Life, Art, and Chatbots

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Do we watch ten installments of the Fast and Furious franchise because it’s what we want, or do we keep showing up because that’s what “they” are feeding us? I’m not sure humanity will ever come to any real consensus on the conundrum–maybe that’s not the point. Maybe it’s really the conversation that gives the question value.

This week the art/life riddle came to mind as I read an article about chatbots. A chatbot is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to understand and respond to questions in a startlingly human manner. The older I get, the less equipped I feel to grasp the latest technological wonders so I haven’t paid much attention to the phenomenon–until I happened upon an article about chatbots writing sermons. 

As it turns out, many pastors, preachers and rabbis have been closely following–and even using–chatbot technology. Todd Brewer, a New Testament scholar, asked a chatbot to write him a Christmas sermon, “based upon Luke’s birth narrative, with quotations from Karl Barth, Martin Luther, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Barack Obama.” He was surprised to find the bot spit out a sermon that was better than many he had heard and preached before!

We have yet to perfect driverless cars and now I have to worry about preacherless pulpits? I suppose we could perceive technology like this as a potential threat to the faith, if not an outright, conspiratorial attack. Are people going to start looking to computers for guidance in their spiritual growth? Are lazy pastors going to let bots write their sermons? Is a soulless machine trying to usurp God’s call and Spirit? It’s possible, I suppose, but I’m not convinced it’s something Christians need to be afraid of. 

What if Google’s “Bard” and Microsoft’s “ChatGPT” are not coming for our preachers so much as simply reflecting what preaching has already become? We are, after all, talking about artificial intelligence–software that can only search for topics, existing material and key words to reassemble them in the form of human-like language.

As I observe the landscape of American Christian culture, sometimes I am alarmed by how often we treat the gospel like nothing more than bullet points of information. Much of Christian evangelism over the years has been reduced to the idea that if we can just get the facts–the information–out there, people will understand who God is and turn to Jesus. Some Christians are more likely to recommend a good book instead of sharing their own stories. 

Growing up as a Christian, my goal was to find a way to invite people to church so they could meet Jesus. I was not entirely confident in my knowledge of the Bible or ability to express God’s truth, so it made sense to get them to a pew on Sunday morning where I could let a pro do the heavy lifting. What I failed to understand was that the substance and power of the gospel is found in vulnerable and redemptive relationships–not carefully crafted (or computed) sermons.

If the Christian community was to fully embrace God’s call to share Jesus by his love instead of through bits of information, an artificial intelligence chatbot would fry circuits trying to write a sermon. The idea that the message of Jesus could be broken down and reconstituted with nothing but information just wouldn’t compute. The fact that a glorified search engine can crank out a good Christmas sermon may say a lot about how we have come to treat the scriptures and the gospel.

A pastor can preach the roof down on Sunday morning, but it is meaningless if he hasn’t invested in relationships with the individuals in the pews. Relationships are what give a pastor (and his message) credibility, not the information he delivers–no matter how inspired. My neighbor might be moved by the relatable concepts and profound truths they hear at a church service, but it all evaporates by Monday morning if it doesn’t match the way they have seen me live out those concepts and truths with them every day.

I think we are relatively safe from insidious plots in advancing technology to take over our churches. I do wonder, however, if we should consider the implications of AI “art” imitating faith as it sees it. For the record, I plan to continue using my own material on Sundays. Also, I still haven’t actually tried out a chatbot. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen all six Terminator movies.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: