I’ve been thinking all weekend about a story that flashed by
On my Facebook feed on Friday morning.
“Is Google Censoring Jesus?” The magazine title read.
“It knows Buddha…Muhammad, but not Christian Savior.”[i]
That’s the Newsweek headline,
Exploring a little further the work of a local television outlet outside of Nashville.
The subject of that story is a guy named David.
David owns some of those in home gadgets that respond to your voice
That will conduct an internet search or maybe it will play some music.
They might connect to other gadgets to turn off your lights
Or close your garage door.
These so called “smart speakers” remind me a lot
of the Star Trek episodes of my childhood
When Kirk and Spock and Bones could communicate with The Enterprise
with fancy handheld technology
Only to be outdone by Picard and Riker and their even fancier lapel pins.
The computerized world of Star Trek actually resembles a lot
of what Google or Apple can do
as anyone who has tried to ask Siri to check the weather can tell you.
I don’t own a Google Home.
So I don’t quite know how they work, exactly,
But I’ve seen them.
They connect to the internet and do what any search can do
With all the power, and the limitations, of contemporary technology.
They work quite well if you speak slowly enough
for the equipment to hear you
for it to process your voice into digital data,
1s and 0s that it can parse from all the various possibilities
of what you might have said
Discern a request from all of that
Send that request off to their crazy powerful server
Where it will compute it, return the data,
and give it back to you in a reasonably clear humanlike voice, all in nanoseconds.
Google won’t tell us quite how many requests it processes every year.
Back in 2012, one website said that they processed about 40,000 queries a second,
Or 3.5 billion a day, 1.2 Trillion a year.[ii]
In 2016 the number was, Google says, “at least 2 Trillion a year,
but less than a quadrillion” Somewhere around 60,000 a second.[iii]
They have trouble getting the exact data, its changing so rapidly.
And that was before these in-home units, these Smart Speakers,
Have brought Google search technology that much closer to our everyday lives.
It doesn’t work so well for everyone.
Some of us who naturally talk quite fast,
Or who slur some speech
Or who have a pronounced accent
Or who can’t quite grasp the protocol
Sometimes we get frustrated.
Somehow Google doesn’t get frustrated. Or it doesn’t say so if it does.
I use this search feature on my cell phone, all the time.
Its not perfect.
I’m flying to Louisville for a quick meeting this week
And when I went to check the weather there
It told me about the weather in Charlottesville.
I confess, I may have been in a hurry when I asked it.
But we get so used to this technology that we get frustrated when its not perfect.
A comedian once did an entire standup routine
About our frustrations with our cell phones taking 3 seconds to launch a call
When the gadget can send our voice INTO SPACE
Up to a satellite, and back down again, all they way on the other side of the planet.
The cell phone is a technological marvel,
A testimony to human ingenuity and capability
And we gripe when apps get frozen and we have to reboot.[iv]
Ok, maybe we’re getting too far off topic.
But maybe not.
So David, in Nashville Tennessee,
Was using his Google Home smart speaker, and a similar one from Amazon,
And asked both of them “Who is Jesus Christ.”[v]
And Google responded “I’m not sure how to help you with that.”
He said to Fox 17 Nashville:
“I even asked Google who is David Sams?
Google knew who I was,
But Google didn’t know who Jesus was.
Google did not know who Jesus Christ was,
And Google did not know who God was.”
David called Fox 17, who told all of Nashville,
Who told all sorts of other Fox affiliates around the country
And the story ended up on Facebook and
Breitbart and Christian Broadcasting Network
And apparently Newsweek too this weekend.
A lot of people are bent out of shape about this.
Another sign, it seems, that mainstream culture is out to get Christianity
To make it less of a thing, you know.
There’s a war going on out there, they worry
And its about me and my faith and what I hold dear
And everything out there is lined up against me.
Or so the thinking goes.
That local news story that brought this whole thing to light
Quotes another local Nashville resident, her name is Martin,
Who was asked about all of this:
“They took prayer out of schools,” she said,
they think just taking Jesus out of everything is politically correct these days
and I think that’s the stem of a lot of our problems,”
Martin “has no doubt,” the story continued, that
“Google purposefully programmed Jesus out of its audio speakers
‘to keep from stepping on toes, political correctness…
that seems to be more important these days than what’s right, and what’s wrong.”
All of that spread around the internet at dizzying speed Friday morning
Before I even had a chance for a second cup of coffee.
Later that day, Google did have a chance to respond.
It turns out that they do, actually,
moderate how responses to religious figures work on these in-home devices
but out of respect, not disrespect.
