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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Tombs for the Prophets: A post on Martin Luther King

Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because they’re less likely to beat us in response to our own violence.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead

Epiphany and the Illusion of Power (Matthew 2:1-18)

The Magi went to the palace first.

Eventually they would kneel before Jesus, but first they’d be distracted by earthly power, a magnificent palace, a king who whispered in the ear of emperors. It’s a distraction that’s understandable, but still it leads to an atrocity. The pursuit of power so often does.

Then, when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem they find God, toddling and crying, graze-kneed and circumcised. Godhead made uncoordinated and babbling, death squads just days away and the Omnipotent forced to run.

It’s a strange sort of power that’s revealed at the Epiphany, certainly not the power we see worshipped today, not the power we seek for ourselves in a twisted attempt to build the Kingdom of God with the bricks of Empire. Epiphany reveals God in vulnerability and in nappies, the Word of God without words. This isn’t where we look for power, we don’t look among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. We look to the rich, the connected, we turn on the vulnerable out of a never-ending fear, we want to drive away the homeless to make way for a royal wedding. Two thousand years after the Magi blundered into Herod’s palace and we still make the same mistake.

There’s an ongoing temptation to look for God in all the wrong places. That’s when we need to remember that God stands with the weak, the oppressed, the persecuted, the poor; we need to remember that God works not in our arrogance, our pride, our confidence but in our weakness, our vulnerability, our brokenness. Maybe this Epiphany it’s not about asking why we can’think see God; maybe it’s about confronting whether we’re looking for Him in the right place; if we’re truly looking for God or just the trappings of power.

Some brief theological musings on The Last Jedi (spoilers)

(Spoilers throughout, so if you’re planning on seeing The Last Jedi, you might want to wait ’til you have before you read this one…)

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 2017 is therefore a good year for the Jedi to have their own Reformation.

That’s what The Last Jedi is: a moment of crisis in a belief system that, through either corruption or mistakes, has failed the galaxy. Luke in particular has given up, the weight of his own failings convincing him that his religion needs to quietly die with him. Better for the whole thing to die than the mistakes of the Skywalker family to lead to more suffering and oppression.

But there’s a younger generation stepping forward, a generation that has sought the wisdom of its elders but that has subsequently been let down or manipulated. And because this is unsustainable, The Last Jedi sees characters like Rey taking a stand: they can’t perpetuate the mistakes of the past, can’t be led or mentored by men who can’t see under their own noses or, even worse, only seek to maintain their own poisonous brand of power.

So Rey has to become a leader herself, and in doing so teaches Luke what needs to be done for the Jedi Order to survive. And she does this instinctively but falteringly, making mistakes but still offering Luke a measure of grace that gives him and the faith a way forward. The old ways have to die, but they offer a foundation on which to build something more able to serve and save a galaxy torn apart by war. The legalism and rigidity of the past, which arguably led to the chaos, heartbreak and war we’ve seen across nine movies to date need to be burned down so that everyone can move on.

The journey of Luke and Rey contrasts with that of Ben Solo, who, when offered the chance to move beyond a family legacy that’s become toxic, just falls deeper under its spell. He uses the language of a reformer, but really it’s all just the same old ranting: he needs to be in charge because only he can lead, only he can do things right. He’s trying to be his grandfather, but all he’s doing is repeating Vader’s sins rather than following his path of redemption. He actively rejects redemption, because all that matters is power, as much power as possible, never mind how many people get hurt, never mind how many people die. To use Yoda’s metaphor, he’s only interested in looking towards a horizon where everything’s ‘perfect’ while missing what’s right in front of him. He misses the wisdom summed up by new character Rose: “We don’the win by killing what we hate,” she says, “We win by saving what we love.”

Rey, when offered the same choice, does the right thing, going to help those who need her most. She’s not part of this legacy that’s become a millstone; despite plenty of fan speculation, her parents were ‘nobodies’ and therefore she’s free to follow her own path. Throughout the film we’re reminded of what’s at stake for those who aren’t Skywalkers, who aren’t ‘chosen’, the extras along the hero’s journey, and in doing so the story starts to reorientate itself on the margins.

That’s why it’s important that, at the end of the movie, the future lies in the hands of women and people of colour, voices that traditionally haven’t been front and centre throughout the whole Star Wars franchise. The only way forward is to start listening to marginalised voices, to be led from the margins, because otherwise the poison from within can overwhelm the body, the cracks in the foundations can bring the whole edifice to the ground.

The Last Jedi is about change, it’s about power, it’s about toxic legacies and about who gets to lead us into the future. Maybe, in this Reformation year, it has more to teach us than we might at first have thought.

Childermas Again (Matthew 2:13-18)

Dawn breaks on the Feast of Holy Innocents, on memories and statistics: Manchester Arena and Kameron Prescott, North Park Elementary and Aztec High School, Yemen and Syria. Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. One in four children in the UK are affected by poverty, 21% in the US, 1 billion worldwide. Children are bought and sold for sex, we hand children guns and force them to be soldiers. Herod’s shadow still stalks the land.

Only that’s not true, is it? Because Herod’s not our shadow, he’s our mirror. We write off the Slaughter of the Innocents as an anomolous event aimed at killing the Son of God, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s yet another example of a normalised assault on children. If Herod was our historical dark side rather than our twin, we wouldn’t see churches covering up child abuse, we wouldn’t see so many bombs falling on civilians, we wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back as politicians enact policies that push more children into poverty.

The Slaughter of the Innocents was all about who gets to be king, and the children of Bethlehem were that most obscene of euphemisms, “collateral damage”. Given the situation facing many children throughout the last twelve months, we’re more open to Herod being king than Jesus.

Maybe that’s why it’s so important to celebrate Holy Innocents: not simply because it reminds us of the crimes of Herod, but because of its present reality. It’s a time to remember the realities of the season now we’ve stopped greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” and started to return to our ordinary lives. It’s a time to remember that Christmas has consequences, and that’s not just about distant atrocities but about the societies and cultures in which we live, the societies and cultures we help create with our spending, our attitudes, our blessings, our silence.

We live in worlds in which Herod still occupies a throne and in which it’s still children who suffer the most as a result. On the Feast of Holy Innocents, it’s time to stop empowering that.