Futurama and the Gospel

My identity has been uneasily intertwined with the cult TV show “Futurama” ever since my last name became the moniker of the program’s womanizing, alcoholic, kleptomaniac robot.  Needless to say, the popular connotations now associated with “Bender” are not exactly flattering (and they weren’t exactly great to begin with).  Fortunately for me then, the writers of “Futurama” did on occasion flesh out the character of Bender Bending Rodriguez as a credible medium for exploring genuinely profound questions in a manner unusual for television.  One such example is 2002’s “Godfellas,” an episode of otherwise-satiric television that actually takes seriously questions concerning God’s role in the Universe; the episode even going so far as to introduce a deity who, far from a typical sarcastic caricature, is a surprisingly close conception of my own LDS understanding of God.

In “Godfellas,” Bender is accidently launched out a torpedo tube at high speed during a battle with space pirates (“you know, pirates, but in space!”).  Flying at speeds too great for his ship to catch him, Bender appears doomed to drift through the immense loneliness of the cosmos for all eternity, alone and forsaken.  Already this ostensible-comedy has established a tone of existential despair that jokes do not relieve—in fact, they only call all the more attention to his loneliness.  “All humor is gallows humor” wrote Herman Hesse, and this gallows humor is on full display in “Godfellas,” as “Futurama” fully embraces the creeping dread of a futile future underlying their space-age premise.  That sudden, stark, unexpected stare into the abyss is already enough to distinguish “Godfellas” from most television fair.  But what happens next is when things get really interesting.

Bender passes through an asteroid shower, which results in an asteroid populated by microscopic humanoids crashing on his torso, and promptly begin worshipping him as a “Metal Lord.”  Now, already there are some interesting gospel parallels at play here—for example, it is a self-appointed religious leader who first calls upon his people to bow down before their God.  However, when Bender chooses an emissary with which to communicate his will, he picks his own spokesman, in the humble character of Malachi.  Men do not appoint themselves spokesmen of God, but God himself chooses from among the humble his prophets, from Moses to Isaiah to Ezekiel to Joseph Smith to, yes, the Malachi who finishes the Old Testament. “Futurama” appears to at least, for a moment, take seriously the proposition of man’s relationship with deity.  There is certainly inherent satire in constructing Bender of all beings as said deity, but this is religious satire of a variety that takes seriously the subject it lampoons.

Click here to see some highlights from this episode via Comedy Central, but be sure to make it back for the rest of my post. Please.

Now, religious satire is certainly nothing new to “adult” cartoons—The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and even previous episodes of Futurama have all treated religion with varying degrees of irreverence throughout their runs.  Usually religion only serve up easy punch-lines on these shows, and at first “Godfellas” appears to be following a similar trajectory.

For Bender is in character as an utterly irresponsible God that demands alcohol from his worshippers, and generally fails at his every attempt to improve their lot—in turns crushing a town with a coin when they pray for wealth, burning their crops (then their city) when he tries to give them more sunlight, then wrecking terrible wind-storms that launch denizens into space when he tries to blow the wildfire out.  The implicit commentary appears to be that the religious are at best naïve simpletons whose overreliance on a supposed benevolent deity is misplaced and self-destructive.

This implication of faith’s futility is reinforced by the B-story, wherein Fry desperately searches for Bender—when science fails him, he says it’s time “to try something desperate and crazy” and so visits “The First Amalgamated Church.”  Fry asks the Priest-Rabbi-Imam-etc if he can help him, to which the religious leader suggests “Prayer.”  Fry then matter-of-factly asks if there’s something useful he can do, to which the latter replies frankly, “No.”  By mid-point of the episode, one might safely assume that “Futurama” position is that there is no God, that if he exists then he is an incompetent bungler, that in reality the universe is cold, indifferent, and uncaring to our plights, that all of existence is just one cosmic joke at our expense.  Such an interpretation would be entirely consistent with the tone of the entire “Futurama” series.

But then something remarkable happens at the mid-way mark.  By then, Bender appears to have learned his lesson and commands his worshippers to solve their own problems rather than rely on him.  One might then expect Bender’s worshippers to develop beyond him, perhaps try to kill him, or perhaps technologically transcend Bender and benevolently return him to earth.  Such would be a comfortingly atheist vision that would make this episode a favorite among arm-chair humanists.

But “Futurama” undercuts such a simplified vision, when a war breaks out with the “unbelievers” who crashed on Bender’s butt.  Significantly, the “unbelievers” are the ones who actually start the war, not the religious so often associated with the Crusades and Holy Wars.  “Please metal Lord,” pleads Malachi, “smite those who deserve it for a change!”  Here the choice of Malachi as the prophet’s name is most relevant, for it is the Biblical Malachi who makes the similar complaint of: “Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered” (Malachi 3: 14-15).  Like the Biblical Malachi, Bender’s Malachi, even as he expresses his faith, is frustrated that the wicked prosper, that good things happen to bad people and vice-versa.  That is, Malachi’s complaint to Bender is a very ancient one, and is one that acknowledges that religious people, far from being the non-thinking, non-critical simpletons as portrayed by their detractors, are in fact deeply perplexed by the injustice of existence.  The religious think deeply and feel passionately.  Not often does faith receive such a sober portrayal on TV.

