What’s the Theology of Big Data?


The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of revelations around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the use of Big Data in influencing political campaigns and elections in the UK, US, Hungary and Nigeria. Much of this was around using information gathered from social media profiles, with the true depth of it all still waiting to be revealed. It’s a bewildering matrix of companies and individuals and manipulations.

Beneath it all though, there’s a familiar story: the desire for power. The idea that using our data and online footprints can create a means to control and manipulate people and events is bound to be intoxicating in a world where communication and commerce are dominated by the internet. And all that means that there’s a theological component to all this, one that needs to be wrestled with. The Lord knows the number of the hairs on our head; these guys want that information so that they can sell us combs and tell us to dislike bald people.

Okay, that’s sparky, but it raises the question of narratives. The whole point of this collection of data is to help various organisations get their message across, to communicate a story. That involves targeted adverts and constructed narratives, and frankly some of those aren’t healthy, often demonising others or propagating, to use an over-played term “Fake News”. There’s an army of bots out there, and our data is used to give them their marching orders, and that means we’re absorbing messages that are deliberately constructed to speak to our baser instincts. So what does that means for our discipleship when we’re being hit with goodness knows what other messages? I know that’s always been the case, marketing and advertising and what have you, but it was easier to ignore billboards when they were personalised and pointed directly at our lizard brains.

This also gives the concept of truth a kicking, now that “Fake News” has come to mean more than just a lie; it’s anything that someone wants you to think is unimportant, or simply something they disagree with. And you can only hear someone shout “Fake News” so many times before the seeds of doubt are planted – the whole idea seems to be to keep the ground shifting, to make us distrust everything. It keeps the world nice and malleable.

(I know this makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Stick with me.)

There’s also the way in which all this renders people made in the Image of God as products, commodities. We become data footprints to be bought and sold, so many pieces to be moved around a chessboard. This sounds extreme, but it’s the danger that lurks behind any enterprise motivated primarily by power and money. Our humanity – all those pictures we liked, all those websites we visited, all those conversations we shared – become commodified. Our lives become invisible tokens of trade, and that diminishes us, like anything else that sees us as less than image bearers of the divine.

There’s also a practical, pastoral implication to all this – which online platforms do our congregations use – is your church active on Facebook, for instance? In which case, how do the revelations of the last few weeks impact that – how we use it, what information can be gleaned from it? Maybe it’s worth an audit of sorts. Certainly it’s worth a chat with your fellowship’s resident IT expert. And while there may be a gut instinct to burn it all down, we also need to remember that social media can be a spiritual lifeline for those who can’t attend a church in person. There aren’t straight-forward solutions, the world’s just got complicated. Again.

I don’t have any smart answers to any of this – to be honest, I don’t think anyone does. The whole thing is a brave new world, the sort of thing that got mentioned in old sci-fi novels and dystopian fiction and we now how to view it in some sort of theological framework. And that’s a challenge because, bless it, the Church has often had something of the ocean liner about it when it comes to social change. Maybe that’s why we need young people to be theologians.

Sooner or later we’re going to be faced with figuring out the spiritual implications of AI, or finding ourselves operating ‘Smart Churches’ and we owe it to our brothers and sisters in the faith (and, frankly, everyone else), to try and get ahead of things for once. Because this isn’t about the world changing – it’s already changed. We need to figure out what that means for us living and responding as Christ in that world.

Martin Luther King Jr

Fifty years on and Martin Luther King Jr is an icon, the Civil Rights hero, the non-violent activist, the man with a Dream who preached from the mountaintop. We respect him, honour him, hold him up as one of the towering figures of our time. My ten year old, born continents and decades away from Jim Crow and Ebenezer Baptist knows who he is, what he did.

But King was a prophet, and so we run the risk of neutering him if we try and freeze him in sanitised amber. He’s an icon now, but fifty years ago many people hated him, firebombed his house, kept detailed FBI files on him. Today we don’t commemorate a man who died peacefully of old age, we remember a man who was gunned down at the age of 39.

