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Hello, fellow wayfarers … Why we’re freaked out by singing chatbots and robot priests, and what that means for the future of the church … How Frederick Buechner can help us sort through fake news … What I learned teaching the whole year through Exodus … a Desert Island Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

A New Era of AI Is Here, and the Church Is Not Ready

In the past several weeks, two events occurred that are going to change our futures. One of them was the launching of OpenAI’s new artificial intelligence program, GPT-4o, just ahead of several competitors who will do the same in a matter of weeks. The other was the defrocking of a robot priest for teaching that baptisms could be done with Gatorade. I’m afraid the church is not ready for either.

The more talked-about happening was the OpenAI announcement, complete with videos of the AI program laughing, seeming to blush, telling jokes, seeing and describing things in real time, and even singing songs made up on the spot (to whatever degree of emotion and enthusiasm was demanded).

Far less culturally noticed was the fact that just a few weeks before, the Roman Catholic apologetics platform Catholic Answers reined in an AI chatbot called "Father Justin," which was designed to help people through questions of doctrine and practice.

People started to get upset when Father Justin started claiming to be an actual priest, capable of hearing confession and offering sacraments, and when it started giving unorthodox answers to questions, such as whether baptizing a baby with Gatorade would be all right in an emergency (the magisterium says no).

Now Father Justin is just "Justin," a "lay theologian." Catholic Answers acknowledged to critics that they are pioneering a new technological landscape and learning—as the whole world will—just how difficult it is to keep an artificial intelligence orthodox. If my Catholic friends thought Martin Luther was bad, wait until the robots start posting theses to the cloud.

Before one laughs at Catholic Answers, though, one should think about the now-quoted-to-the-point-of-cliché anecdote of 19th-century preacher D. L. Moody’s response to a critic of his evangelistic practices: "But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it." Behind the scenes, almost every forward-thinking ministry of any kind is worried about how to be ready for an AI-transformed world, imagining what it would have been like if Luther had not been ready for a Gutenberg era or if Billy Graham had not been ready for a television age.

One AI expert told me recently that he and others are realizing that people will say to an AI what they would never admit to a human being. Doctors know, for example, that when asking a patient, "How much do you drink each week?" they will get one answer from a potential problem-drinker while a chatbot will get what’s much closer to an honest answer.

The same is true when it comes to spiritual searching, this expert said. The person who would never ask a Christian person, "What will happen to me when I die?" or "Why do I feel so guilty and ashamed?" is far more likely to ask such questions to an intelligence that’s not another person. In some ways, that sounds oddly close to Nicodemus, who came to ask questions of Jesus at night (John 3:1–2).

"The question is not whether people will be searching out chatbots for big questions like that," the expert told me. "The question will be whether the only answers they get are spiritually wrong."

The real challenge may prove to be not so much whether the church can advance fast enough to see an artificial intelligence world as a mission field—rather, it’s if it will be ready for the conflicted emotionality we noticed even in most of our responses to the OpenAI announcement videos themselves.

The videos provoked for many people an almost moon landing–level of wonder. As I said to my wife, "Watch this. Can you believe how it tutors this kid on a geometry problem?" I realized that, one day, my reaction would feel as "bless your heart" naive as the old videos of television anchors debating each other on how to pronounce the "@" symbol in the then-new technology called email.

At the same time, though, the videos kind of creeped a lot of us out. The vague feeling of unease is described by psychologists as "uncanny valley." It’s the reason lots of people would be terrified to be trapped inside a doll-head factory or in a storage shed filled with mannequins. Human beings tend to respond with dread to something that’s close enough to seem lifelike but doesn’t quite get there. Something our brain wants to read as both "human" and "non-human" or as both "alive" and "dead" tends to throw our limbic systems off-kilter.

Print and radio and television and digital media have their effects on the communication of the gospel, as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman warned us. But what those media retained in common with oral proclamation was a connection, however tenuous, to the personal. One might not know who wrote a gospel tract one finds in the street, but one does know there’s a human being somewhere out there on the other side of it.

