I’ve spent some time of late with a new preacher named Pastor A.I. ChatGPT. I’m Mr. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Generally, I walk in darkness without seeing a great light, so I’m interested in a preacher who can bring me a spark that scatters all darkness. I need a word that keeps the Awful and the Demanding at bay and assures me that the One who is himself the Light is bringing me into his dawn.
Pastor ChatGPT is new on the scene and offers a novel approach in which I don’t have to actually speak to a flesh-and-blood professional pietist/religious leader or risk falling asleep to the tune of their pulpiteering. I can consult the artificial intelligence that has access to the whole of the world’s knowledge via the internet. Pastor A.I. will patiently await my question and then consult all that human wisdom and throw several paragraphs on my screen in response. All in the privacy of my own house on my own little patio lot in the poor part of my growing and increasingly affluent suburb.
At best, my non-human preacher is an exegete but a shallow one. It doesn’t see the Scriptures as a living Word from God that does something to its hearers.
I’ve asked my online pastor to preach to me about God’s promise of remembering in Isaiah 49, the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and Mary’s ponderment after the shepherds’ visit in Luke 2. What I’ve discovered is that Pastor ChatGPT does an adequate job of assembling a string of facts and propositions about a topic which brands the A.I. bot as a bit of a didactic bore but no real preacher. There are three reasons for this:
First, ChatGPT doesn’t understand the word “sermon” or, better, misunderstands the word along with the majority of people who use the word. It seems to define it as an innocuous speech, a rounding up of information to be delivered to some amorphous audience. It defines a sermon as religious TED talk full of spiritual life hacks that’ll help me understand a topic better. At best, my non-human preacher is an exegete but a shallow one. It doesn’t see the Scriptures as a living Word from God that does something to its hearers.
ChatGPT is no different from the snowman Pez dispenser I acquired four decades ago in college. Facts get loaded in, the head is tilted back, and, voila, my curiosity is satisfied. That would be fine, I suppose, if knowledge were to save me. But I have a Ph.D. and, though my knowledge of sixteenth-century German evangelical funeral sermons is impressive, it’s never been much good in the midst of either cold Advent nights or dark nights of the soul in any other season. It assumes I have the internal mechanism to ingest tidbits of biblical themes or ideas from the Scriptural commentariat and translate them into something useful.
But I’m not interested in “useful” or “interesting” from my preacher. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life digging into the fascinating and utilitarian trivia produced by the scholarly world. I still have school loan debt to prove it. In fact, it’s that debt and the more metaphorical kind that ChatGPT doesn’t understand I need from a sermon. Until my A.I. Preacher understands that, I doubt I’ll get any real proclamation from its bits and bytes.
Second, even if Pastor A.I. ChatGPT were able to move beyond the sermon as a dispensation of information, it would still miss the homiletical boat because it could only operate in the realm of a hypothetical audience. It strings together a set of statements that exist without a connection to the actual lived life of a sinner like me. There’s no particularity to what it produces and, thus, no “for you” -ness to it.
A.I. can’t make the proclamatory move that delivers God’s word in a way that is specifically for me. It can’t make the leap from second to first-order discourse, from talking about a topic to delivering a word that actually bestows love, mercy, and new life. It knows nothing of my weakness, of my vain attempts at self-redemption, of my core trust in me alone. Its assumption is that I somehow have it in me to achieve progress. It knows nothing of Luther’s admonition that unless we completely despair of ourselves, we cannot merit the grace of Christ. Unaware of my constant folly, it can only regard me as not just fixable but as a worthy new depository of its internetty riches.
Hypothetical people have nothing at stake. When I asked for a sermon on the shoot from the stump of Jesse in Isaiah 11, it gave me this: “Ultimately, the goal of a sermon on this passage would be to help listeners understand the hope and restoration that Jesus brings, and to encourage them to consider the significance of this truth in their own lives.” Just what we need: a suggestion that we might think about some proposition. And it misses the fact of sinners’ empty bellies and the possibility that the mid-winter buds on the branch that is Jesus are marvelously sustaining. That shoot offers himself up, body and blood given and shed to feed our ache with mercy. My ache, your ache, his full self for you.
Finally, at the core of it all is the fact that, like college-age Bible camp staff members, Pastor ChatGPT doesn’t know it’s going to die. It has no sin to confess, for it only knows the determinism established by its programmers. It has experienced no breach between its good intentions and its ability to follow through. It doesn’t know the terror of the unfixable. It’s never had to endure broken relationships. It can’t imagine its own final breath or last day’s electrical impulse.
The preacher who actually can deliver a sermon to a pew-sitter like me who barely clings to faith is one who is desperate for a gospel word, too.
No congregation would accept a preacher who stepped into the pulpit as a pristine being. Such a preacher could only self-present as the exemplar to be emulated, but not as one who himself needs more than facts, theories, and hypotheticals. The preacher who actually can deliver a sermon to a pew-sitter like me who barely clings to faith is one who is desperate for a gospel word, too. A true, real-life preacher has had that free promise embedded in them and can imagine nothing better than passing it on. A gospel preacher strings a lifeline from the cross to my dried-up heart in the pew and then tugs as if it’s a matter of death and life.
That preacher takes Isaiah 49 and actually engraves me on the palm of God’s hand, tattoos me with Christ’s death. That preacher places me in Lazarus’ grave with Jesus’ friend and draws me out into the Lord’s resurrection and life. That preacher moves me from Mary pondering the baby in the manger to the mother pondering her son on the cross for my benefit. I’m a Christian justified by faith because the Holy Spirit is no ghost-in-the-AI but has instead called real-life, skin-and-sinew, flesh-and-blood preachers to bring it on. Just another reason to be thankful in this season for an incarnate God.