But in keeping with the episode’s tone of existential foreboding, Malachi’s complaint falls not on deaf but useless ears.  For because Bender had ceased to be involved in his worshippers’ affairs, they had turned to self-reliance, advancing their science to the point of developing nuclear weapons, which they promptly use. Bender’s intercession may have perhaps made their lives worst, but his withdrawal from their affairs made it worst.

The result is an unmitigated nuclear holocaust, with both sides bombed into oblivion.  Bender cries out despairingly in a line at once comic and tragic: “Who would have thought that playing God could have such horrible consequences!”

Then Bender meets God.

At least, when Bender exclaims to the galaxy-like entity he encounters “Oh my God!  Are you God?” it replies, “Possible. I do feel compassion for all living things, my good chum..” When Bender then asks if perhaps “you’re not God, but the remains of a computerized space probe that collided with God?” it replies, “That seems probable.”  Note how much this exchange is very much a “what-think-ye-of-Christ” sort of proposition: here there are no authoritarian proclamations of divinity, but merely an invitation for each man, woman, and robot to answer for themselves, What is God?  “Futurama” will not answer the question affirmatively or negatively, and neither will God himself.  Neither the devout faithful nor the pious atheist is allowed the easy-out of accepted dogma—one must know God for one’s self.  God will force knowledge of himself on no one, for we must all encounter God for ourselves.

It is a rigid point of LDS doctrine that everyone must “come to a knowledge of these things” and “receive a personal witness,” personal, intimate, and incommunicable, of these things.  Bender, likewise, must encounter God directly, personally, for himself, with no other mediation.  That is, Bender’s religious experience is archetypal in that is so personal and unique.

Bender and God’s conversation soon comes to center on Bender’s own recent failure as a God. “You know, I was God once,” he says, to which God replies, “Yes, I saw. You were doing well until everyone died.”  Bender then expresses his afore detailed frustration with Godhood when he exclaims, “It was awful. I tried helping them. I tried not helping them. But in the end, I couldn’t do them any good.”

God then speaks in terms understandable to Bender, for as The Book of Mormon reads, “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8).  Hence, God explains: “Bender, being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.”  And as Bender adds, “Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!” “Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing,” continues God, still using Bender’s vocabulary, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

The episode’s climax intersects demonstrates this axiom, as the A-story and B-story intersect.  Fry has travelled to the Himalayas, and has taken control of the radio-telescope of an ancient monastic order dedicated to finding God, to instead use it to find Bender.  The monks themselves have been locked by Leela into the laundry.  After 3 days, the monks complain that they’ve eaten their shoes, and are now bored.

Yet just when Fry gives up all hope, God hears Fry, and sends Bender rocketing back to Earth, burn through the atmosphere, and land directly in front of Fry and Leela just outside the Himalayan radio-telescope.  The utterly-miraculous nature Bender’s appearance is emphasized by Leela’s exclamation of, “This is by a wide margin the least likely thing that has ever happened.”  This supreme miracle would seem to directly undercut God’s admonition to always use a “light touch.”

Yet note what happens next: Leela notes that they forgot to let the monks out of the laundry room.  When Fry protests, “Ahhh, do we have to? I’m sure their God will let them out, or at least give them more shoes to eat,”  Bender rejoins with, “Fat chance. You can’t count on God for jack. He pretty much told me so himself. Now come on, if we don’t save those Monks, then no one will.”   And then Bender marches back to the radio-telescope.  Of course, what has just happened here?  The alcoholic, kleptomaniac, utterly selfish and ego-centric Bender the Robot has just learned to selflessly care for the welfare of others, a character-development nothing short of miraculous itself.  This careful shaping of Bender’s character is emphasized by God himself, who in the episode’s final scene, is seen chuckling, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”  Bender didn’t even notice that God had just made him a more altruistic being.

And in fact, the quiet, subtle way God trains us to care for the well-being of others is explicitly taught by our own LDS Prophets; Spencer W. Kimball himself famously said, “God does watch over us and does notice us, but it usually through someone else that he meets our needs.”  God met the needs of these poor monks through Bender.

Note that implicit in God’s instructions to Bender is his desires for Bender to actually one day succeed at Godhood! Of course, at this juncture Bender is far and away the least likely possible candidate for successfully becoming God, but could imagine Bender, following his new trajectory, eventually, eventually, becoming a benevolent deity with a light touch, likewise trying to create Gods of the creatures below him, too.  I’m not sure there’s a more LDS expression of God’s desires for his children in any of our own fiction, and almost makes me wonder how “Futurama” beat us to it.

“Godfellas” remains one of my favorite episodes of “Futurama” for all the above outlined theological implications—in fact, it’s one of the few episodes of any TV program to grant me a glimpse of bona fide religious hope, more than the other schmaltzier (and dryly dogmatic) “Touched By an Angel” type shows out there.  For indeed, if God can credibly start to make something out of this fictional Bender, perhaps he can also do something with me.