Backloggery Beatdown: The Binding of Isaac

Consider the subtitle to this special edition of Backloggery Beatdown as a Content Warning, if not also the entirety of this first page, for this editorial is dedicated to almost everything The Binding of Isaac (BoI) has to offer in terms of potentially spiritually compromising content. For those who are simply interested in BoI in terms of its merit as a video game, you will have to look elsewhere. This piece will not be exhaustive in its analysis of the franchise’s lore; it will instead critically address the most crucial themes and icons pertaining to the relationship between The Binding of Isaac, Christianity, and the player. Spoilers, ahoy!the_binding_of_isaac_by_lixuu-d6rj6mr
“The Binding of Isaac” by Lixuu

The Binding of Isaac begins with the titular character engaged in typical things that amuse children such as “draw pictures and play with toys” while his mother watches “Christian broadcasts on the television.” One day, his mother hears a “voice from above” which says, “YOUR SON HAS BECOME CORRUPTED BY SIN! HE NEEDS TO BE SAVED!” Isaac’s mother then removes “everything that was evil from his life,” which included his toys, his GameBoy, and even his clothes! The voice from above returns and tells his mother that Isaac’s soul is still corrupt! “HE MUST BE CUT OFF FROM ALL THAT IS EVIL IN THIS WORLD AND CONFESS HIS SINS!” His mother complies, and locks Isaac in his room. The voice from above returns once again, saying, “YOU HAVE DONE AS I’VE ASKED! BUT I STILL QUESTION YOUR DEVOTION TO ME! TO PROVE YOUR FAITH, I WILL ASK ONE MORE THING OF YOU. TO PROVE YOUR LOVE AND DEVOTION, I REQUIRE A SACRIFICE! YOUR SON, ISAAC, WILL BE THIS SACRIFICE! GO INTO HIS ROOM, AND END HIS LIFE AS AN OFFERING TO ME TO PROVE YOU LOVE ME ABOVE ALL ELSE!” She complies and grabs a knife, much to the terror of an innocent Isaac witnessing this process from the crack in the door of his room. He panics, looking for a place to escape, but cannot for the window is barred like a prison cell. He conveniently stumbles upon a trapdoor that he had never noticed before, hidden under his rug, which leads to the basement. As his mother bursts into his room, knife in hand, to confirm her allegiance to the voice from above, Isaac hurls himself “down into the unknown depths below.” At this point, the camera pans out, showing Isaac and his “pet” fly beaming at this imaginary narrative that he has just finished creating.
The interpretations of what exactly transpires as story beyond the intro of The Binding of Isaac through its dozen-plus endings are as  bountiful as they are fascinating; I am particularly fond of those addressing the psychosis Isaac suffers as a result of residing in comprehensive dysfunction: divorced parents, absentee father, (mother’s) post abortion stress syndrome, and malnutrition. Unfortunately, one lens from which criticism is lacking is that from the perspective of Christianity, the “inspiration” of BoI’s plot. The majority of my efforts in researching the existence of Christian input on BoI often yields apologetics concerning a defense in favor of BoI’s imagery as benignreviews that are more emotional than analytical, or they simply do not address the content concerns at all. Polygon even published an opinion piece written by a Arthur Chu, a former Christian, in the absence of an actual Christian, throwing in “fundamentalist” in the title for simultaneous validation and derision because actual fundamentalist Christians are apparently in short supply on the internet.  

I outright disagree with the kinds of lukewarm sentiment concerning the content of The Binding of Isaac while also wondering if the individuals who found nothing alarming have even actually played the game(s). Do I even need to address Chu’s /r/atheism fedora-tipping? To his credit, the testimony is engaging, but the conclusion is incorrect. 
I applaud Christ Centered Gamer for not shying away from BoI, but I would like to look at the game more critically: the closest I have seen in terms of what what I consider legitimate criticism of The Binding of Isaac is G. Christopher Williams’ February 2012 article from PopMatters, citing the dysfunctional relationship Edmund  McMillen has with Christianity as a launching point for BoI, yet the author does not thoroughly expand upon this assertion in the context of the product of McMillen’s prior experience with religion, BoI itself. The purpose of this editorial is to build upon Williams’ observation but with concrete parallels demonstrated in the video game.

the creator

Edmund McMillen

McMillen himself has gone on record several times to say that The Binding of Isaac is not anti-Christian, but it is merely inspired by religion. Verily, he or anyone who tries to tow the line of BoI being neutral toward “religion,” which is a euphemism for “Christianity,” is full of the stuff that frequently decorates the rooms throughout the earlier stages of the game.
r hipsters

/r/athiesm and agnostic hipsters trolling with claims that BoI isn’t anti-Christian. Screenshot taken from Rebirth for illustrative purposes.

Recalling the PopMatters publicationone of the few brief commentaries in circulation on The Binding of Isaac that attempts to draw some analysis of the game’s religious themes Williams says the following: 
While some might interpret [BoI’s] re-imagining of the story of Isaac as a deliberate effort to challenge the rationality of blindly following God’s commands and thus, perhaps the rationality of the Christian faith itself, in an interview, the game’s designer Edmund McMillen suggests that that is not the underlying interest of the game’s message….
The interview referenced in Williams’ article is from IndieGames, January 2012. Williams shortens McMillen’s response to the question concerning how the mainstream would respond to The Binding of Isaac; again, I reproduce the majority of it here:
[Controversy] would be a blessing in disguise for sure, but I called this from the beginning. People were like “You don’t wanna f*** with Christians,” but the thing is, nothing in the game is really anti-Christian. It can be taken as that, but it really isn’t, [sic] a lot of the stuff in the game is by the book, literally. I think it’s more of a conversation about religion more so than me saying Christianity is bad. It’s more like “Hey, let’s talk about religion, let’s think about it. I’m gonna throw some things out there, give you some context here and there, and let you figure out how you feel about what I might or might not be talking about.” It’s not this literal slap in the face to Christianity in any way. The majority of what I’m drawing on is my experience with Catholicism, the pros and cons, I guess. It [is] honestly me having a conversation with myself about how I felt about religion growing up, and that’s how it came out. I have a strange relationship with it, [sic] I think it’s really interesting. The fairytale aspect of a lot the stories are really well done, it’s extremely creative, and stunning in lots of ways. The rituals are very interesting, and the reasons behind things are very interesting, and the history is very interesting. There’s a lot of things that are very interesting about religion, especially Christianity, although I don’t really know much about other religions. For me, growing up, it had big impact on me in both creative and negative ways.
Given that I have already expressed my disappointment in the near non-existent criticism of The Binding of Isaac, I dread being the person who would prove McMillen to be right—that for an article such as this to exist, it would be “a blessing in disguise.” Then again, there is nothing that I can do to influence the game’s popularity, for better or for worse. The most ardent fans have long moved on to Rebirth, having been engaged in an apotheosis of the franchise for years. Its popularity has suppressed any potential for controversy. 
Isaac crying

I’m not a complete hater. I do think that there is some brilliant, though misguided, symbolism in The Binding of Isaac. Fetal Isaac crying in fetal position. Brotha has some developmental problems going on. Physical? Intellectual? Spiritual? That is for players to decide.

While McMillen claims that “a lot of stuff in the game is by the book, literally,” the motivations for Isaac’s mother are entirely of his own making. The implication is that The Binding of Isaac reenacts a sort of exorcism that is not part of the original story, which is actually about obedience: Abraham and his willingness to commit fully to the will of God no matter how arbitrary or difficult or illogical (in our own eyes) the command may be. The question if Isaac “deserves it” is a skeptic’s fabrication; the undergirding motivation is an investigation of why-does-X-happen-to-good-people, a question that should be refocused on God as sovereign, as He does in Job 28-42. Yes, it is McMillen who inserts a discussion of the biblical Isaac’s corruption, a displaced metaphor for Old Testament style animal sacrifice. Further embedded within is the rhetorical move concerning how a child can be guilty of sin simply by being born into the world—also an ancient skeptic’s position—hence Isaac’s default avatar being that of a nude fetus.
The answer to these rhetorical questions is “by Christ alone,” but The Binding of Isaac never provides this option because any potential for salvation is obfuscated by a deluge of “religiosity” than genuine theology. The quotation marks acknowledge the fact that (a) McMillen says that he does not believe BoI to be anti-Christian, (b) BoI is a product of his own relationship with Catholicism and religion (he uses “religion” and “Christianity” interchangeably), and (c) McMillen confesses that he knows little of any other religion. It shows.
BoI Angel

In McMillen’s world, salvation is not an option for Isaac. Too many angels and devils. Not enough Jesus.

