BibleBots: The Electromechanical Ordinance of Proselytization
by Martin Swing-Lee
We needn't delve too far into history to see the vestiges of the Reformation playing themselves out in truly violent ways. Eve Tribble, writing in "Colonization and the Revolutionary Corpus" reminds us "throughout colonial New England, it was legal to flog a heretic with a cat o' nine tails, and/or sticks, twigs, and hoe-handles if thumb-sized or smaller up to but not including actual death" (992). It was the expectation of good Anglicans to throw Quakers into the stocks, and it was expected of Quakers to take it (Tribble 980).
Arguably, the balkanization of religion following the appearance of Luther's famous theses was really just the revelation of existing enmities. Freed, finally, from the tyranny of The Church, Lutherans were now able to take it out on Anabaptists, and Puritans on the Powers that Be.
The New World, with its vast spaces and, eventually, constitutionally-protected religious practice, in essence acted as a sort of blow-off valve for the religion-based violence the Reformation unleashed.
Fast-forward a few centuries and we find religious wars reformulated into several, less violent, manifestations: proselytizing via various means such as television, the Internet, and door-to-door; politics and lawmaking; and the culture wars writ large. Battle lines could be drawn, but their complexity is beyond the scope of this essay.
Enter BibleBots, the new show on The God Network, a network which bills itself as a "non-denominational network of independently-produced Christian programming for a post-cable age" ("TGN – About"). The premise of BibleBots is simple: robots created or commissioned by various Christian denominations fight it out for supremacy in a cathedral-like arena. Their means are as varied as the theologies they represent. The Jehova's Witness bot, for example, is hyper-aggressive, very nattily designed, and attempts to defeat its rivals by by drowning them in copies of The Watchtower.
The Southern Baptist bot uses a sonic "thump" on a large, Bible-shaped air-cannon in order to overwhelm its opponents. The Pentacostal bot is, perhaps, one of the more charismatic of machines, all clean and modern lines and accommodating corners, but also equipped with a super hard titanium ram with which to batter all dissent. Inside, there is a secret compartment filled with snakes.
Genuinely non-denominational bots occasionally appear, generally attempting to conquer their enemies by swallowing them up into huge internal containers. The Mormon and Catholic entries, ironically, use similar strategies. Both are massive, gold-encrusted, and attempt to immobilize the opposition via deploying millions of self-propagating minibots. When pressed too close, the Catholic bot burns its enemies at the stake.
The Methodist entry appeared to try to defeat its rivals through grace alone, and fell early in the first season, and the Presbyterian bot seemed predestined to be destroyed; it also only lasted a few minutes of the first show. Any connexion between the fate of these two “mainstream” BibleBots and current trends in church attendance have been claimed to be purely coincidental, but the trend was set for the rest of the season.
The last few episodes of the first season of BibleBots even saw a few pacifist competitors. The Quaker bot, all plain rivets and black paint, held fast and refused to attack. When in the throes of spiritual combat, it was seen to visibly vibrate. The Mennonite entry was even more plainly styled, and its attempts at survival seemed to revolve around just being kicked around while trying to help other bots out.
The advent of BibleBots on TGN represents something of a shift in religious thinking, one that has actually been underway for quite some time. Rather than simply holding to tradition, American churches are now fully embracing the realities of a population more geared toward brash entertainment than deep, inner reflection. Traditionalists may scoff, but, let's face it, most traditionalists are dead. The Founding Fathers' greatest innovation was realizing that democracy relies upon a robust trade in "the marketplace of ideas." This opens up the opportunity for religious sects and faith communities to finally cut the affectations of doctrine and scriptural ideas and begin competing in the only realm that really matters: popular appeal.
The business of saving souls, like the business of battling bots, is merciless and rough; we can harp on the promises of an afterlife all we'd like and placate our denominational intellectuals with the finer points of theology, but what really matters are butts in pews and open wallets: the ability to sustain the denominational enterprise.
As BibleBots makes clear, we're all worshiping the same God, and His main manifestation is the bottom line.
BibleBots. The God Network. Roku. Season 1 (2014). Streaming video.
"TGN—About." The God Network, Holiness Hotlinked. The God Network, 10 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Tribble, Eve. "Colonization and the Revolutionary Corpus." History Inebriated. 4.4 (2011): 979-1004. Print.