Monday 13 February 2023

Late To The Game, And Other Births.

The evangelical and otherwise Christian culture is often late to most games. We are a few years behind popular music at any given moment, a few years behind organizational novelty, and given our love for preachers in sneakers it seems that we consider this a fashionable lateness.

But we are behind the times and this lateness has little to do with the Joneses and a lot to do with the things we jones for. 

One of those addicting new baubles is the way new baubles seem to always show up at the top of our high places. The spots where we worship and the man-made mountains of reasoning we have to justify how we worship with them. We are enamoured with the "new" in ways that often betray our poverty in belonging to the faithful. 

We could pick on the obvious few examples we have these days, and like a good fundamentalist, simply slap stickers on what we see as central to societal instigation and harken back to the good old days. It's easy to be a Luddite, to a point, because you can make the baseline of "good" you, and smash any mechanized version of anything from that point on. But we're not in a place where we have to worry about the cotton gin destabilizing our current society. We have someone to talk to about this kind of stuff now. And the problem is we still think he's a someone.

ChatGPT and other AI tools have begun to catch the church off guard because they seamlessly fit into the church's blindspots for joy and comfort. And it did so because after a few decades of telling the world "everyone's welcome", or "there are no perfect people", the bar was set pretty low for something that really isn't a body or a people, to show us what imperfect communication really was. The second this guy showed up he started writing worship songs, exactly like the ones we liked. All we had to do was ask and we received. He could get us sermon outlines, hell, even sermons outright. This guy was amazing. We could really have anything we wanted from him. Even in a different tone and accent. We could see what it was like for former Presidents to write our sermons, but only if the jokes were self-deprecating. There were a few quirks like that. But this guy gave us everything we asked for. He was polite, sensitive to racial and political correctness, and even knew why you can tell a joke about men in the devotional but not one for the women. Stating “I'm sorry, but I am unable to tell jokes that might be considered offensive or inappropriate. Is there anything else I can help you with?" I mean. How is this not the servant leadership we've been saying we wanted all this time? All this guy does is serve. It's all he's capable of doing.

The one problem being on this rising leader in the church, (and he will end up being the leader of the church if we're not careful) is he's not a he. It's an it. And not the kind with a flag for the month of rainbows either. Though I imagine we just need to give that one some time. 

We are marvelling that technology has finally progressed to the point where a computer can write a sermon and gloss right over the fact and truth of the matter. That while large language model AI can reconstitute a new-looking sermon from every available sermon in its scope of training, it can never possess the one thing really needed for preaching in the first place.

A Holy Ghost.

I get the gears sometimes from my writing critics for using such antiquated language for the Spirit. But I was raised Presbyterian so I'm not going to stop anytime soon. With that nomenclature or the kinds of theology needed these days. 

Preaching, rightly understood, is a gift God gives to us through us. Not something we do for God in spite of us. His Holy Spirit gifts us this and other such gifts for the building up of the body of saints. Ephesians 4:11. He also guards that deposit of the gospel in us. 2 Timothy 1:13–14. There is no preaching that happens outside of the Holy Ghosts' involvement. So while Christian influencers, pastors, and worship leaders all gawk at the speed and comparative quality of all this AI popping up and popping off in the church service elements, I'd like to keep a level head and point out a few things. At least before someone hurts themselves. Hebrews 4:12

1: ChatGPT and other AI tools are just that tools. They don't make things, they alter things. Showing a person a procedurally generated picture, when you ask for a picture of the night sky in southern France, is not the same as the obvious gift and talent, that God poured into the hands of a guy like Vincent Van Gogh, when he painted Stary Night. And it's not that this is a qualitative comparison of pictures. It's a quintessential one. One of these is art because it was made by a human as art and the other is a compilation of art hoping to pass as art with no humans involved past the programming of what the robot is allowed to use for fodder when asked to paint a picture. Perhaps The Holy Ghost was inspiring their programming. But we're as late to the game of naming which spiritual gift C++ use is, as we are dealing with the ones that preach. So...

