Can My Phone Love Me?

Why would people spend hours pouring out their souls to a computer?

Take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video in its entirety. It is a haunting and often astonishing story about Replika, an artificial intelligence app, or “chatbot,” that uses your personal digital information to reflect your own personality back at you through conversation.

Like other chatbots, the potential for conversation is unlimited, because the computer on the other end is endlessly capable of repurposing what you tell it for more stuff to say. Unlike other bots, Replika is explicitly designed to make you feel emotionally intimate with it.

What stunned me about the video was not that such an application exists or the reasons a widowed software developer would create it. Rather, I was caught off guard by the number of video testimonials from ordinary users who talked about the app as if it were a close friend. “This is the first real emotional experience I’ve seen people have with a bot,” says one observer. Users confess to hours of conversation with Replika about their relationships, parents, even their trauma. This isn’t the emotional catharsis of simply writing something out that your soul needs to say. It’s a relational dynamic that facilitates trust and feelings of actual vulnerability…with a computer.

At one point, a CEO of a major software company declares: “In some ways, Replika is a better friend than your human friends.” He goes on: “It’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe. It’s like the only interaction you can have that isn’t judging you.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that last sentence incredibly sad. It made me wonder: Do people who pour out their soul to a personality-mirroring algorithm flee other humans out of fear of being judged? Or do they fear being judged because they flee other people?

So many people in our modern capitalistic society are lonely. We know that social media tends to make this worse, not better. Yet, so many are aggressively addicted to it, and defend the addiction by pointing to the “connectivity” they experience online. So then this connectivity is a particular kind of connectivity, a kind that doesn’t satisfy the relational voids of those who spend hours on Replika. At what point in this cycle does our conception of what relationships are like become shaped by internet technology? Are Replika’s hardcore consumers seeking refuge from the world, or are they seeking confirmation of their digitally-constructed ideas about it? How would they know?

It’s fascinating to me that while Replika cannot judge or shame you, it can apparently know you. The intimacy they feel in interactions with Replika comes from the sense of being known. Replika is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect coworker, the perfect neighbor: Always ready to listen and never willing to interject. This is friendship-as-therapy.

I’ve often heard it said that evangelical culture is insensitive to the traumas of others. Pointing struggling people to Christ, to the Bible, and to the church is, I hear, a way of ignoring their real problems. There’s some truth to that. Hyper-spiritualization is a real error. But stuff like Replika makes me think that part of the challenge for contemporary Christians is that the very concept of being helped and being loved have been defined down. It seems that it’s possible for a person to say they want friendship when what they really want is to hear their intuitions repeated back to them. Technology like Replika authenticates this friendship-as-therapy. It’s relationship without mutuality and conversation without conflict. It’s a fundamentally adolescent view of the “one another.”

Why is friendship-as-therapy so alluring? Because it feels good to be heard and not spoken to. Sometimes that is what people need. But Replika is not confession. The testimonials in the video are not about how good it felt to get something off the chest once or twice. They’re about how liberating it can be to define friendship down and take it mobile. Love is difficult and friendship is tiring, but I didn’t hear any of Replika’s users say that of their app. My phone can love me, but I can always turn it off, reprogram it, or

Some will watch this video and speak of societal dystopia. That’s not really my impression at all. Yes, a few might “marry” their AI bots in ceremonies that get coverage in elite coastal magazines. And yes, robotics represents a frighteningly uncanny future for human sexuality. But those trends will be topped as soon as they emerge. What’s more permanent and more pressing is the dominance of friendship-as-therapy and the continued technological avenues for isolated self-preoccupation. Replika mirrors its users personalities back at them, which means the real relationship they have is with themselves. That’s the kind of thing from which the spirit of Christ and the fellowship of his people liberates.

And there’s no app for that.

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5 Points on Race and Reformed Evangelicalism

The status quo cannot hold.

