A quick note: Altered Carbon is a show with real theological insight, but the road to those insights is marked by lots of nudity and violence. It’s as bad or even worse than Game of Thrones or Westworld. Even though a hard-R rating applies, the sex and violence is a part of the show’s Flannery O’Connor style commentary on the misplaced desire to escape the body. St. Paul’s admonition not to cause fellow Christians to falter in their faith is one easily parodied and misapplied, but in this instance, it’s worth taking seriously. Also, this write up is spoiler free.

In Altered Carbon’s dystopian distant future, humanity has achieved the gnostic dream of separating body from spirit. An alien technology allowed the human consciousness to be transferred into to a futuristic thumb drive, which could be implanted into any body at any time. It’s a thrilling foundation for a sci fi series to build its dystopia, exploring a future in which the body has lost most or all of its sacred value.

The show’s anti-hero is ex-revolutionary Takeshi Kovacs, whose consciousness (stored in the futuristic thumb drive called a cortical stack, or just ‘stack’ for short) is mysteriously released from for 250 years of prison. Now in a new “sleeve”, the futuristic shorthand for “body”, he’s been paroled and indentured to the functionally immortal oligarch Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft was recently killed, but unbeknownst to the murderer, Bancroft’s stack is regularly backed up via a satellite link in case of death. That backup happened 10 minutes before the murder, and so despite Bancroft’s death and subsequent reboot, he has no memory of his own demise. This murder mystery kicks off a film noir detective story, a framing device that lets viewers imagine a future world defined by the immortality of the soul and the demotion of the body from core identity to mere tool.

It’s the dream of the ancient gnostics, who were foils of early Christianity. Gnostics were down with the whole good and evil, light and dark language of the early Christian faith, but they didn’t care for its high regard of bodies. The end goal of gnostic spirituality was to transcend the body, not to dwell in it. Many scholars suggest it’s why St. John had to articulate that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” an affirmation that Jesus wasn’t just a God hologram. It’s partially the context of why St. Paul has to articulate that resurrection happens to a literal, physical, actual body. Ancient gnostic expressions of religion would have much rather Jesus shed his mortal coil than be raised with it.

Lest we think gnosticism is a product of the ancient world, the alarm bells have been ringing for some time about technology and the “disembodiment” of our own time. Whether it’s the online dating scene, social media, online gaming, pornography, skype—human interaction that used to be constrained to body proximity is now mediated through electronic stimuli. Good sci-fi dystopian entertainment builds on our anxieties about the future, and Altered Carbon’s expansion of our disembodiment takes plenty of imaginative, dark turns. Because bodies can be easily replaced without death, violent prostitution and aggression toward women becomes normative. Consciousnesses can be tortured for days and years in virtual reality simulations. Husbands and wives earn a living as zero gravity knife fight combatants, with the winner receiving a new body and a paycheck. Deceased relatives can be “spun up” again, sometimes against their will, for family holidays or to testify in court. Violence and disregard to bodies is a hallmark of the show, as its characters are maimed, tortured, stabbed, beaten, and shot, though they don’t actually die very often. It’s a show designed to make us anxious about our own levels of disembodiment.

It makes it worth asking why so many of us, past, present, and sci fi future, loathe the embodiment of life. Alongside the aforementioned pornography and Tinder, there’s also bulimia and anorexia, cutting and self immolation. In Japan, there’s a whole class of lost youth who solely inhabit a disembodied life. It’s related to tattoos, the purposeful scarring of the body so that it communicates more accurately the soul’s passions and obsessions. Include here too those with a total disregard for hygiene, or those who reject their body’s signs of illness and neglect to go see a doctor. Even St. Paul expresses his desire to “strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” so that it can be better prepared for his itinerant Gospel preaching. The body is a foil for us all, a biological limiter of our aspirations, a needy anchor that must sleep and be fed.

In a recent weekender, we featured part of an Ash Wednesday article over at First Things titled Lenten Fast Biohacks. The article compares Silicon Valley style fasting with the fasting of Lent, and it gets at the heart of our corporal discouragement:

For these engineers and CEO types, the human body is just another industry to disrupt. Whether completely abstaining from food on weekends (the “5:2 plan”), or restricting a day’s calories to an 8-hour window (the “16:8 fast”), or tracking ketone levels in their blood (while sipping raw water and mushroom coffee, probably), these faithful fasters strive to embrace the ethics of warriors or monks. But unlike the fasting of religious asceticism, the fasting preferred by biohacking tycoons is directed at results—results meant to offer an advantage in a highly competitive global market.

If only control over our bodies were that easy! And yet, it’s that lack of control that ultimately drives so much of disembodiment. If the Silicon Valley types are fasting to kickstart creative brainstorming or increase labor productivity, it’s of a similar category to the bulimic looking for the perfect body type or the tattoo inspired by the death of a relative. It’s about controlling the thing which limits us.

The Christian view that God would somehow take upon himself the form of a human, with its sweat and blood and digestion and toenails, is in some sense double damning for our gnostic times. It suggests that being a human is inextricably linked to having limits in the form of embodiment, and that escaping the body won’t lead to a good life. Back to the First Things article:

For the Christian, the frustrations and failures of having a human body are not a limitation to overcome, but a gift to receive. Fasting is about accepting that true life is not found grasping at success, as if the world existed solely for our satisfaction. The only return on the investment of fasting is the humility that comes with nearness to God. And yet this modest profit eclipses whatever advantage the Valley purports to offer, because through it, we acknowledge that we were designed with limits in mind. Our bodies aren’t built to be conquered, but to abide in the world that God made.

Altered Carbon’s sci-fi dystopia is a prophetic word that the gnostic dream won’t fundamentally solve the problem of human control. The scariest part of the show is that gnostic spirituality and the continued push for disembodiment may make the problem of human control even worse. As the old saying goes “That which is not assumed has not been saved.” It’s the great argument of St. Athanasius Gregory of Nazianzus, who fought tooth and nail to argue that Jesus wasn’t just a sleeve housing God’s cortical stack. God’s interest in saving is comprehensive, from cancer and plantar warts to tooth cavities and IBS. Discovering that Jesus kept his scars after his resurrection, we might reconsider the dream of transcending our limited bodies. If Altered Carbon is right, the spirit will not rescued by its disembodiment, there is no hope there. But there may be hope for those who assume their bodies will one day be redeemed as well.