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Click/Clicking and Snip/Snipping for Faith Mission and Ministry

Artificial intelligence rightly generates both fear and hope, or to put it less emotionally, risk and opportunity.  I expect that most if not all of us at AI and Faith believe that AI is only a tool, not a new framework for life and understanding.  Like all tools, AI can be used for good or harm.  We want to promote the former and impede the latter.

The power of AI is such that AI must be wielded if it can be safely done so, lest important benefits for mankind be foregone.  Some of those benefits can accrue right within the mission and ministry of people of faith.  This issue of our Newsletter focuses on some ways in which that is happening – how people of faith are applying technology powered by AI in the course of faith mission and ministry.

This is an important subject not least because the world of faith itself is huge, a part of the lives of three quarters of the world’s population.  Apply the faith world’s own leverage of scale to the power of AI as a tool for understanding and applying data, and the outcome could be extraordinary – though again for good or for evil.

This leveraging power for good is wonderfully evident in a feature article in last week’s issue  of The New Yorker magazine, How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change. The New Yorker lets you read three free articles a month.  Spend one of those on this article!  It is a deeply inspiring account of how a 25-year-old committed Catholic, Molly Burhans, applied her graduate work in landscape design and her knowledge of geographic information software (“G.I.S.”) to help the Catholic church begin to widely and deeply map its property holdings for a variety of missional purposes.

As the article recounts, in 2015 Pope Francis presented “’Laudato Si’, a  forty-thousand-word encyclical on reckless consumerism, ecological degradation, and global warming.”  Four months later, Burhans founded Goodlands, “an organization whose mission, according to its Web site, is ‘mobilizing the Catholic Church to use her land for good.’”  The article describes Burhans’ immediate goal “to use technology that she had become proficient at in graduate school—the powerful cartographic and data-management tools known as geographic information systems (G.I.S.)—to create a land-classification plan that could be used in evaluating and then managing the Church’s global property holdings.”

Quite remarkably, the Vatican has lacked any such digital tools for mapping the extraordinary type and amount of property that it possessed around the world, totaling more than 200 million acres. COVID has thus far interfered with Burhans’ far reaching proposal to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century with the knowledge it needs to effectively manage its property for a wide range of social justice purposes.  But after an interview with the Pope, she has his interest and attention and that of many attendant Vatican administrators, on how G.I.S. can translate the Vatican’s vast paper records into a force for both highly localized and globally leveraged good.

Molly Burhans’ story is an inspiring example of a creative and thoughtful individual wielding the power of an AI-based technology in new ways to accomplish something that in retrospect seems completely obvious but has never before been done.

However, AI-powered technologies can also explode old ways of practicing faith mission and ministry – whether for better or worse.  Here is an example derived from another story The New Yorker ran in the last few weeks, this time about the Jefferson Bible.

The Jefferson Bible is currently having a star turn 200 years after Thomas Jefferson first created it with a sharp knife, a pot of glue, and several translations from which he snip-snipped his own version of holy writ.  The Jefferson Bible’s renewed time in the spotlight began three years ago, when the new Museum of the Bible was splashily opening a block off the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Seemingly not to be outdone, the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History created its own special exhibit on religion in early America in which it displayed the original Jefferson Bible alongside the source versions of the Bible.  My wife and I crossed the Mall to see it, back to back with our exploration of the state-of-the-art museology with which the Museum of the Bible displays and explains its plethora of ancient texts.

Seeing the original Jefferson Bible against its “original sources” — the books Jefferson snipped from –dramatically visualizes Thomas Jefferson’s audacious task.  It’s like looking at the negative of a famous photograph you have long admired.  As I approached the exhibit, I at first experienced a moment of confusion, thinking Jefferson snipped out what he didn’t like, and wondering how this miracle I was reading on the page to which the Bible was opened had survived.  Famously, Jefferson eliminated everything supernatural and non-“scientific” from his newly enlightened condensed version of the Bible.  But I quickly realized that I was reading one of the Bibles with the left-behind material, not the resulting Jefferson Bible.  Jefferson extracted everything he found worthy of belief and glued the snippets into a new book of blank pages.

In 2020, a short book by the Smithsonian’s curator for American religious history who had assembled the exhibit, Peter Manseau, refreshed the spotlight on The Jefferson Bible, garnering a review in The Atlantic and eventually this article in the The New Yorker’s first issue of 2021. It’s well worth spending another of your free articles on this one. I was surprised to learn that The Jefferson Bible had experienced a long turn in the spotlight as a widely circulated publication at the beginning of the 20th century.  Only then was a foundation for acceptance laid as Darwinism crossed the Atlantic in the 1870’s and led the study of Christianity by American academics increasingly in the direction of Jefferson’s Enlightenment thinking.

Of course Jefferson did literal cutting and pasting.  So what does this book have to do with artificial intelligence and faith ministry? It’s all about trading off authority and scholarly expertise for other possible benefits.

Jefferson substituted his own lens of self-confident scientism for prior linguistically-informed translations that he dismissed out of hand because they accepted  supernatural cause and effect.   Even though Jefferson’s technology was low-powered, his idea of creating a personalized version Bible solely on the basis of his own choices, uninformed by any knowledge of original sources or other theological training, is very much of today’s moment. A 2014 article in Christianity Today, “Hacking the Bible,” predicts how technology is around the corner for letting anyone create a “Franken-Bible” that fits their predilections and presuppositions, pointing to as an early stage prototype.

Beyond just satisfying personal predilections, reasons for moving beyond scholarly, closed-door translation committees could include speed, efficiency and potentially greater cultural uptake when a new translation is a crowd-sourced or community-engaged effort.  See Setting the Scriptures Free in a Digital Age and Chris Lim’s article on machine-learning based translation in February 2021’s newsletter.

Or as the Hacking the Bible article also shows, technology can go in the opposite direction, empowering non-scholarly Bible readers with tools that “remove the friction from Bible study” in the words of Bob Pritchett, CEO of Faithlife Bible Software in Bellingham, Washington.  Companies like Faithlife combine AI-powered search technology with a host of estoric digitized linguistic and textual resources to allow anyone to parse and cross reference any particular word in the Bible.

Of course, freeing up the Bible from the exclusive domain of professional clergy and scholars is an enterprise as old as the printing press (remember the Gutenberg Bible!), the Protestant Reformation, and Biblical Concordances.  But the power and utility of these new digital tools threaten theological expertise in much the same way that social media has corroded the power of professional journalism, with perhaps in some cases similar risks.

So knowledge advances through such AI-powered tools as G.I.S. (click/click) at the same time personal preference and AI-powered search and natural language translation (snip/snip) erode professional theological authority. It’s all worth keeping a close eye on, as AI inevitably transforms faith mission and ministry.

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