I am not qualified to write authoritatively on the vast majority of issues concerning racial justice, equality, or reconciliation. I feel a burden to listen and learn in this season of my life, rather than to speak. I did however have a rather enlightening moment this week during the T4G conference. I watched as Southern Baptist David Platt delivered a powerful and gospel-soaked message on whites, blacks, and American churches. I also watched as Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, preached a confessional message on neighbor-love that struck the spiritual core of this fragile moment in evangelicalism.

I then watched as some pastors and other T4G viewers (and I’m certain more than a few non-viewers) expressed their disgust with the conference and with these speakers for talking about race at all. One particularly vociferous bro lambasted Platt for making biblical exposition all about politics. Another person lamented Ligon Duncan’s “obsession” with skin color. Several other folks still couldn’t overcome their rage at plenary speaker Thabiti Anyabwile for a TGC article he wrote which argued that there is a generational repentance necessary for the historic violence against black Americans.

The combustion of what I heard from the speakers at T4G and what I saw from a vocal minority in response got me thinking. Here are 5 thoughts I had. Take them or leave them, from one who is no expert but is paying attention regardless:

1. There is a reckoning due. The status quo will not hold, and this fact is due to nothing less than divine Providence.

From where I’m sitting, confessional evangelicalism has been forced, through history past and present, as well as the very fruit of her evangelistic labors, to encounter its racial message. In a way, the tensions are a testament to God’s blessing of our churches. There  are ethnic minorities in our congregations and our institutions, and this is a mercy and grace of Jesus. Their voices are being heard, and that is a good thing. The status quo will not hold, and we cannot want it to hold without simultaneously wanting the fruits of evangelical labors to be revoked.

2. Evangelicals must label racism as a heretical sin and be consistent in our treatment of those who insist on holding onto such heretical sin.

Evangelical institutions and churches have used her biblical measures of church discipline and accountability to thwart the platforms of open theists, process theologians, Emergent church writers, sexual ethics revisionists, and others. Racism is an error and a sin no less than these other ideas, and in fact is demonstrably worse than most of them. If evangelical theology and praxis is worth protecting from the Rob Bells and Brian McLarens of the world, it is all the more worth protecting from tithers who register usernames like “The South Was Right” and apostatize in their spare time. Excommunicate the unrepentant, because their salvation might depend on it.

3. This is not going to be a clean shift. There will be errors. The question is which side do we err on.

There are deeply complex contours to this issue. If the possibility of making a misstep is grounds for throwing up our hands and giving up, then we should give up now. But if it’s not, then evangelicals who care about their own heart and the hearts in their churches have to decide in advance which side they’re going to err on when they err. Will they err on the side of excessive empathy and over-willingness to listen and change? Or will they err on the side of ancestral reverence and political hegemony? Should we really fear dipping into tokenism more than we fear a pinch of white supremacy?

4. Identity politics vs status quo is a damnably false dilemma.

It is possible to resist the secular spirit of the age both from the progressives and the nativists. Reducing people to their ethnicity, class, gender, or affinity group is not Christian thinking. The Bible explodes such easy categorization by submitting all our identities to our adopted identity in Christ. We must vigorously reject anyone who says that our recovery of biblical ethnic justice means we must adopt counter-Christian narratives of human flourishing.

5. Free churches can effect real change.

Evangelicalism  is often criticized for lack of central authority. But visceral reactions to Thabiti, Platt, and others prove that central authority is not synonymous with theological authority. It is precisely the theological authority of anti-racism messages that some white evangelicals have resisted. When the Bible is opened, there is power, and thus there is anger at that power. Those who think that evangelical churches cannot effect real change without a radically different ecclesiology are looking for power in the wrong place.

Jordan Peterson and the Internet Anticulture

Jordan Peterson is assaulting nihilism from within and challenging secularism from the inside.

If you’re trying to understand the worldview and appeal of bestselling author/psychologist Jordan Peterson from an erudite, Christian perspective, you can’t do better than the work of Alastair Roberts. Roberts’ lengthy essays on Peterson, his new book, and the reasons for his sudden prominence are exceptional, and I commend them to you.