They’re not trying to step on the toes of Christians to keep Christ out of Google.
The issue is that the speaker is a limited interface.
You’re asking the device for info and trusting that what it returns is accurate,
and helpful, and relatively true.
And because Google looks all over the web,
and people put all sorts of things on the internet
things you ask it are vulnerable to spam, or vandalism, or crude language
Apparently people do this a lot for religion, online.
“If our [smart speakers] detect such circumstances,
the [digital] assistant might not reply.”[vi]
In other words, this is a feature, not a bug
Meant to not insult people unintentionally.
But no good deed goes unpunished,
And here is Google with a huge public relations nightmare
And millions of quite sensitive Christians
Certain that their faith is being attacked, yet again,
By some big giant conspiracy to destroy what we believe.
I don’t know about you
But I worry about this mindset.
That our faith is fragile enough to be impacted
By whether a gadget knows enough about Jesus
To be able to tell me so.
Even though, if I know how, I can go to Google myself on my computer
And type in Jesus Christ,
And find all sorts of rich, deeply useful writings about him.
And if this reaction feels a lot like the reaction
About whether or not a cashier says “Merry Christmas” or not in December
I felt that way, too.
Paul loved the people in Corinth.
He spent some eighteen months there
Talking about God, and about Jesus
And starting a church.
The letters he wrote to them are passionate and personal.
They’re the sort of writings that presume a sort of understanding of each other.
Paul knew, as we know, that a church is built upon relationships.
We get to know God together.
Through worship as a community, we think about God together
We ask questions about God of each other,
and have our presumptions tested together.
We serve next to each other, in a community we call a church.
That shapes our life of faith in profound ways, large and small.
We’re all different, though.
Some of us are new at this,
And some of us have been doing this for a lifetime.
Some of us focus our faith on study
Others on acts of service and mercy
Still others in getting to know other people over tea.
Some of us think about God all the time
Others appreciate a gentle reminder here and there.
Same for Paul:
Paul gathered people from all over Corinth
Some who were Jewish, and some who were not.
They learned together about this new thing that Jesus was doing
In their midst.
He had to help them learn how to be a community together
And to take all sorts of disparate opinions and beliefs and feelings
and to help them work those different views out
in such a way that everyone could live together in relative peace and harmony.
He did that by encouraging everyone to calm down a bit[vii]
To think about their feelings and their beliefs from a broader context:
How does what you think and feel and do serve God in the world?
How does it promote, as he says, the common good?[viii]
Not everyone is a teacher, or a leader, but everyone is someone.
Everyone has gifts and talents and abilities to help build up this community
So that God’s love can be seen and known and heard in the world
Through our acts and through our very community.[ix]
Paul said that we can be right, and still be wrong.
We can have all faith, so as to move mountains
But if we don’t have a loving faith, we can just sound empty and angry
Like a noisy gong, or a clanging symbol.
Paul said that we can have all the confidence and hope in the world
But if its not focused on love, on care and concern for other people,
Then we gain nothing, we see nothing, not truly.
That’s how Paul put it in that famous ode to Love
We like to read at weddings,
“And now faith, hope, and love, abide,
these three: and the greatest of these is Love”[x]
But these themes run throughout this letter of his
And its evident here, in our reading for the day,
In this strange passage about food offered up to idols.
There’s a lot in here.
You can google it more, if you want deeper insight.
Although I can’t promise that your Google Home Smart Speaker
will be able to fill you in on it.
The nickel version is that some of the people
Paul gathered into that first church in Corinth
had a deep history with Jewish dietary laws.
And some others were just cautious about living their lives
In a way that seemed, to them, pleasing to God.
They wanted to do right by God.
Some of them because it is A Good Thing to do to orient one’s life to God
As they understood it
And because good things come out of that—
Good for them; good for others; good for the world.
Some of them, in other words, wanted to live ethically
Because that’s how you treat people well.
They were TAUGHT one way of how to do that
And they thought it was the way, the right way.
On the other hand,
there were others who did all of this more out of worry
worry about what God thought of them
And they felt that adhering to things like dietary laws mattered
Because they didn’t want God to dislike them.
So, wanting to honor God and others, or not wanting get on God’s bad side
Take your pick
But these members of the community were set in their ways about food.
Others, though, didn’t seem so concerned.
Maybe because they were from a different context
Not Jewish in the first place, so never gave eating meat a second thought
Or maybe because they had once been concerned about keeping kosher
But learned, from Paul, and from others
That in Christ, those ways of following God were now set aside
Fulfilled for a new life, a different sort of life, in following Jesus.
