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AI: ‘Waffle, waffle, and more waffle’

by
01 September 2023

The Church Times asked ChatGPT to comment on the week’s readings . . . and Cally Hammond to comment on the commentary

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Journeying through faith by ChatGPT

THE Church of England lectionary readings for today invite believers to embark on a profound spiritual journey through a tapestry of emotions, challenges, and divine wisdom. The scriptures from Jeremiah 15.15-21, Psalm 26.1-8, Romans 12.9-21, and Matthew 16.21-28 resonate with timeless messages of faith, resilience, and selfless love, guiding Christians in navigating the complexities of life while remaining steadfast in their devotion to God.

The passage from Jeremiah 15.15-21 portrays a poignant dialogue between the prophet and God, revealing Jeremiah’s honest expressions of frustration, fear, and disappointment. In this raw and intimate conversation, Jeremiah questions God’s faithfulness amidst his own suffering. However, as the passage unfolds, Jeremiah’s trust and dependence on God become evident. The reading highlights the significance of open and genuine communication with God in times of doubt and adversity. It teaches us that seeking solace in God’s promises and unwavering love can lead to personal transformation and a renewed sense of purpose.

Psalm 26.1-8 complements Jeremiah’s introspection, expressing the Psalmist’s unwavering devotion to God and desire for divine guidance. The Psalmist’s call for God’s vindication reflects the yearning for justice and righteousness amidst a world plagued by injustice and deceit. This reading encourages Christians to examine their own hearts and conduct, seeking God’s grace and purification to walk in integrity and righteousness.

Transitioning to Romans 12.9-21, the apostle Paul sets forth a profound exhortation to embody genuine love and harmony within the Christian community and beyond. This passage resonates deeply with the theme of selfless love and kindness, urging believers to extend grace to both friends and enemies alike. Paul’s call for empathy and humility fosters a culture of compassion, nurturing an environment where the faithful can support one another through life’s challenges. As Christians embrace this teaching, they become beacons of hope and agents of reconciliation in a world that often seems divided.

In Matthew 16.21-28, the Gospel narrative takes a dramatic turn as Jesus foretells his impending suffering and death. Peter’s reaction to this revelation draws attention to the human struggle of comprehending divine plans. Jesus’ response, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me,” serves as a stern reminder that embracing God’s will requires surrendering our own understanding and desires. This passage encourages Christians to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ wholeheartedly, even in the face of daunting challenges.

Collectively, these readings weave a tapestry of faith that emphasises the transformative power of seeking God, cultivating authentic love for one another, and surrendering to God’s divine plan. In today’s fast-paced and often unpredictable world, the Church of England lectionary readings provide an anchor of stability, guiding believers in their pursuit of a deeper relationship with God and their fellow human beings.

As Christians reflect on Jeremiah’s resilience, the Psalmist’s integrity, Paul’s message of love, and Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice, they find enduring principles to live by. The readings remind believers that the Christian journey is not one of perfection but a continuous process of growth, learning, and repentance.

Furthermore, these passages challenge the Church to engage with contemporary issues with compassion and empathy, advocating for justice, and extending mercy to the marginalised and oppressed. They invite believers to actively participate in transforming society through love, humility, and reconciliation.

In conclusion, the Church of England lectionary readings from Jeremiah 15.15-21, Psalm 26.1-8, Romans 12.9-21, and Matthew 16.21-28 offer profound insights into the Christian faith. They encourage believers to confront their doubts and fears with honesty, seek God’s guidance in every aspect of life, and live out their faith through love and compassion. In embracing these teachings, Christians can find strength, purpose, and meaning on their journey of faith, becoming beacons of light in a world that yearns for hope and healing.

 

Cally Hammond’s commentary

WHEN we first learn to analyse text, we tend to make two headings. One is “content”: what information is the text giving me? what point of view is it persuading me to adopt? The other heading is “form”. Into this category go things that we think of as secondary: the style of writing (Irvine Welsh or Jane Austen?); the genre (novel or satire?), the choice of vocabulary (formal or colloquial?). This would suggest that the important thing about a text is factual content. Style is mere verbal decoration, like fancy wrapping round a valuable gift.

We can learn to give attention to texts as editors do, by scanning for repetition, deviation, and obscurity; or as reviewers or students do, weighing the force of arguments, responding to the tone of the language (eirenic or polemical? Does the style disguise weak arguments or factual omissions?). Then it becomes clear that the form/content division is not so simple. The way in which we say things is part of the things that we say.

