What’s the Theology of Big Data?

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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.

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Palm Sunday: It’s Hard To Weaponise Donkeys (Matthew 21:1-11)

There’s a dark impulse buried just beneath the surface of humanity, a desire to look at our environment and our relationships and our technologies and figure out how to use them to harm others. In this week leading up to Palm Sunday we’ve seen a city terrorised by homemade bombs, the use of data to manipulate public opinion and emerging trade wars. Everything is weaponised through our MacGuyver-like potential to turn anything into a blunt instrument to use against our enemies.

But Palm Sunday offers us a different path. We use the language of Empire to describe it – triumphal entry – but in reality Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is a journey born of satire and it’s heading to a cross. This is the announcement of a different kind of Kingdom, a new kind of king. Jesus rides in humility, he rides towards Good Friday. Maybe, deep down, we find this difficult to stomach: we turn everything into swords, from metals to social media, but it’s hard to weaponise a donkey.

Maybe we would have preferred Jesus to ride in a chariot, pulled by a war horse and followed by a parade of cavalry and nuclear missiles. That would be a show of strength, of power, our enemies would tremble. All we have to do is press a convenient red button and we unleash the fury of our weapons, of our economy, of Facebook and Twitter.

On Palm Sunday, meanwhile, Jesus unleashes the fury of a donkey. It’s hard to know what to do with that. We want him to sanctify our budgets and our bombs, our guns and greatness, all the while wrapping himself in the flags of our kingdoms.

But these things don’t mirror Jesus, they mirror us, our rage and fear. And who would fear an empire heralded by a pack animal, a child’s seaside distraction, by Eeyore and Shrek’s best mate? We talk about following the Prince of Peace, but that’s a moot point if we can’t even respect his mode of transport.

But still Jesus rides a borrowed donkey towards Good Friday. And we can either follow him wherever he leads, or ditch his parade for one lead by tanks and swords. Palm Sunday, our choice.

Why We Need Young People To Be Theologians

In a recent post, James Ballantyne makes the case for treating young people in our churches as theologians – people who can think about faith, interpret it, contextualise it. And that’s an important point, because we need young people to do this. We want to see them grow in faith, we want to see them reflect something of the beauty of Christ in their lives. But we also need to listen to them and learn from them. Because they’re not just visiting Mars Hill, they grew up there. Most of us didn’t.

I can sit here and think about how much the world has changed in my lifetime: personal computers, the end of the Cold War, the internet, shrinking congregations, fewer pipe organs, more guitars, ten different Doctors. But to my kids, this isn’t some transformed environment, it’s just life. I don’t have their perspective on things; I don’t navigate this shifted world like a native.

That means we have to support young people with tools to think theologically about their world, because that’s where new insights and creative thinking will emerge. The Church body will be stronger if it can empower people to look at the spiritual implications of the questions that face us:

How do we respond to climate change?

What are the consequences of increased automation and jobs in industrial areas?

What does talking about faith look like when you play video games with friends from around the world?

What does hope and trust mean when you’re being cyber-bullied, when a leading cause of death among young people is suicide?

What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a world of decentralised, unpredictable terrorism?

What do church gatherings need to look like when everything is increasingly indivisualised and wagged by the long tail?

These are just some of the questions that will shape our faith and practice in the decades to come, that inform society as young people come of age, the problems caused by previous generations that will have to be fixed by the next. We do our young people a disservice if we expect them to just rely on what we have to say, on what we were taught by our parents. Because while the bedrock and heartbeat of Christ persist eternally, many other things will shift, mutate and change.

Part of this will involve having answers to questions we’ve never worried about before. Some of it will involve having the grace to admit we don’t have all the answers. We’ll need the wisdom to teach young people how to think theologically for themselves; we’ll need the humility to learn from them. And we’ll need the Spirit to bring all this together with truth and love, and to bring change where that’s needed.

Young people aren’t just the future of the Church, they’re its present. That’s a cliché, but we need to embrace their gifts, their passion, their insights and yes, their leadership. We need to hand them the future.

Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’s always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, rage with those who rage and cry out for justice, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day (Acts 1:1-11)

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.