Either way, they didn’t mind eating meat
In particular, they ate meat they bought at the local butcher shop
Which, incidentally, was at the Greco-Roman temple.
There were temples to Apollo, Poseidon, and Aphrodite, there in Corinth
And as the everyday citizens of Corinth
Went about their lives
They gave offerings to these gods
Lambs, goats, chickens, maybe other livestock
Whose meat would later be sold to the public.
That’s how you got meet to eat, in Corinth, if you were going to eat meat.
You bought it at the local temple butcher.
And some members of the church in Corinth apparently
Had an appetite for a nice juicy hamburger every now and then.
This caused a problem. A rift.
What we we to do, they asked Paul.
This is really offending some of us.
People are not talking to one another, and some are really hurt by all of this.
Well, what does he say?
Paul first assures them that there is no harm from eating that meat.
There are no idols.
We know this.
There is only God, the one we see in Jesus
The same God the Jewish tradition has always pointed to.
We know this.
That meat is fine. In truth, no one should be worried or offended.
But even so,
Some people aren’t yet convinced, or still don’t like the idea of eating that meat.
And, this is more to Paul’s deeper concern: you may be right, meat-lover
But be careful
Because that’s not the only thing you have to worry about.
You might be right, and still be wrong at the same time.
“Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Is how he puts it.
Being right can also be an idol, it seems.
Is it ever an idol for you?
Its not that being right doesn’t matter, that the truth isn’t important.[xi]
Paul will later say that you don’t just choose to be wrong, or affirm the wrong,
Just for the sake of community, for love, for relationship.
But you can still make “being right” your idol, can’t you?
Sure, you can fret all you want about Google not telling you about Jesus
And you can be right about that, as a fact.
Those things wouldn’t tell you about Jesus
But that doesn’t mean that the world is against you
And that your feeling offense misses out
On the offense you cause to others in return.
You don’t need to make this true fact
The cause celebre on your local 10 o clock news
To be the stuff of Facebook and Breitbart
Anther log on the fire of the contemporary culture wars.
Or you can fret all you want about people getting so upset about
this whole Merry Christmas thing,
and this describes me, pretty obviously,
and still be wrong about tuning them out or missing the pain they feel
about this world changing so much and not being able to handle it, you know
so that they lash out at others who don’t seem to be helping, as they understand it,
even if that lashing out manifests itself in an apparent disregard
of other religions or traditions or peoples.
We can so easily make being right our idol
That we miss the other commands to be loving too.
We, as a culture, are moving farther apart on so many things.
What is going to keep us together, help us stay in relationship
Even while we work for truth and justice and reconciliation?
Paul talks about people who have knowledge, and those who do not.
Those who are stronger, and those who are weaker.
Those who stumble, and those who can navigate all of this in such a way
That we can help others from falling along the way.
I’m not sure I do this perfectly all the time
But the goal, I think, is to be the sort of person
That helps others not stumble along the way.
To seek the truth, in love.
To be right in a way that doesn’t make being right the end game.
How can we help other people, right or wrong
Not get so focused on the idol of being right?
How can we remember not to just settle down into our rightness
And dismiss our neighbor, the one God came to save too?
May that be something that we think about, pray about
Seek God’s help with
As we nurture the type of community
That is constantly community minded, loving and serving
All God gives us to love and to serve.
May it be so.
[i] Cristina Maza, Newsweek “Is Google Censoring Jesus? It knows Buddha, Satan, Muhammad But Not Christian Savior.” Accessed 1/28/2018. http://www.newsweek.com/google-censoring-jesus-knows-buddha-satan-muhammad-not-christian-savior-792026
[ii] From http://www.internetlivestats.com/google-search-statistics/ accessed 1/28/2018.
[iii] From https://searchengineland.com/google-now-handles-2-999-trillion-searches-per-year-250247 accessed 1/28/2018.
[iv] This was a bit I first heard from Louis C.K. Louis C.K. has recently admitted to sexual harassment and misconduct, and I declined to overtly cite him verbally in this sermon, when delivered. so as to not give him either any suggestion of implicit approval (there is not any approval of his conduct) or to divert to words about him in the sermon. One version of this bit is here: https://gizmodo.com/5658560/louis-ck-the-shittiest-cell-phone-in-the-world-is-a-miracle
[v] From http://fox17.com/news/local/does-google-home-know-who-jesus-is-brentwood-resident-says-no accessed 1/28/2018
[xi] Paul particularly explores some of these themes in Romans.