My view on this is not objective. Perhaps, if ChatGPT composes columns that are “good” (whatever that means), the Church Times will stop asking people like me to write. I am not a trained journalist, either. But I try to be economical with words, and to use rhetoric sparingly. I teach students that the quickest way to improve a piece of argument (with the bonus effect of reducing word counts) is (1) cut all the adverbs (this includes words like “very”, “basically”, and “actually”); (2) cut all the adjectives.

We love adjectives and adverbs because they mitigate definiteness. If we are deprived of our “rathers”, “somewhats”, and “possiblys”, our opinions are starkly exposed, and we have to defend them without the comfort blanket of wriggle room.

 

NOW to the ChatGPT version of the Sunday’s Readings column. My first impression was: “waffle, waffle, and more waffle”. The style gave me no confidence in the content. The text had a slippery quality, and I struggled to retain what it said. Good rhetoric grabs the attention and holds it fixed. Bad rhetoric lets the words, spoken or read (I tried both methods with the text), slide through our consciousness, leaving little trace.

I wondered whether I was being unfair to my AI counterpart (something that I doubt it was wrestling with as it composed). So, I did an analysis of some prominent features in the ChatGPT passage, and compared my version.

 

MY FIRST impression was that the ChatGPT text was swollen with redundant tricola (phrases in three parts, like “friends, Romans, countrymen”, or “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”); “Cranmerian” doublets (like “hearts and minds”); and attributive adjectives. So I did a count.

I found eight tricola (e.g. “growth, learning, and repentance”; “love, humility, and reconciliation”). There were even more doublets, at 17 (e.g. “justice and righteousness”; “integrity and righteousness”). But the attributive adjectives took the biscuit with 25, a conservative count. For example, “profound” was applied to three different nouns, and so effectively meant nothing. “Selfless”, “genuine”, and “unwavering” all appeared twice. The noun “compassion” was used three times.

The resonances of these words, as of other potentially powerful words that appeared repeatedly (“doubt”, “justice”, “empathy”, “yearn”, etc.), were never explored for their specific relevance to Christians, or with any theological precision. They were just spread like butter over the toast of the text, to help it to slip down the gullet more easily. I was left thinking “At least nothing was ‘enfolded’.” “Enfolded” has become an overworked adjective in Christian prayer-speak, much as “enrobed” is on the guide to a box of mid-price chocolates.

In fairness to ChatGPT, I did count two firm factual statements. One was that “Jeremiah questions God’s faithfulness” — though it said nothing about whether this was normal or shocking. The other referred to Jesus’s prediction of his Passion. There was another factual statement — “This passage [is] urging believers to extend grace to both friends and enemies alike” — which sounded nice, but is theologically questionable.

 

I USED one tricolon, seven Cranmerian doublets (plus one in a quotation), and eight attributive adjectives (which I could have cut, but chose to keep for feel and colour). Repetition was minimal. Of course it was. I try not to fill up a word limit, but, rather, squeeze as much content as possible into my budget. As for factual statements, I counted ten (approximately — readers may think I have been over-generous to myself).

Different people find different things in the Bible, and that is as it should be. To make this analysis more rigorous, I would have to continue the comparison over time. Would ChatGPT-me adapt and keep learning, or continue composing in the same style? I can only guess at the answer.

 

WHEN a congregation listens to a sermon, it takes into account not only the arguments, but also the person preaching. When God is the subject matter, the medium (author or preacher) is part of the message. In the Church Times, readers are told the writers’ names because they guarantee the content. The question “Should I believe X?” is better understood as, “Should I believe such-and-such a person when they tell me about X?”

Trustworthy sources (the Church Times) and trustworthy authors (Cally Hammond, Angela Tilby, Malcolm Guite, etc.) are at least partly what people are buying when they pay their subscription or cover price. It is a significant drawback of ChatGPT-generated content that it cannot supply that “authentic voice” of someone who has studied, applied, and lived by the words that they write; or the “authentic voice” of a source that has a history of putting reliable, wholesome, and unbiased content before its readership. To put it another way, there is a reason that “author” and “authoritative” are part of the same verbal idea.

 

THIS was one of the most interesting writing challenges that I have tackled for the Church Times. I sometimes say that there are some passages of scripture which I dislike preaching or writing on, because anything that is added to the bare scripture text is otiose and worthless by comparison. The starkness of scripture is one of many reasons that it goes on engaging and inspiring me.

Unlike scripture, ChatGPT seems to make reflecting on God and his message a doddle. But you do not have to look very carefully to notice that this emperor has no clothes on.

Then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Details of the Church Times AI webinar here

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