Identity Crisis

The premise of The Binding of Isaac is conceptualized with a legalistic interpretation of scripture such as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) or “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Of course, Romans 6:23 begins “For the wages of sin is death,” justifying McMillen’s mobilization of his mother as an agent of justice, but the second part of that scripture reads “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” so McMillen should know that the sacrifice of Isaac to prove his mother’s allegiance to “god” is unnecessary if he were as knowledgerable of religion/Christianity/Catholicism as he posits himself in the IndieGames interview.
From the start, The Binding of Isaac is a secularized “twist” on an otherwise remarkable story. I must (still) underestimate the perception that the secular world maintains concerning Christian obedience to God’s commands as contrary to logic, yet I am well acquainted with the swiftness in which Christians are labeled hypocrites by these same skeptics when our obedience falters—a characteristic of being more human than holy that should come as no surprise  to anyone who knows the scriptures quoted above. BoI represents the kind of skepticism that lacks intellectual vigor, almost always lacking in context. So that it can be “right in its own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2; Judges 17:6, 21:25), BoI takes a step further by creating its mythology.
Rembrandt is one of my favorite artists. Here is his depitcion, the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Rembrandt is one of my favorite artists. In his depiction of the biblical story, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the angel appears as if to smack Abraham upside the head. (lol)

Yes, the Old Testament is filled with “WTF” moments, but there are lessons to be learned within. Reenactments and interpretations of Abraham about to kill his son vary, but BoI flips this by removing the father just as Sarah has no say in the biblical Isaac’s possible death. Seriously, consider that Abraham was indeed going to kill his son as an act of obedience to God—something that Christians, including myself, likely would not do even if God asked (and he won’t, I promise). Yet the difference between the biblical Isaac sacrifice and that in the video game is that in the latter, “the voice from above” twice says that Isaac himself is corrupt and needs to be purged of sinful influences. Then the voice from above changes its demands, requesting that Mom must kill him to prove her devotion. In the Bible, God simply tells Abraham to offer his son as burnt offering, a twist in the ritualistic activity in Hebrew tradition when the sins of humankind are placed upon an animal to be sacrificed. I hope the flip of the skeptic is apparent here: whether or not Isaac in the Bible deserves to die is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; Abraham is instructed to destroy what many would believe to be his most valued possession—his son—after the struggles endured to have him (read about the drama in Genesis 16) to prove his faith in a one-time request. Furthermore, the biblical story of God’s challenge to Abraham is a metaphor for the coming of Jesus Christ; God stops Abraham before the deathblow and provides a sacrificial lamb in the brush (Genesis 22:13). Notwithstanding, Mom behaves in ways that are more likely influenced by her televangelist influences and self-guilt rather than God.

Lost and Still to Be Found

McMillen

I’d like to know more about that Jesus poster on his desk.

In 2014, a random user would visit a blog dedicated to McMillen and outright ask him if he is an atheist. The developer responds: “I have no idea anymore, I don’t believe in organized religion….and I don’t think there is a god that controls everything but I’d like to believe there is something after death…I donno what that makes me. A hopeful atheist?”
Verily, I say unto you: those who buy for a second that The Binding of Isaac‘s relationship with Christianity is not problematic may return to the previous scatological reference. McMillen was either terribly confused or did not care enough to get his own story straight. Given the dates of the two excerpts I have provided from PopMatters and IndieGames, at the time of the former interview, McMillen was probably still troubled by his Catholic upbringing. After subjecting himself to the dark subject matter necessary for his “religious exploration” and perhaps the development of BoI, he relents to agnosticism in finality, resulting in his comments concerning not believing that God exists, yet that he would like to believe in an arbitrarily existing afterlife state of being. I pray for Edmund McMillen, because he is a lost sheep who I believe the shepherd Jesus Christ would gladly welcome (back) to the flock, if the man chooses. He is like so many others who find the existence of God inconvenient, because if God exists, then we will be held accountable in the next life for how we live this one—to arrive back at the question of what sin is and how it impacts our lives. In contrast, an afterlife without a supreme being who asks of us to live holy lives, requires little to no sacrifice for entry is palpable, to those of his ilk.
To McMillen’s credit, he at least is not personally nihilistic, though Isaac’s ultimate fate in BoI suggests otherwise. I feel that this outcome is a product of McMillen’s indoctrination with religiosity rather than experiencing the genuine love of Christ. For all the supersaturation of demonic elements within The Binding of Isaac, the game portrays guilt and consequential judgment within a 19th century hellfire and brimstone framework, illustrated in 21st century aesthetics. God, and he who rescues us from sin—Jesus—are almost completely absent from the game, yet BoI is nonetheless littered with Christian iconography juxtaposed with that which is considered sinful, as if the blood of the Lamb is insufficient compared to what the devil can offer. McMillen is as misguided as the titular Isaac.
Allow me to talk about said titular character.

Click Here to Continue to Page 2

Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

Leave a Reply