Life.Church and the developers behind the wildly popular YouVersion Bible app have just released Bible Lens, a new app designed to help people see God’s Word in all the special moments of their lives. Take a picture or pull one from your camera roll, and the app analyzes the context of the photo and automatically creates an “artistic,” “sharable” image, overlaying a relevant verse onto your picture. While the Bible Lens app purports to interpret moments of your life through the Bible, thus the idea of the “Bible lens,” it would be more accurate to say that the app lets you interpret Scripture through your life.
We must ask ourselves, how have we bought into expressive individualism so that expressing our Christian identity becomes the primary way we practice our faith? How are we mediating the holy Word of God through mediums created in the secular marketplace for ends that are at odds with our faith?The creative model behind these apps is to use the latest strategies and innovations of the secular marketplace to share the Bible. Given the advances in image-recognition technology, it is no surprise that YouVersion’s “Bible Labs” developed the YouVersion Bible Lens. The way the app mediates the Bible reveals how contemporary evangelicalism has placed the individual at the center of religious experience, how expressive individualism defines our piety, and how easy it is to uncritically adopt practices and forms from the secular marketplace (all topics of the book Disruptive Witness).
I’m sure the developers behind this app, as well as the leaders at Life.Church, are motivated by a desire to share God’s Word with as many people as possible. But good intentions aren’t a shield for carefully discerning whether something is good, true, loving, and beautiful. Similarly, just because a method of evangelism or disseminating the Bible is successful according to some metrics doesn’t excuse us from testing that method against what is true and edifying. Like Paul in Philippians 1, we can rejoice when Christ is proclaimed while still criticizing the method or motive behind that proclamation, when appropriate. In the case of the YouVersion Bible Lens, I believe some criticism is appropriate.
Seeing through a Lens, Darkly
Tellingly, the first thing Bible Lens asks you to do is take a selfie. From that image, it offers you a number of Scripture overlays in stylish fonts. The caption reads, “Let God’s Word speak into all your special moments.” How intelligible are these images of God’s Word “speaking into all your special moments”? They are a solid mix of predictable inspirational Bible quotes and bizarrely irrelevant verses. Play with the app for any length of time, and you’ll notice many verses reappear. Take a selfie, and you’ll probably get Psalm 139:13: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I got a lot of verses about anxiety. Make of that what you will.
These AI-generated verses remind me of two kinds of experiences with Scripture from my youth. The first was a topical book of verses given to me by a friend. There were entries for most major emotions: grief, gladness, loneliness, anger, lust, bitterness, lack of faith, and so on. All you had to do was analyze your emotional state, find the corresponding entry, read the verse, and voila: God has spoken into your life. Practically, the book didn’t speak into my life. Whatever verses I read about loneliness or lust or depression provided little insight into my teenaged soul. I suppose if a mentor had personally shared these same verses and talked with me about them in relation to the particular challenges facing my life, they likely would have encouraged me. But a book of biblical verses indexed to emotions was simply not a meaningful way to interpret my experiences through the wisdom of the Word of God. It treated the Bible as an encyclopedia.
The other experience the app reminded me of was seeking a personal message from God by flipping to a random passage of Scripture assuming the Spirit led you there, a kind of evangelical Urim and Thummim. The practice troubled me as a youth because it always seemed to entail stretching the verse to fit the person’s life.
Bible Lens manages to capture both of these approaches to interpreting scripture. What they have in common is that the individual’s life is at the center of interpretation. The Word of God conforms to us, inspires us, encourages us, improves us. The app upgrades these older methods by automating the process of analyzing our emotions and experiences and discovering the corresponding verse. Plus, it produces an aesthetically pleasing image to express this “word from the Lord.” This innovation is perhaps the most significant, because it turns what was primarily a personal (albeit ill-advised) method of interpretation into an individual expression of faith.
By their very nature, these images aren’t really meant merely for personal reflection or devotion. They are created to be shared, which the app encourages with a share button. Nobody actually wants to delve into the Bible by taking pictures of daily objects and discovering what algorithmically determined verse and graphic is layered on top. Because the images are created to share on social media, this is an experience of the Bible that is completely inseparable from expressing your identity as a Christian. Its focus then is on mediating the scriptures through an awareness of public displays of our faith.
How are we contributing to the thinness of belief, the sense that Christianity is merely another lifestyle flair to be added onto our Personal Life Story?To help you understand this, imagine inputing a picture of your family into the app and seeing the image it generates. When you see the image, its size (perfectly shaped for social media platforms), its aesthetics, and its recognizable “inspirational meme” style, you immediately and inevitably imagine your online friends seeing and reacting to the image. Its very shareability mediates your interpretation of the verse. Thus, you interpret the verse through your life experience and the idea of sharing it publicly.
