A ‘Portal’ to Truth

Sometimes identically-qualified people studying the same topics and come up with wildly divergent conclusions.

Take astronomy, for example.

The Scriptures teach us that the heavens declare the glory of God. But the atheist astronomer would have you believe that the cosmos declares nothing more than the existence of certain matter — light waves, metals, minerals, gases, etc.

In this light, it is a dreadful understatement to say that our faith informs our worldview. Really, it should inform our entire universe.

My universe includes a lot of pop culture, including a fair number of video games. And of all the games I’ve played in the last year, none of them have captured my attention or garnered as much critical acclaim as Valve Software’s Portal 2.

A different kind of video game

The Portal series is unlike any other title on the market. It stands out for several reasons — because it’s almost completely nonviolent, it’s got a witty, snarky tone to it, and rather than bludgeoning the senses with nonstop violence, it engages the mind with clever problem solving. The primary game mechanic involves a gun, yes, but rather than shooting bullets, it shoots portals that help the user travel from one space into another.

And unlike the original Portal, which was a sideshow bonus added to a larger game, Portal 2 is a full-featured title with an impressive single-player campaign that takes you through a story of hope, betrayal, and redemption — pretty impressive, considering almost all of the key characters are computers.

And, by the way, it’s also really, really funny.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not a video game enthusiast, you might be wondering — why should I care?

Well, on a basic level, it’s a basic tenet of healthy mental stewardship that we use our God-given intellect to evaluate the pop culture landscape around us. Even if you’re not interested in buying video games for a loved one, it’s not a stretch to say that TV and film have become the literature our day, and by extension, video games are occupying much of the same cultural space as films were decades ago.

Simply put, it’s good to know what’s out there, what people are talking about.

But more importantly, we must learn to appreciate good art in all of its forms, because any piece of art that is truly creative and innovative is in some way reflecting a portion of the character of God. Not just because he created the people who created the art, but more essentially because all good art flows from God as a source. Everything good and perfect comes from Him. Therefore, it opens up our appreciation toward and understanding of God’s character when we see His signature on man-made creations, even ones by those who do not profess to know God.

So enough of the philosophy lesson.

Here are three important lessons that every Christian can learn by playing through Portal 2.

[SPOILER ALERT – If you don’t want to know any plot details of the game’s story, STOP HERE and skip to the end.]

1. We Bear the Image of a Creative God When We Create Things in Our Own Image. In Portal 2, we learn that GLaDOS, the controlling, manipulative computer life form, was created in the image of an Aperture Science employee named Caroline, assistant to founder Cave Johnson. This truth comes out in a delightful set of scenes where GLaDOS the computer hears recordings of Caroline’s voice and recognizes it as her own. For the viewer/player, it’s a moment of bemused poignancy.

These scenes illustrate the ultimate truth that all of us are made in the image of God, and that just as GLaDOS finds a greater sense of purpose and perspective with this, so can we as Christians find a greater sense of purpose and perspective in the midst of our day-to-day trials.

These trials don’t usually involve killer robots and volatile chemical reactions, but still … it’s true nonetheless.

And many times, these creative expressions have incredible meaning, even when they appear not to.

(Even when the creative expression is self-referential and derivative, like a TV show about two guys having dinner while not talking about one guy’s favorite movie while reenacting another of his favorite movies about two guys having dinner. Even something as crazy and recursive as that.)

2. Immortality Through Technology Is a Futile Mission. As the game progresses, we learn from a series of audio recordings scattered through the old Aperture Science facilities, that Cave Johnson, Aperture’s lovable, reckless dolt of a leader (voiced by J.K. Simmons), died prematurely from prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the end was near, and not wanting his company to lose the collective knowledge and wisdom amassed during his tenure, Johnson instructed his computer engineers to create a form of artificial intelligence drawn from the brain of his most trusted assistant, Caroline.

Yet, at the close of the game, after GLaDOS comes to realize that a part of her file architecture contains something approximating a conscience (the part she inherited from Caroline), she promptly deletes it. Which means that, in one sense, all of Johnson’s work was for naught.

The Bible is full of stories about people trying to either gain immortality or stave off the inevitable, and it never works. (See: Jonah, or The Tower of Babel.) And you see strains of this idea all of pop culture in general (especially films like Inception), and the message is often the same. Technology might be able to enhance life in certain ways, but it can never replace it wholesale. All attempts to prove otherwise amount to chasing after the wind.

3. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. One of the most interesting plot reversals happens when the sentient personality sphere known as Wheatley (voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant) conspires to supplant GLaDOS as the prime directive over the Aperture Labs testing facility. After taking over, we see the effects of so much power going to his head, so to speak. Wheatley becomes just as much of an insufferable tyrant as GLaDOS had been prior.

This is a principle we also see from the Scripture, that is echoed across the film and pop culture spectrum. King Saul hunts down young David, yet when David takes the throne, he eventually has another man killed to take his wife. The younger protégé became the ruthless opportunist, just like Michael Corleone upended his older brother Fredo in The Godfather, or little Cindy turned the tables on Riley in “The Fundraiser” episode of The Boondocks.

The principle is simple. All of us have evil in our hearts. None of us are truly righteous. So if given the power and opportunity to do wrong, all of us have the capacity to go there, and the only thing that is stopping us is the grace and power of God in our lives.

Which, really, is the whole point.


Learn to make the leap

If I were raising an adolescent or a teenager, I would definitely want them to be able to understand the pop culture that they consume, but also to see the connections to biblical truths, and make the final connection back to their need for Christ.

It would be my hope that in their private moments, they would recognize God at work in their lives, and that they would be able to see and appreciate how God can use their favorite movies or video games or songs to woo them toward Himself, as He does for all of us. And I would hope they would respond to His call, and take the courageous leap of faith toward the thing He is calling them to do.

Mostly, I would want them to trust the Holy Spirit more than any ratings system, because only He can help us to move from where we are to where He wants us to be.

And He doesn’t need a portal gun to make it happen.

(Which is good, because those things are kinda dangerous.)