Does Bojack Horseman Need Religion?

Last summer, I introduced my wife to Bojack Horseman.

If you’re not familiar, it’s a Netflix comedy about a washed-up sitcom star who, yes, happens to be a horse. He and his friends—some animal, some human—live in an alternate version of Los Angeles, dubbed Hollywoo after the iconic sign loses its D. The show follows their attempts to find meaning and success, combining hilarious misadventures with deathly serious explorations of issues like depression and addiction. In short, it’s phenomenal.

I wasn’t sure she’d enjoy it, however. The stories she favors tend to feature noble, goodhearted characters who face off against evil, external forces—the polar opposite of BojackBojack‘s characters are destructive, crass, and unhappy. The conflict comes primarily through their own mistakes and shortcomings, most of which involving inflicting hurt on those around them. At times, it can be a little painful to watch.

But something about it clicked with her. She enjoys how the show attempts to tackle big topics, like gender politics and the media. And despite their bad behavior, I can tell she still roots for the characters. At the end of the most recent season, she clenched her fists and pleaded, “Please end happy!” Plus, the show leads to some interesting conversations between us every now and then.

One such conversation came early in the show’s run. The first season focuses on Bojack’s attempts to make his way back into the limelight, all the while pushing away everyone around him. I don’t remember when she said it—probably during one of Bojack’s benders—but my wife said something that made me flinch a little.

“Bojack needs Jesus.”

It may have just been a joke at first—something akin to, “This guy needs help.” But I reacted strongly against it. I tried to imagine Bojack finding a church and trying to become “religious.” In every scenario, it looked like disaster. After all, each of his attempts to fill a hole in his life has only led to greater despair. Why would Christianity be any different?

To provide some context: my wife and I both grew up evangelical, so the idea that Jesus is the answer to every problem was not foreign to me. As I’ve grown older, however, this idea has evolved and shifted in a myriad of ways. At the time, I had a clear notion of what that was supposed to mean. And given that notion, I disagreed heavily.

My problem was not with Jesus himself. My problem was with a certain view of him, the idea that accepting Jesus means everything in your life will fall into place—a Joel Osteen-inspired, prosperity gospel view that trusting God will automatically lead to blessing. The type that leads the 700 Club to craft a fraudulent view of God, one that only features testimonies where God heals and delivers, and none where God remains silent.

I still think this view of God is harmful. But as I’ve moved farther away from it and grown deeper in my own beliefs, I’ve been able to reevaluate my wife’s statement. I think she’s right, although in a completely different way than I might have thought a year ago.

There’s an Irish writer named Peter Rollins, whose podcast I listen to on occasion. He does a great job of tying together philosophy and religion in a way that is pretty unique. You’re just as likely to hear him cite Freud or Nietzsche as Jesus or the Apostle Paul. As such, his views come across as heavily grounded in intellectual reasoning.

Naturally, I began thinking of ways I might apply these views to an animated TV show about a talking horse.

In one podcast episode, called “The Art of Wanting Want,” Rollins discusses Lacan’s idea of an object versus an object cause of desire. The object is the thing we want—in Bojack’s case, fame, or a person who accepts him for who he is. The object cause, on the other hand, is the thing that gets in the way. It’s the fear of failure and intimacy that causes Bojack to sabotage his career and relationships.

Unlike the aforementioned view of God, Rollins does not find God in the object—in the fantasy of wholeness or completion that will fix everything and make your life better. Rather, he says, “Christianity is the existential experience of finding the meaning of life in the lack of meaning. Of finding the meaning of life in the struggle of life itself. Of finding a certain knowing in the unknowing. A certain satisfaction in dissatisfaction. A certain security in mystery.”

He uses the example of Saul on the road to Damascus. For Saul, the obstruction to God was the Christians, the people who were distorting the “true religion” of his day. Yet it was in this very obstruction to God that he found God himself. In Christianity, Rollins argues, one finds true life by freeing themselves of a sacred object lying in the future that promises completeness, and instead embraces the death-in-life exemplified through Christ.

Think of a scientist, someone who is always looking for solutions to problems. Do they find the enjoyment in the answer, or in working to overcome those problems? The worst thing, according to Rollins, would be for a scientist to discover a theory of everything that explains it all for them. The satisfaction, for them, comes through the very struggle itself.

For the most part, Bojack seems aware that the object he’s chasing is empty. He sees the pot at the end of the rainbow—fame, people, success—and knows that ultimately those things will fade away. So he tries to distract himself. He thrusts himself into anything that will drown out his pain and depression. What he fails to see is the meaning in working to build deeper relationships or trying to create something of note.

The life comes not through achieving those things, but through the process of trying and failing and dusting yourself off and trying again. It’s a Sisyphean task, but it doesn’t need to be a source of despair. In fact, Rollins would say, it can be the deepest source of joy available.

Such is the way of Christ, the way I’ve come to understand it since the conversation with my wife over a year ago. Like Bojack, we all mistake where the pleasure is. We all have an innate desire for something, but we all too often misdirect that desire towards a fantasy or ideal that can’t be reached. We focus on the thing that we think will make our lives perfect, rather than the messy, beautiful process of of becoming who we are.

Bojack is blessed. He’s the walking definition of the poor in spirit. But keeps trying to move himself to the opposite side of the spectrum, rather than find the blessing exactly where he is. I don’t know what his story looks like in the end, but I hope he finds it.

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