Every now and then, I get an email from Ira Rifkin, who for many years wrote “Global Wire” posts for GetReligion about journalism issues in international events and trends. He signed off about half a year ago with an edgy post called, “Ciao, GetReligion: Thanks, all, for my tenure. Critic that I am, though, here are some final thoughts.”
With his unique mix of Jewish and Buddhist disciplines, Rifkin was also a keen observer of new ideas and concepts linked to what mass media tends to call “spirituality,” as opposed to more conventional forms of religious faith.
Several weeks ago, he send me a URL for a Los Angeles Times feature that ran with this headline: “Can religion save us from artificial intelligence?”
I immediately put it into my “think piece” file, but held on to it for a while to put some cushion between it and my podcast/post with this title: “When is preaching a ‘news’ story? Ah, the temptation of ChatGPT sermons.” Here is a byte of that:
Right now, one of the hot topics in the public square is the rise of artificial intelligence and, to be specific, the ChatGPT website. Thus, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on several “newsy” angles of the recent Associated Press story that ran with the headline, “Pastors’ view: Sermons written by ChatGPT will have no soul.” …
During the podcast, I riffed on the whole issue that different kinds of technology can shape the content of communications in different ways. If ChatGPT sermons have a sense of “soul,” it would be a “soul” that is defined by the creator of the software and the tech platform.
The Los Angeles Times story that Rifkin sent me opens with an AI sermon hook — but the issue at the heart of the story is much, much bigger than that.
Nevertheless, it helps to start this “think piece” recommendation with that feature’s overture:
Sometimes Rabbi Joshua Franklin knows exactly what he wants to talk about in his weekly Shabbat sermons — other times, not so much. It was on one of those not-so-much days on a cold afternoon in late December that the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons decided to turn to artificial intelligence.
Franklin, 38, who has dark wavy hair and a friendly vibe, knew that OpenAI’s new ChatGPT program could write sonnets in the style of Shakespeare and songs in the style of Taylor Swift. Now, he wondered if it could write a sermon in the style of a rabbi.
So he gave it a prompt: “Write a sermon, in the voice of a rabbi, about 1,000 words, connecting the Torah portion this week with the idea of intimacy and vulnerability, quoting Brené Brown” — the bestselling author and researcher known for her work on vulnerability, shame and empathy.
The result, which he shared that evening in the synagogue’s modern blond wood sanctuary and later posted on Vimeo, was a coherent if repetitive talk that many in his congregation guessed had been crafted by famous rabbis.
“You’re clapping,” Franklin said after revealing that the sermon he’d just delivered was composed by a computer. “I’m terrified.”
Like I said, the topic to which Rifkin wanted to draw attention was much more philosophical in nature.