“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and the Pitfalls of Calvinism
On December 28th, Netflix dropped Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror offering: Bandersnatch; an interactive choose-your-own-adventure style film focused on the “choices” of Stefan; a young up-and-coming videogame developer. Depending on how one navigates the film, different events will occur, but with every choice, Stefan runs into obstacles [Spoilers ahead].
How does Stefan navigate these obstacles?
He doesn’t. You do.
In doing so, you, the viewer, are escorted behind the proverbial curtain and given the power to determine Stefan’s fate. Will Stefan kill his father or die alongside his mother? Perhaps neither. With remote in-hand, your decisions are absolute. Like a marionette, Stefan’s life dangles from the tips of your fingers.
As the story progresses, our young developer begins to realize his choices are not his own; at one point acting out in a futile attempt to refuse the path laid before him. All this, and more, raises profound questions concerning free will, and, for me, the problematic nature of Calvinism.
For the unaware, Calvinism is a theological worldview that, among other things, eschews any concept of genuine free will. As one TGC author states, “Nothing will take place today that hasn’t been carefully planned in eternity past by an all-powerful and good Creator.” As I see it, this means, in a very real sense, the obfuscation of reality and the eradication of moral responsibility. In the case of Bandersnatch, it means the agony of dying alongside one’s mother, committing suicide, killing your father, or rotting inside a prison cell—because of choices that, as Stefan explains to his therapist, are guided by “someone else.”
As I progressed through the film, I could not help but sympathize with Stefan’s experience. In one sense, the absence of free will— as depicted in the events of either Stefan or Colin’s suicide— is ironically liberating. Indeed, if our choices are made for us, we are ultimately free from both the reality and responsibility of personal consequence. The effects of global warming, systemic racism, and possessed 1980’s videogame developers are of little importance if our destiny is sealed. As Bandersnatch aptly reminds us, “If your fate has been dictated, why not commit murder?”
Such depictions depart radically from both universal human experience and the biblical narrative.
Society teaches us that our choices matter.
God teaches us that our choices matter.
Implicit in all of God’s wrath and punishment is the idea that the Israelites could choose not to sin. That’s the whole point of the law: follow it and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. The choice is clear and attainable, so one must choose rightly. For example, in Deuteronomy 30:11-20: The Law is “…not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven…it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
Can the voluntarist God of Calvinism be morally good? Perhaps. But by forcing Stefan to make decisions against his will, Bandersnatch allowed me to play the role of Puppeteer, and I never felt anything but sinister.
“Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz. I, for one, could not stand at those gates and preach a version of God’s sovereignty that makes the extermination of six million Jews, including many children, a part of the will and plan of God such that God foreordained and rendered it certain.” – Roger Olson