All of this mediation has one effect: it draws us away from the actual Word of God and toward our minds and an awareness of our public identity.
Part of the thesis of Disruptive Witness is that for many contemporary people (including those in our churches), Christianity is a life-system that we apply on top of our more essential life. While we might quibble over what precisely defines that essential life, for most of us it involves our existence as a “narrative” that we are enacting in a highly competitive, material world by expressing our identity and achieving various shifting markers of success (which are increasingly defined by the market rather than tradition, religion, or nature). Upon this existence, we may overlay our faith, just as we may overlay other visions of fullness. Our life is the essential thing, and Christianity is an accessory we add to modify it.
Setting aside any objections you might have to this theory of contemporary belief, you can at least see how the YouVersion Bible Lens almost perfectly models this theory. The “special moments of your life” are the essential thing, and the Bible is a “lens” that you can add for aesthetic effect.
Machine-Learning the Bible
Another challenge with taking the app seriously as a source of “profound” scriptural insight is that culturally, we love to screw with artificial intelligence. Whenever we experience AI, the mystery of the technology entices us to test its limits, to see if we can “break” it, force it to produce some output contrary to its purpose. I suspect the thrill of breaking AI comes from wondering just how “intelligent” it is and not feeling bound to moral norms because it is “artificial.” AI is like a giant red button, particularly for younger people who have been raised on open-world video games where the pleasure comes from doing something wild and watching the game’s AI react.
One of the first reactions to the app is to be fascinated by the technology. Can it recognize different facial expressions? Will it give me different verses if I take a picture of grass or a flower? The medium is far more interesting than the message, which is unfortunate because in the case of Bible Lens the message is the Message.
After the “coolness” factor wears off, some users are going to immediately begin to wonder how they can force the AI to create ironic mashups. What happens if I take a picture of toilet paper? What happens if I use a picture of a Pride Flag? What happens if I use a meme? What happens if I use an image I created in Bible Lens!? — actually, they thought of that possibility. If you try to use a Bible Lens image, it says, “Um… This looks like a photo that’s already been through the Bible Lens. Meta. Ok, here goes…” It is meta. The whole app is “meta”: it is about itself. The subject of the app is you making and sharing images from the app. The Word of God is not the subject — not really. In any case, the developers seem to be resigned to the fact that you are going to try to break the app. So, like helpless Igors obeying their mad-scientist masters, they can only say, “Ok, here goes…,” throw the switch, and see what kind of Frankenstein image is created by the AI.
Of course, people don’t have to abuse the app. Users can elect to use Bible Lens according to the sincere purpose for which it was created, but my point is that in our current internet culture, a lot of users are going to take the app as an occasion for making Scripture a punchline. The joke will be about the app, but the punchline will be the ironic pairing of an image and verse. Although I do not believe using Scripture as a punchline is wrong in itself (some of my favorite puns involve verse punch lines; e.g., “The disciples were all in one Accord”), the irony free-for-all that the app
will has created won’t be edifying. This is particularly true because of the way we use images on social media. Mash-up culture (think about the integration of gif search bars into Facebook and Twitter) inclines us to treat images as props for jokes. So, when you combine the tendency to abuse AI with the widespread use of ironic images for jokes online, it’s hard not to see the app as practically encouraging users to trivialize the Word of God.
And Yet I Give Thanks for You
Again, I believe the designers of the YouVersion Bible Lens are well intentioned. The developers, as with the rest of Life.Church, seem to be committed to the gospel and desire to have more people read and have their lives changed by the Word. And I am confident that many people have been blessed by their church and applications. For that, I praise God.
But like Paul in Philippians, we have an obligation to go beyond praising efforts. We ought to sharpen one another. More to the point, I believe the Bible Lens app offers a glimpse into the way many contemporary evangelicals conceive of their faith, and that realization ought to force us to evaluate our churches, practices, and beliefs. We must ask ourselves, how have we bought into expressive individualism so that expressing our Christian identity becomes the primary way we practice our faith? How are we mediating the holy Word of God through mediums created in the secular marketplace for ends that are at odds with our faith? How are we contributing to the thinness of belief, the sense that Christianity is merely another lifestyle flair to be added onto our Personal Life Story?
If these questions seem like nitpicking, let me encourage you to reflect that for most of us, belief is shaped precisely through these aesthetic, habitual, cultural means. In a world of increasing noise and images and gimmicky technology, what we need is an unflinchingly incisive revelation from God, one that interprets us, pulls us out of our own heads, upsets our assumptions, and leads us to live humble, quiet lives.