parasite he created Rapture to escape. When presented with powerful, mind- and body-altering chemicals, the supposed greats that populate Rapture become desperate monsters, driven by nothing more than the itch for their next hit. Perhaps worst of all, when confronted with political opposition, Ryan agrees to have hormones added into his company’s plasmids that make the user “vulnerable to mental suggestion”—effectively, he mind-controls his own citizens when faced with ideological conflict, not only taking away their free will, but strongly suggesting there was no free will in Rapture to begin with.

I feel ya, lady.

While the “Rand” part of that explanation is a topic for another essay, the greater part informs this one, because it shows how the central concept of Rapture is only skin deep. Nearly everything about the ideology of Rapture is similarly shallow, and that’s where its relationship to religion comes in. The citizens of Rapture are willing to live in places like Olympus Heights and Athena’s Glory, get their energy from Hephaestus Power Facility, shop in Apollo Square, and pump themselves full of ADAM and EVE, all while claiming to be antitheist, because their commitment to both ideas is cursory. They ignore the significance of the religious symbols they employ, and simultaneously snub their commitment to a society free of the shackles of religion. Effectively, Rapture’s ideals fall apart because they had no solid foundations from the start.

Coming soon: social upheaval!

Religion, when all is said and done, is a spectacle in Rapture. Lady Venus Brand is able to sell more apples through equation to the golden apples of Greek lore, a concept which most customers likely don’t understand—but gee, that sure is fancy! The scientists of Point Prometheus liken themselves to the enlightener of humanity, while twisting unwilling human bodies into mutant creations for the benefit of enterprise. Rapture’s engineers build structures they believe to be the pinnacle of architecture and name them after the art’s patron goddess; they don’t stop to think that she would probably turn their heads into snakes’ nests for their hubris sooner than thank them.

File:Medusa by Carvaggio.jpg
Look it up, kids.

In the end, religion in Rapture is just like . . . well, pretty much everything else in Rapture. For a city so steeped in ideals, it barely breaches the surface in terms of understanding them. That is its folly from day one, and that is its end; religion as a spectacle is just one symptom of the problem. So, the citizens of Rapture name their homes and shopping malls and destructive narcotics what they will, never understanding the true meaning of what they have done. In turn, the audience gets to sit back and laugh at the irony of Athena’s Glory being the first place taken out during the Rapture Civil War.

Well, if you’re into the symbolism, anyway.

Nothing to see here.
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