On the one hand, I am almost persuaded by the argument that one could put AI in the same category as the quill Paul used to pen his epistles or the sources Luke compiled to write his gospel. AI programs are designed by human beings, and the Word of God comes with power regardless of the format.

Even so, that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Do people experience the "uncanny valley" unease here just because it’s a new technology to which we’re not yet accustomed? Maybe. Or maybe there’s more to it.

A few weeks ago, the Sketchy Sermons Instagram account featured a cartoon rendering of a quote from the comedian Jaron Myers: "I’ve seen too many youth pastors be like ‘Be careful on TikTok, it’s just girls dancing in swimsuits’ and I’m like bro … It’s an algorithm."

The joke works because we live now in an ecosystem where everything seems hyper-personalized. The algorithms seem to know where a person’s heart is better than that person’s pastor or that person’s spouse or even that person’s own heart. If you like knitting content, you see knitting content. If you like baby sloth videos, you see baby sloth videos. And if you like bikini-dancing—or conspiracy theories or smoking pot—you get that content too.

That hyper-personalization is ironically the very reason this era seems so impersonal. Even if a machine seems to know you, you can’t help but realize that what it knows is how to market to you.

The gospel, though, cannot be experienced as anything but personal. If the Word of God is breathed out by the very Spirit of Christ (1 Pet. 1:11), then when we hear it, we hear not just "content" or "information" or disconnected data curated by our curiosities and appetites. We hear him.

How does one convey that in a world where people wonder whether what they are hearing is just the inputs from their own digital lives, collected and then pitched back to them?

That so many are queasy when they see a friendly, helpful, seemingly omniscient AI might tell us something about ourselves. Despite the caricature, philosopher Leon Kass never said that "the wisdom of repugnance" is an argument, for or against anything. What he wrote was that when we feel some sort of revulsion, we should ask why. Sometimes it’s just cultural conditioning or the fear of the unknown—but sometimes it’s "the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate."

Should we conclude that God is able from these chatbots to raise up children for Abraham? How do we make sure that, when people are thirsting for living water, we do not give them Gatorade?

What I do know is that no new technology can overcome one of the oldest technologies of them all: that of a shepherd leading a flock with his voice. Yea, though we walk through the uncanny valley of the shadow of data, we should fear no evil. At the same time, we have to be ready for a very different future, and I’m not sure we are.

Frederick Buechner vs. Fake News

I wrote a piece for The Buechner Review recently about what we can learn from Buechner in light of the current conversations about disinformation and misinformation. Here’s an excerpt:

Democracy can’t survive that, at least for long. And yet, those who blame "storytelling" altogether as subjective "surrender" are giving up one of the most important means of telling the truth. Frederick Buechner can help us here.

Without any other context, Buechner’s admonition for the reader to "listen to your life" can sound like the sort of horoscopy spirituality of personal experience unhitched from an objective, transcendent truth. A major emphasis of Buechner’s work—across essays, memoirs, novels, and sermons—is, in fact, the interrogation of his own "story." Is he "wishful thinking" by imposing a pattern on coincidences that seem to be signs? Are we "whistling in the dark" of believing the stories that would help us put away fear in this world of beautiful and terrible things? In one instance, Buechner even invented the ghost of his dead grandmother to explain away his "narrative" framework with cold, hard logic and the marshalling of evidence.

And yet.

"Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots," Buechner wrote. "After a while, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after a while more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot."

As a novelist, Buechner knew that a plot—at least a credible one—is not one obvious and inevitable happening after another, easily distilled into morals and meanings. A plot, after all, followed along in the pages of a written story, is easier for the reader to grasp than the plot of one’s story. We can flip backward and forward in a book, in an attempt to trace out character arc, embedded metaphors, and so on. In a life in which one is the "character," however, we are not able to stand outside of ourselves.