He was murdered in Memphis, in town to support a sanitation workers strike, part of his attempts to establish the Poor People’s Campaign against poverty. We tend to see King purely as a Civil Rights leader but that ignores his work against militarism and economic injustice. His legacy is more complex, more vital, more relevant than we find comfortable.

Because we can’t commemorate King’s death without hearing the cries of Black Lives Matter, without being outraged at children going to school hungry, without acknowledging police brutality and cultures of violence. It’s possible to see a long way from the mountaintop.

There are prophets in the world. History teaches us that we don’t always put them on pedestals until after we kill them. May the lesson of MLK50 be that we hear the words of those who see further, who see the truth; hear their words and act on them before we murder another generation of prophets before erecting statues in their honour.

Resurrection Sunday: Listen to the Women (John 20:11-18)

It’s Mary who first meets the risen Jesus, and it’s hard to tell if this is by design or not; after all, the male disciples are in hiding at this point, and even those who venture out to investigate rumours of an empty tomb don’t stick around long enough to talk to any gardeners. Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles, she’s an evangelist to the runaways and the denier. And why not? It was the women who stuck around, after all.

That legacy continues. A woman taught me to preach, the theology side of it anyway. I worship in churches where women lead and preach and manage. I’m grateful for writers and speakers like Kaitlin Curtice and Rachel Held Evans and Wilda Gafney and Rachel Mann and others like them. It’s patronising to suggest the Church is stronger for them; without women, the Church would collapse. And I know Paul wrote two thousand years ago about a particular church in a particular environment in a particular age, but we can’t see that as frozen in amber while the Spirit continues to call women to be prophets, pastors, preachers.

So yes, this blog is always going to support women in church leadership but that’s hardly a big deal. I grew up in the Methodist Church and so the idea that women can’t be ministers and preachers and deacons is an alien concept.

And yet still not as alien as the abuse and silencing and condescension and violence faced by women who follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and speak out. Because, and I’m speaking specifically to men here, if your immediate response to a woman speaking about Christ is to dismiss them as a heretic or uppity or a tool of Satan, it’s probably worth taking a trip back to the garden, to the morning where the men were cowards and traitors and liars and a woman proclaimed Christ risen.

So it’s Easter Sunday morning, and we listen to Mary, who stuck by the Saviour, who treated him with dignity in death and was the first to meet him in new life. And as we join together and announce that “Christ is risen!”, let’s remember that the first person to say this was a woman.

Easter Sunday: A Nice Day to Start Again (John 20:10-18)

Mary is the first person to glimpse the new world, although she almost doesn’t recognise it. After all, the new world appears on the horizon unexpectedly, an encounter with a gardener who isn’t-but-is a gardener helping her to see a more glorious vision through the tears.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

This is a statement that reprogrammes everything, that reinvents and redefines our realities. If we proclaim, like Mary, a risen Jesus, we proclaim that the world isn’t how it once was, that a new Kingdom is inaugurated. We proclaim that our hearts are risen with Christ.

Therein lies a problem. Because too often we like the old kingdoms, those built on violence and power and privilege. And so we celebrate Easter as a transaction, we insure our afterlife like we insure our car, our house, and “Christ is risen!” becomes the shortest policy document ever written.

But Easter is far more than that, Easter is a cosmic reboot and that should affect everything. How we relate to others, how we spend our money, how we vote, how we speak, how we live. Easter should rewire us. The question is, do we allow this to happen?

Easter changes everything. It has to. And we can either pretend that is doesn’t or walk forward, with Mary, into a new world, new territory, new possibilities where we aren’t limited by what went before, where we can lean into a greater vision that isn’t limited by our institutions, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our fear.

For some this is liberating; for others it’s terrifying. Change always is. Transformation always is. We can roll with it or we can fight it.

Too often we try to co-opt it, but that won’t last, no matter how comfortable it makes us. Sooner or later Jesus will burst in and tip our tables, a warning shot before we try to crucify him all over again.

So it’s Resurrection Sunday. A time to start again, a time to confess, a time in which chains can be broken, things can be different, hope can be born. A time to let go, a time to stand up, a time to turn around, a time to find something new, something vital among the graves, in the quiet of the sacred morning.