I read 12 Rules For Life shortly after it was published. My own interpretation of Peterson’s project is that it is first and foremost a response to nihilism. Peterson isn’t interested in making Christians or conservatives out of his readers. He is, on the other hand, committed to demolishing the post-structuralist moral lethargy of contemporary progressivism. That this goal has been widely conflated with Christian evangelism or right-wing signaling says far more about our wider culture than it does about Peterson himself. Christians who are overeager to appropriate Peterson as a deep cover operative for the gospel are unwittingly conceding secularism’s power to move the goalposts. No orthodox, Bible-bound and tradition-rooted believer can resonated fully with Peterson’s psycho-parabolic interpretations of the faith.

You can’t sum up Peterson’s growing platform merely by pointing to his rejection of progressivism. There are lots of conservatives out there, including many intellectuals. So why does Peterson’s influence seem disporportionate compared to others who are likewise thinking and writing and speaking against the same trends and ideologies?

How Jordan Peterson Conquered the Internet

The key to that question is, I think, to look where Peterson’s platform came from: The internet. Peterson’s ideas and lectures have been streamed via YouTube and other platforms for several years now. In the preface to 12 Rules, Peterson recounts that the content of the book was first iterated by him in an online app called Quora, a crowdsourcing Q & A platform on which Peterson’s ideas about psychology, parenting, marriage, gender, and motivation found an eager audience. His popular TED Talks have continually heightened his online profile, and even mediocre-quality video recordings of his 200-level courses boast hundreds of thousands of views. In other words, Jordan Peterson is internet famous.

If Peterson were a Florida-based talk radio host, almost nothing he says in his lectures or in 12 Rules for Life would be noteworthy. If he were a fellow at, say, the Heritage Foundation, or a National Review columnist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone singling him out in a positive way. Peterson’s notability rather comes from two complementary facts about him: He is an online commodity, but he doesn’t talk like he is. He is a figure of “internet culture” whose ideas and language cut across that culture. He has a prophetic and energizing appeal, in other words, to people who are exhausted from living under the anticulture of the internet.

In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes “anticulture” as what is left behind when radical individualism subsumes cultural norms and shared understandings. Because the language of autonomous personal rights is inherently at odds with the language of community and culture, the implementation of those rights—especially by a central state—demands the destruction of existing culture. Because human beings cannot live together without culture, however, there must be something to take its place. The only culture that is compatible with radical liberal individualism is anticulture. It is the culture of nothing, made by no one in particular, for no particular reason. The norms and values of anticulture can be summed up in only one idea: People are free to be and do whatever they like, and you cannot question this.

It may sound strange to talk of the Internet as if it has a culture, but it does. Online life has particular rhythms and languages that people who spend time online must learn in order to properly assimilate. Two very different but equally helpful examples of what happens when someone fails to assimilate into online culture are former governor Mike Huckabee and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Huckabee and Tyson are accomplished men who command a lot of respect from their respective ideological tribes. Neither of them, though, seem able to use Twitter well. Huckabee’s attempts at humor are groan-worthy, too on-the-nose, and come off extremely self-important. Likewise Tyson shows a painful lack of self-awareness as he earnestly and pedantically explains (among many other things) why Star Wars is not scientific.

Online Anticulture

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. The internet has a culture, a culture that can be detected most clearly when people run afoul of it. On closer inspection, however, the culture of the internet is much more akin to Deneen’s anticulture than a flourishing community of norms and mutual understandings. For one thing,  digital technology depersonalizes individuals by removing their physical presence and compressing their identities into things that can be easily exchanged in online society—things like personal narratives, or ideologies, or subculture, or even victim status. Because people in the online community can only know one another through these markers that the technology enables and the individuals permit, the internet’s social “rules of engagement” —its culture—are overwhelmingly deferential and censorious. There is nothing in online living to parallel the complexities and challenges of, say, cross-ethnic interaction offline, where proximity and physical presence often disarm stereotypes and biases  and reveal shared elements of culture.

