Monthly Archives: October 2020

Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Future

In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.

The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.

Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.

Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.

Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.

Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom? Continue reading

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The Good News in Advance

We are in the second week of a series on the gospel titled, …Finally, Some Good News. This week and next, we will explore the biblical context of the gospel. We need context. Truths without context warp into half-truths and untruths. Doctrine without context becomes heresy. Content without context brings confusion.

Let me give you an example. A man was driving along a narrow country road with his German Shepherd in the back seat and his Sheltie in the front. A pickup came speeding around a curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced the man and his dogs into the ditch.

There were injuries and the car was totaled, so the man sued the driver of the pickup. While he was on the stand, the counsel for the defense said to him: “I want you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: Did you or did you not say at the time of the accident that you were ‘perfectly fine’”?

The man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when … ” but the lawyer interrupted him. “Just answer the question ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you or did you not say you were ‘perfectly fine’ at the time of the accident?”

“Well, I was driving with my dogs … ” The defense attorney stopped him again. “Your honor,” he said to the judge, “this witness is evading the question. Would you please insist that he answer?” The judge said, “Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let him speak.”

So the man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when this truck came around the curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced me off the road and into the ditch and the car rolled over. The driver stopped to help and saw my German Shepherd had been thrown from the car and was badly injured. He went to his truck, got a rifle, came back, and put her out of her misery. Then he saw my Sheltie had a broken neck, so he dispatched him too. Then, still holding the gun, he asked me if I was okay. And I said… ‘I’m perfectly fine.’

Context is important. If we don’t get the biblical context for great words like “gospel,” we will invent our own, our ideas will be skewed and our actions will be disproportionate to the truth.
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Will God Answer Your Prayers This November?

Tens of millions of people are praying that the Biden/Harris ticket wins the presidential election. Tens of millions of people are praying that the Trump/Pence ticket wins. That means that whoever wins in November, tens of millions of people will be disappointed.

The fact that millions of people can pray for mutually exclusive outcomes is a problem, if not for God, at least for theologians. But it is also a problem for the people doing the praying. They passionately desire a particular result. They genuinely believe their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others – the nation, even the world – hangs on a positive answer to their request.

Yet tens of millions of people will not receive a positive answer to their request. What are they to think? That God has abandoned them? That God does not care; that he is, as the ancient Greeks believed, apathetic about human needs?

Many of us have prayed desperately for something – in my case, healing for a family member – only to be disappointed. What is a person to think then, when the job that was absolutely perfect (or at least urgently needed) falls through or when a son or daughter sinks deeper into self-destructive behaviors?

This is sometimes referred to as the “problem of unanswered prayer,” but I’ve noticed that unanswered prayer is a much bigger problem on some occasions than on others. If my prayer for nice weather for the church picnic goes unanswered, I can say, “Oh, well, the farmers needed the rain more than we needed the sun.” But if my prayer for my child’s survival goes unanswered, I will not say, “Oh, well…”
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Fake News

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries people chose the term “post-truth” as their “word of the year.” Questions about truth and even doubts about there being such a thing pervade society. A number of things have brought us to this place, not least of which is the ubiquitous presence in our lives of social and news media.

Our days are saturated with information, whether about people we know on Facebook or about the president of the United States on the evening news. Some of this news (and in certain settings, much of it) is either fake or what I call “enhanced” news. Fake news reports something that is not true and has not happened as though it is true and has happened. Enhanced news presents something that has happened but does so in a way that is intended to move the reader or listener in a certain direction.

When I am in the car, I frequently listen to classical music, which is presented on a platform that includes hourly news updates. The corporation behind that news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. But for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words that at best reflect the new staffs’ biases and at worst expose a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. That is enhanced news.

Can we trust what we hear? Did you know that many of the online sites you visit employ tools to covertly influence your thinking? Some are relatively straightforward (paying people to submit likes or to become followers), while others are more sophisticated, like stuffing online polls, forcing site owners to take down stories, crashing entire sites, and more.

A study from Carnegie Mellon found that something like 45% of tweets on the coronavirus originated from bots – automated computer programs – instead of people. Evidence points to China’s and Russia’s involvement. Furthermore, 80% of the most retweeted posts on Twitter came from bots. The “likes” that boost a post and give it visibility often come from bots created by people who are trying to game the system.

In this environment, who can we trust? I say, “In this environment,” but fake and enhanced news is not news; there is nothing new about it. Fake news has been a thing throughout our lives. What’s more, it was a thing in our great grandparents’ lives and a thing in the lives of the apostles and prophets. Fake news has been around forever. It’s just the form it takes that is new.

The difference between real news and fake (or enhanced) news is that someone tells real news because something has happened. Someone tells fake news because they want something to happen. Keep that difference in mind for a few minutes.
We are starting a series today on the gospel: what it is and what it means. In the weeks to come we will look at the context of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the consequences of the gospel. What do we do with the gospel? What does it do with us?
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…finally, some Good News

We’re beginning a new series that examines what the biblical writers and the early church meant when it spoke of the gospel. We will look first to the Old Testament, to Genesis, where the gospel is “preached in advance,” according … Continue reading

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Forgiveness Acts as an Identity Marker

Some of the key markers that a person is truly following Jesus are generosity, truthfulness, and faithfulness. Add to that humility, regard for enemies, and a readiness to admit wrongdoing. These are not things that immediately catch the eye, but, over time, they cannot help but become apparent.

The characteristic that stands out most strikingly against the backdrop of today’s anger culture is the Christian’s willingness to forgive. Self-righteousness is spreading more rapidly than the coronavirus and causing inestimable harm. The self-righteous can boast about many things, but the one thing they cannot do is forgive.

The telltale sign of this occurred when the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston forgave the white supremacist who killed nine of their members, including their pastor. They did so in obedience to their Lord. Yet their forgiveness sparked almost as much outrage as Dylann Roof’s mass murder.

This kind of thing is everywhere evident in our culture. Americans cannot forgive the failings (almost universal at the time) of their founding fathers nor their current leaders’ adolescent faults. Recently, the Sierra Club disowned its own founder for views he held as a young man and almost certainly came to abandon. People cannot even forgive themselves since they refuse to acknowledge their own sins.

Yet Jesus taught his followers to forgive everyone, brothers and sisters, and even enemies. Continue reading

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