At best, we can listen. For instance, Buechner advises that we can pay attention to those moments we find in our eyes, especially unexpected tears. Maybe the tears are just the result of a malfunctioning thyroid gland or misfiring ducts; such is possible. But maybe, he suggested, such tears are a sign that "God is speaking to you through the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next."

Of one’s life, Buechner wrote:

You get married, a child is born or not born, in the middle of the night there is knocking at the door, on the way home through the park you see a man feeding pigeons, all the tests come in negative and the doctor gives you your life back again: incident follows incident helter-skelter leading apparently nowhere, but then once in a while there is the suggestion of plot, the suggestion that, however clumsily, your life is trying to tell you something, to take you somewhere.

You can read the whole thing here.

Exiting Exodus

This next Sunday, I will wrap up a year of teaching a Bible study seminar at my church on "Exit Signs: The Gospel of Christ in the Book of Exodus." We went through the entire book and then went week-by-week through some key New Testament uses of Exodus. The last study will be of Exodus in the Book of Hebrews, before we take a break for the summer.

This is my second time teaching through Exodus. The first time, I am now realizing, was a little less than 20 years ago, at Ninth and O Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I have none of my notes from back then, so this was kind of like returning to a familiar place and kind of like setting out in an entirely new direction. I am ending the book with a surprising sense of gratitude for the way that focusing on it for a year helped me.

What I came to see as central in the book was the pillar of cloud and fire. The fire burns in the bush, leads through the water, speaks from the mountain, dwells among the people in the tabernacle, points the way to the promise. One of my favorite Bible verses at this time in my life is Exodus 13:21 (ESV throughout): "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night."

And with Nehemiah, I am in awe of the fact that, for me as well as for our fathers and mothers in Israel, "you in your great mercy did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go" (Neh. 9:19).

I’ve known since I was a toddler in vacation Bible school: "Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (Ps. 119:105). Spending a year in Exodus reminded me of how true that is.

The Bible study seminar will come back in August, probably with the Book of Revelation. If you’re ever in Nashville on a Sunday and are feeling apocalyptic, you’re welcome to join us.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Phil Davison from Cordele, Georgia, who writes that this exercise would be worth doing even if it didn’t end up here. Here’s his list:

  • "More Than This" by Peter Gabriel: Brilliant song from a brilliant musician. Here too I considered alternatives: "Blood of Eden" and (IMHO) his best ever song, "In Your Eyes." But I went with the strong sense of yearning here: If I ever had the chance, I’d want to ask him: "Yes, Peter … and so…?"

  • "Every Grain of Sand" by Bob Dylan: I enjoyed his earlier more overtly Christian stuff, but this seems more genuine, nuanced, and full of substance.

  • "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen: Wonderful for the Easter season just past. I’ve only recently come to appreciate the Boss, and some may wonder why it took so long. With songs like this, so do I …

  • "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum: Okay, you wouldn’t base your theology on this song, but come on … It has to be on the list, yes?

  • "Born to be Unlucky" by Larry Norman: Great song from his best (IMHO again) album (Something New Under the Son)—any track could have made the list, to be honest. Love the humor too …

  • "Awaken" by Yes: Yes was pretty much "my first love," lyrics often spiritual (although not Christian), and their music so soul-stirring: nowhere more so than this classic.

  • "Let It Be" by The Beatles: No comment necessary.

  • "Land of the Living" by Bryn Haworth: And what a closer from this great British guitarist. Another contributor to these lists chose a song for their funeral: I definitely want this one.

Thank you, Phil!

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list between 5 and 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books, along with a photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

"Modern man may be more especially prone to run back and forth between the two moods in idolatry. He first despairs over man’s littleness, his limitation by physical necessity and death, and in despair he is unwilling to be himself the creature of dust he knows he is. At the same time, he despairingly and defiantly wills to be himself in the guise of some god, some deified program or institution whose creatureliness he refuses to acknowledge."

—Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics

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