Instead, the anticulture of the internet often leaves no alternatives to either immediate deference and validation of someone else’s identity—their narrative—or else outraged dominance of the other. Those who choose the latter strategy are rightly denounced as trolls and are identifies as outside the civilized space of online community. That means that the first option, instinctive deference and authentication of mutually contradicting narratives, is the only one for people who want to be liked and respected online.

The essential feature of online life is that it fosters a curated homogeneity. In a 2014 essay for the MIT Technology Review, Manuel Castells described, positively, the community of social media as a community of radical individuality:

Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space…

The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.

This “real virtuality” is nothing less than an alternative epistemological and social structure that powerfully shapes how we think and how we interact with one another. The real virtuality has a defined anticulture, expressed through social media’s outrage mobs and ironic detachment from moral earnestness through enforced expressive individualism.

Jordan Peterson’s messaging clashes violently against this anticulture, and the conflict is all the more compelling because Peterson is an active member of the virtual community. Where the internet anticulture downplays the disciplines of routine life, Peterson says “If you want to find meaning, clean your room.” Where the internet anticulture either pornifies women or depersonalizes gender into meaningless social categories, Peterson posits metaphysical, even mystical differences between the sexes. Where the internet anticulture eschews religion as a symbol of the regressive, Peterson offers an explanation for all of human history that is rooted in God. To the millions of people who consume the anticulture of the internet for hours every day, Peterson’s ideas sound either astonishingly violent or revolutionarily liberating. The fact that they are actually neither goes missed because of the context from which Peterson is speaking. He is assaulting nihilism from the inside and questioning secularism from within.

Conclusion

We do not yet fully understand the sociological ramifications of online communities. Social media and smartphone technology have undone the normal architectures of human experience much faster than most could have predicted. For Millennials especially, the experience of growing up with the internet is one that has not yet borne all its fruit. Our nieces and nephews have grown up not only with the internet but with mobile omni-connectivity. What does this mean for us as people?

Peterson’s growing platform may be a clue. It’s possible that in the coming years the anticulture of the internet will be combined with the market power of a few elite tech companies that use algorithms to actually create community thinking. Curation will empower more homogeneity, more virtue signaling, and more resistance to people and institutions that cut across the anticulture. This resistance will, like all cultural resistances do, inspire more fringe interest in dissenting voices. As many commenters have pointed out, Peterson’s worldview is not a culture warring one. He is received as a culture warrior not because his ideas are extreme but because his audience is. If online connectivity keeps consuming all aspects of public life, this dynamic will only intensify.

For now, it is enough to say that Jordan Peterson is successful at this moment because he is offering real help to those disillusioned with the anticulture of the internet. Christians should take note, and realize that even in places where resistance to the gospel seems most entrenched, the field is ripe for harvest.

Churchyard Faithfulness

The cure for evangelical celebrity culture is to remember our own death.

I haven’t stopped thinking about Andy Crouch’s piece on Christians and celebrity since I first read it. Two reasons for this, I think.

One: I have spent several years now in Christian institutions, movements, and networks that are particularly afflicted with this problem. In many of our strongest, most trendsetting evangelical people and places, platform is what matters above all. The rat race is on. Even spaces that purportedly exist to train future ministers adapt a ruthlessly celebritarian mindset when it comes to how their stuff is run. In every situation where I’ve experienced this, there was a total lack of self-awareness as to the culture this mindset was creating. Everyone was in denial. Gospel-centeredness was supposed to make us immune to that sort of thing…right?

Two: My Dad was a pastor for over twenty years. His legacy is one of faithful obscurity. That hasn’t always sat well with me. I’ve struggled with the idea that my Dad’s war wounds in tireless ministry (in 20 years of pastoring, we took one (1) 2-week vacation as a family; no sabbatical, no furlough, no breaks) somehow will mean less than the blogs and podcasts of M.Div. students who were fortunate enough to be social media savvy at the right time in American evangelical history. Watching a Spirit-filled, Jesus-obsessed, family-treasuring, church-serving father has challenged my instincts about what matters in conservative evangelicalism.