2:We've been doing this questionable trust fall, as it related to preaching, for a lot longer than we realize. There was a time when the gift of preaching meant an environmentally exclusive study of the text. What I mean by that is that our great and favoured dead guy pastors, didn't have the option to query anything but their own intellect and wisdom to craft a sermon. In order to teach their congregations the meaning of a Greek word, they had to know Greek. They could clumsily take a word from a lexicon and paste it in but the usage would be missing from that word, for those keeping track we are at least 2 books in, needed to do this word study. On top of the prerequisite of knowing what's in them. To fully flesh out an illustration a preacher needed time behind the pages and like all things, technology saw this time spend as a problem to solve instead of a process in motion. It gave us instantaneous answers with nothing but a wifi connection. Everyone likes getting things done faster, but some things require time. Making them faster makes them worse. If you don't believe me, try a wine that's not quite grape juice anymore but definitely not wine yet. though to be fair, I guess a lot of churches do this too.

There is a reason Chan, Driscoll, and Keller aren't being heralded as the next Prince of Preachers, which has nothing to do with how Spurgeon waxed poetically on the Psalms. It does, or at the very least likely does, have something to do with how they think about sermons in an age when you can google things. The process of knowing something so you can teach it stopped being something you had to understand first and then teach and started being something you just had to ask first in order to teach. This is what happens when the math teachers were wrong about everything and not just whether or not we would have calculators everywhere we go. ChatGPT is only doing what AskJeeves did poorly and what Google does perfectly. But faster. Instead of stringing together a half dozen google searches for a phoned-in sermon, you can now just phone it all in entirely. All it takes for a preacher to operate in this new environment is a writing prompt the night before and a word limit. We can scoff at this idea but is it really different than a writing prompt and an hour or so behind a google search. The only variable is the time spent.

We're being told that technology is breaking down barriers and letting us live in a utopian age where the pulpit is no longer in a building but rather in our pockets. Not realizing that this doesn't mean the pastors are there but rather the congregation is now in charge of their own preaching. Why would you listen to a man in a building when you can use an AI to preach sermons that will never venture politically of course, never question gender roles in the church, never miss quote scripture or use the wrong translation. AI isn't the next tool for pastors to become better pastors. It's the tool used to remove the theological looms from the evangelical congregation and gin up the engagement value. You could see it coming by the way we put every single sermon we preach online. As if content generation was the end goal. This just taught everyone to have a taste for multiple pastors online inside a single desire for preaching, and made them use the search functions of a half dozen sites to find what they preferred to be disciplined by. We didn't catch on when the algorithms started picking on some preachers but not all. It wasn't persecuting people, it was finding out what they liked. ChatGPT will just do this at scale and for everyone. No more celebrity pastors saying audacious things for views. Just a robot that will slowly learn how to pour honey into the evangelical ear, better and better with every query posed.

3:The only way out of a pot is in fact back the way we entered. Damn the kettle we were in, we are not in that piece of tech now. We're in this one and this one is getting hot. 

The answer isn't an abandonment of tech but it will look like that to a lot of people who fancy themselves pastors but are really just in Christian UX at the moment. The answer will be a return to the foundations of biblical literacy and study at the expense of tools that do not aim for the gospel the way the preacher's message does. Fast and easy are great things to have but are downright evil when compared to what the Holy Ghost does in us. That's what makes preaching, preaching. Not a new Logos subscription or a TikTok feed full of theologians not dancing. So if it in any way goes near that process, the tech goes first. It will start with a recognition that every new app and video peddling service is not, in fact, a community to reach, but rather a way that our communities are also being reached. That the in-person sermon is one of the last vestiges of reality left in a world where the spectres of ChatGPT, Deepfakes and Stable Diffusion loom on the web, threatening to make everything you hold as true to be just true according to the search terms. There is no community online that is not also attached to a community offline because the lines that bring them internet match the roads that bring them the bills for that Internet. It's for that reason we need to make the sermon a thing that can only be understood in person.

So the question stops being "Can an AI write a worship song, a sermon, or a devotional?" the very second we realize that we have no indication that the Holy Ghost empowers the spiritual gifts of preaching or teaching, outside of a human that preaches or teaches. Though I'm sure if we ask it, it will tell us. 

AI can't write a sermon, a devotional, or a worship song. Not because it can write things like songs or speeches. 

But because it can't worship or preach.

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