Fearing God, Fearing the Body: The Theology of 'The Binding of Isaac'

The game's “theology” is less concerned with questioning submission to the will of God than it is about a seemingly deep seated fear of the body itself.

The premise of The Binding of Isaac seems a skewering of religion, as the game parallels the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, with tendencies towards religious mania and child abuse. The game begins by introducing us to a more contemporary version of Isaac and his mother, an avid viewer of Christian television. Believing that she has heard a voice from God that has instructed her to purge Isaac of evil, she aims to do so. This request, to purge her son of evil, is put to her twice before the more ominous command to kill her son is finally given.

Thus, begins the game, a shmup and rogue-like that obviously owes something to games like Zelda, Bezerk, and Diablo. Isaac's attempts to escape his fate lead him to flee down a trapdoor in his room into an underworld full of grotesque monsters that he battles with his own tears (the “bullets” of this shmup).

While some might interpret this re-imagining of the story of Isaac as a deliberate effort to challenge the rationality of 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:

[N]othing in the game is really anti-Christian. It can be taken as that, but it really isn't, 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. (Lewie Procter, ”Interview: Edmund McMillen Spills The Beans on The Wrath Of The Lamb & More, IndieGames, 27 January 2012)

While McMillen claims that his version of the story is “by the book, literally,” some of the motivations for Isaac's mother are seemingly entirely of McMillen's own making. The implication that the binding of Isaac is related in some way to purging the boy of evil is not really part of the original story, which seems more dominantly about Abraham and his willingness to commit fully to the will of his God, no matter how arbitrary or difficult the command put to him. The original story doesn't really raise the question of whether Isaac “deserves it” or not. But by including all of the discussion of Isaac's corruption prior to the fatal request, it points at some additional theological questions that McMillen wants to talk about.

This is what interested me about McMillen's discussion of the game, which he explains as “me having a conversation with myself about how I felt about religion growing up.” In that sense, the game's “theology,” as it is expressed through its imagery, its items, and its gameplay, is less concerned with questioning submission to the will of God than it is about a seemingly deep seated fear of the body.

As noted, initially Isaac's mother is merely instructed to purge Isaac of evil. When the player learns of this, he or she is treated to a scene of Isaac's pants falling down and him looking ashamedly down at his penis. Shame and terrors evoked by the body remains the dominant theme of most of the exclusively narrative bits of the game's stories, the cutscenes that appear between levels of the dungeon.

Each time that the player manages to enable Isaac to reach the next level of the dungeon that he explores, he or she is treated to a scene of Isaac curled up in a fetal position, crying and recalling in a cartoon thought bubble some horrific (I guess, evil?) memory. These include: Isaac trying to give a girl a present before his pants fall down and she laughs at his exposed penis, Isaac finding himself stranded on a toilet with no toilet paper, Isaac receiving a box of feces from his “friends,” Isaac's “friends” mooning him, etc. etc. These scenes emphasize an individual that is worried about his body, how it is perceived by others, and others' bodies, how those bodies “speak” to him of their shame and his own.

Frankly, the whole horrific nightmare world that Isaac explores is just a series of grotesque body horrors. He battles headless corpses, disembodied heads, flies and maggots gathered around excrement, as well as monsters that attack by spewing vomit or menstrual blood or shit, all of the “scary” things that the body produces.

Again, clearly what the game speaks to is a child that has become terrified of his own body and the bodies of others, a child who feels that he must “fight” those things. Oh, and I guess he can't help crying in fear, in outrage, and in self loathing while doing so.

In this regard, I find that McMillen's claim that the game expresses ideas that stems from his own experience of Catholicism at once somewhat sensible and at once kind of strange. Of all the forms of American Christianity, Catholicism has a lot to say about the body and especially through the body, so that makes some sense. It is a faith that sees the spiritual world and the physical one as directly connected and that the physical is a direct expression of the spirit (the concept of transubstantiation speaks rather deliberately to this idea, in which, unlike in most Protestant faiths which see Communion as metaphoric, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ). Likewise, violent imagery (like some of the scenes that make up the Stations of the Cross) are frequently on display within Catholic churches, with an eye to retelling important stories of the faith in clear, sometimes shockingly visual ways (the sort of art that is often absent from the often less ornate Protestant churches). Both pietas and crucifixes place the emphasis on a body broken for adherents to the faith, unlike the more abstracted, empty cross of Protestantism.

All of that being said, in a sense Catholicism has frequently been much less terrified of the body (indeed, why should it be if the body is related directly and deliberately to spiritual reality and a means of understanding its realities as the previous examples imply?). Consider the embrace of the physically grotesque as an expression of her own theology in the writings of Flannery O'Connor, for example. McMillen's vision of evil and the body being almost inextricably linked almost feels more like American Puritanism than Catholicism. Perhaps, it is an American Catholicism, though, that binds McMillen's sense of his Catholic experience to shame expressed through the body (or shame in having a body at all), a version of the faith, perhaps, influenced by the other denominations surrounding it in this country. If one were to visit the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, Brazil, one might find that an inherent sense of shame about the body is much less indicative of a Catholic theology than one might think on American shores.

Regardless, though, the irony of the theology that informs The Binding of Isaac and seemingly Isaac's mother (who has also seemingly taught him that the body's natural processes might indicate evil inside himself) is that all of these “terrifying” processes are already inherently purgative, inherently useful. Whether it be vomit or menstrual blood or shit, these are the products of processes that exist within the body to remove things that would not allow the body to continue to function properly. They are maintenance processes that might seem “icky” but are really fundamentally, well, good. To do away with them would be to allow true corruption, a killing corruption, to grow and fester in the body. These things don't make us monsters. Instead, it would be monstrous not to vomit, not to menstruate, or not to shit.

The Binding of Isaac may be less of a conversation with Catholic theology or about the theological interpretation of the story of Abraham than it is one about why we are so terrified to consider (or maybe simply misunderstand) a theology that reflects our own selves, selves that exist both spiritually and bodily.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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