Most Americans believe in heaven. Whether it’s a paradise above the clouds or a mystical cycle of rebirth, many faiths teach us death is not the final answer for living a life that matters.
But what if in 13 scant years from now, you will be able to buy an idyllic afterlife, where there are maple bacon donuts for breakfast, wonderland views from your resort balcony and your own personal angel?
It is, however, an eternity for which you will pay for eternally. And if the money runs out — well, you’ll see for yourself.
This is the world according to “Upload,” Amazon Prime’s popular new series that already has been renewed for a second season. Created by Emmy-winning writer Greg Daniels, whose credits include “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” its 10 episodes imagine a future that is at once fascinating and alarming. Part comedy, part romance and part murder mystery, “Upload” also is a siren call of where we may be heading if we continue down this road where currency is king.
The main character is a 27-year-old programmer named Nathan, with male-model good looks and a self-involved, wealthy girlfriend named Ingrid. Critically wounded after his self-driving car slams into the back of a truck, Nathan remains alive long enough for Ingrid to persuade him to be uploaded — on her dime — to a digital afterlife called Lakeview. “You could just old-fashioned die or we could be together (eventually) forever,” she pleads.
After his consciousness gets uploaded, Nathan is awakened by the voice of his angel, whose real name is Nora and is a customer service representative for Horizen, which runs Lakeview.
In this afterlife, Nathan can video chat with folks back in the real world and get virtual visits from his increasingly irritating girlfriend and his increasingly attractive angel. There’s also a mounting mystery over his death. Was he murdered by the multi-billion-dollar afterlife industry because he was working on an app to make it all free?
“It’s a very interesting show,” said Christopher Carter, an assistant professor in theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, after watching a couple of episodes.
What about its theology?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s bad theology,” said Carter, who also serves as assistant pastor at Pacific Beach United Methodist Church. “I think at its core, it wrestles with the questions that human beings have wrestled with since the beginning of time. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alive? Is the life we are consciously aware that we are leading, is this all that we have? Does anything come next?”
Wisdom from the help
You won’t see many people of color residing in the exclusive environs of Lakeview, at least not this season. There is, however, plenty of diversity in the world of Nora the angel. She commutes to work on crowded buses and subways (no self-driving car for her) and lives in a cramped studio apartment with twin beds, a roommate and a shower with almost-warm water. It’s a bleak world, especially compared to the one she serves.
Carter, the USD theologian, who is finishing a book about food and African-American Christianity, took note that both Nathan’s angel and his therapist in Lakeview are black people, who appear to draw from their own experiences as they dispense “tidbits of moral wisdom.”
When forlorn Nathan complains about how his new situation isn’t fair, the counselor suggests that since Nathan had a privileged background, he’s never had to struggle with the concept of inequity. Regular life isn’t fair, he tells Nathan, so why should digital life extension be any different?
Carter liked that exchange. “I do think they really confronted the idea of what a constructed heaven would look like, versus what we think heaven might be,” Carter said. “It’s impossible to make it fair when it’s constructed within a capitalized framework.”
In real life, capitalism has created huge gaps of inequity. The poverty rate for Native Americans is 25 percent. For blacks, it’s 21 percent. For Hispanics, it’s 18 percent. Whites and Asians are tied at 10 percent, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Even among college-educated workers, whites continue to make substantially more money. In 2016, the median wage for white workers with a bachelor’s degree was $75,000, compared to $65,000 for blacks and Hispanics, according to a Georgetown University study. Its summary was blunt: “White workers are more likely than black or Latino workers to have a good job at every level of educational attainment.”
And consider this: The richest 10 percent of Americans account for 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. That’s good news for the afterlife business in 2033; not so for the rest of us.
Despite Madonna’s recent bathtub declaration that COVID-19 is “the great equalizer,” the facts prove otherwise.
African-Americans are dying from COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of other races, according to data compiled by the American Public Media Research Lab. In our region, this newspaper reported that while Latinos make up about 35 percent of our local population, they constitute 58 percent of the positive COVID-19 cases.
“This pandemic holds a mirror up to our society to show how, on the whole, Americans of different races live largely different lives,” said Andi Egbert, a senior research associate at the Minnesota-based Research Lab. “For populations of color, there is uneven access to COVID testing and health care more broadly, with higher rates of uninsurance and underinsurance and less access to sick days.”
Carter, meanwhile, is paying particular attention to the “reopen America” protests in Michigan, which is where he is from.
“They aren’t really saying, ‘I need to get back to work,’ ” he said. “Most of the people who are there have ways of working at home or are financially sound. They want others to go back to work so they can do the things they want to do. There seems to be little to no concern for the health and well-being of those workers, who are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to the racial and class status of most of the people who occupy these types of jobs.”
Church or a bowling alley?
Polls show the number of people active in an organized religion is on the decline. Increasingly, people say they are spiritual, not religious. Perhaps it’s not surprising there isn’t much talk of God in the futuristic “Upload.”
In Nathan’s introduction to Lakeview, Nora tells him the house of worship can be turned into a church, a temple, a mosque or even a bowling alley. Nathan chose bowling alley.
Nora’s father, who is dying from “vape lung,” appears to be the lone openly religious figure. Nora wants to get a loan to pay for him to be uploaded. He refuses.
“Mom’s waiting for me,” he tells her over a 3D-printed dinner.
“Oh, come on, you don’t believe that old stuff,” Nora responds.
“It doesn’t make sense, but it’s how I feel,” he says. “How can heaven not have your mother in it?”
Carter liked that exchange, too.
“I think they do a good job of juxtaposing the secular notion of how we might imagine the end to be with the Christian idea of what happens when we die.”
But there’s that pesky question of a heaven coming with a price tag — especially for faiths that teach we are created in the image of God and, in Carter’s words, “you have particular value and that value makes other people no better than you or no worse than you.”
And salvation, he added, “requires you to give of yourself. Not just of your money — but to really humble yourself in a way that prevents you from exploiting people.”
In that sense, “Upload” may be a balm for wealthy people freaked out about not making it past St. Peter and the pearly gates.
Consider David Choak, Nathan’s billionaire neighbor in Lakeview (and a thinly veiled reference to the wealthy Koch brothers). Choak has a chilling theology to impart: “As my father said, ‘Heaven showers its bounty on the prosperous. And the wealthy are the most worthy of his grace’.”
Heaven help us.
Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and former president of the Religion News Association, where she remains a judge for its annual contest. She is feeling rather old as she remembers Little Richard, who died this month, and the profile she did of him nearly four decades ago, when he was transitioning from his ministry to rejoin the world of rock ‘n’ roll.