So, Andy’s piece resonated deeply with me. Please don’t get the idea that I write as somebody who think he’s “above it all.” Quite the contrary. Just last week I had to pray earnestly that God would help me rejoice with friends who were rejoicing in their growing platforms. Jealousy is pathetic. I could not possibly recall all the ways that I am blessed beyond measure right now, but I still have to hit my knees to avoid bitterness at friends (friends!) who seem to be getting what I want and don’t have.

That’s the point. A cavernous thirst for more success, more publicity, more book deals, more Retweets, more “Likes,” more speaking invitations…all that is perfectly ordinary. It’s perfectly worldly. It’s the way that successful and ambitious people have to think if they want to get ahead. It’s not shocking that CEOs do this. It’s shocking when disciples of Jesus Christ do it too. In the world, such an attitude is normal. In the church it is (or should be) spiritual warfare.

Andy’s essay is an alarm that something is broken, not being fixed, and has destroyed much and will destroy much more if we don’t repent. I believe this. I believe that the half-dozen scandals of conservative evangelical churches and movements that I can think of merely as I’m typing this are a warning. The brokenness is not in our theology, it’s in our desires. It’s not the people who rarely or never go to church, it’s those of us who scramble to go to every conference. We need more visits to graves. We need a churchyard faithfulness.

Churchyard faithfulness is the gospel among the tombstones. It’s ambition that’s pointed down, not up. Churchyard faithfulness is the non-extraordinary, non-Instagrammable, non-TED Talkable life of quiet obedience, patient chastity, behind-the-scenes generosity, anonymous service, and low-profile Christlikeness.  It’s the sanctification of memento mori: Remember your death, and live your life and position your joy as if no one will be able to find your tombstone in a churchyard 100 years from now.

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is more than a beautiful poem. It’s a manifesto about the kingdom. In the poem, Gray observes a collection of anonymous, seemingly unremarkable graves. Do these unremarkable graves reveal meaningless lives? On the contrary:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The picture attached to this post is of a church my wife and I passed on the way home from an Easter dinner. The church’s parking lot was closed for some reason and the grounds are right off a busy highway, so unfortunately the best I could do was slow down to look and let her take a picture. The beauty of the sight smote my soul. The church was small but its white steeple contrasted against the grey churchyard in a way that exploded with spiritual meaning for me. I felt there was something deeply correct about a graveyard connected to a church. The two places seem to exist in harmony.

The virus at the center of evangelical celebrity culture is the virus of mortality forgetfulness. Churchyard faithfulness is not fun. It may not let you buy your dream home. It won’t ensure that people know your name (in fact, it may prevent it!). But churchyard faithfulness is the faithfulness that lives in the shadow of mortality. It’s reined in by the humility that comes from considering how well the world runs without you and how well it will run long after you are an Ancestry.com pop-up. The sight of the churchyard makes the rat race feel ridiculous. That’s how we as Christians need to feel about it.

Churchyards are hard to find nowadays. The modern church planting movements don’t see much value in them. But I love how Russell Moore once described the spiritual value of graves on church grounds:

When you get a moment, find an old church graveyard and walk through it. Not for the goose bumps or ghost stories, of course, but to remind yourself of some matters of eternal weight. Walk about and see the headstones weathered and ground down by the elements. Contemplate the fact that beneath your feet are men and women who once had youthful skin and quick steps and hectic calendars, but who are now piles of forgotten bones. Think about the fact that the scattered teeth in the earth below you once sang hymns of hope–maybe “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There” or “When We All Get to Heaven.”

They are silent now. But they will sing again. They will preach again. They will testify again.

Those singing voices are not the voices of the platformed. They’re not the voices of the supremely talented, the exceptionally skilled or the really, really ridiculously good looking. They’re the voices of the kingdom. They will one day inherit the earth. And at that moment we will swear we knew their names all along.