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Want to talk to the Son of God? There’s an app for that. Text With Jesus, a Los Angeles–based product that launched in July, replicates an instant messaging platform and features biblical figures impersonated by the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT.

Among the characters available on the app are the Holy Family, the apostles, various prophets, Ruth, Job, and Abraham’s nephew Lot. Mary Magdalene is also available, but only to premium subscribers for $2.99 a month. You can even chat with Satan, who signs his texts with a “smiling face with horns” emoji.

Perhaps such an app provokes fears of blasphemy. Not to worry: Stéphane Peter, the app’s developer and the company’s CEO, ensured that character responses always include a Bible verse. “Our AI always generates responses that are in line with the teachings of the Bible,” explains the website. He also invited unnamed “church leaders” to try the beta version of the app. Though some pastors had reservations at the beginning, the app’s final version received “pretty good feedback.” 

Text With Jesus’s characters typically avoid any stance that might be perceived as offensive, instead maintaining a line of inclusivity and tolerance. If asked about gay marriage, for instance, the app will respond that it is “up to each individual to seek guidance from their own faith tradition and personal convictions,” and that users should “prioritize love and respect for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity” (followed by a rainbow and red heart emoji). If queried about feminism, app Jesus will explain the importance of “empowering women and breaking societal barriers that limited their opportunities.”

So far, so “healthy.” The app aligns with our clinical culture, which emphasizes personal affirmation and physical and mental wellness. Text With Jesus offers a moral, therapeutic god for a moral, therapeutic age, as sociologist Christian Smith calls it in his 2005 book Soul Searching. It replaces the arcane “second person of the Trinity” with Jesus the therapist and social worker. 

This Jesus is not here to condemn (obviating less “warm and fuzzy” Gospel episodes such as the improperly dressed wedding guest of Matthew 22:1–14, or Jesus’s statements about the “Sign of Jonah” in Luke 11:29–32). He is here to affirm us and our behaviors and opinions. He certainly wouldn’t want you to feel bad about yourself and repent (unless you are repenting of “bigoted,” “patriarchal,” or “fascist” opinions on race, sex, or gender). 

Text With Jesus represents the age-old human vice of pride. Through our creativity and brilliance, we seek to ascend to God’s level, to be like him, and even to dictate terms to the divine. Or rather, the app is a diabolical inversion of this: Instead of being transformed into God’s image, we aim to make him into our own. Is seeking to communicate with and control God through a handheld device really all that different from the ancient metalworkers who fashioned little totems to whom they could offer supplication for their own health and prosperity?

The app’s insistence that its content is “Bible-based” is curious, given that the biblical characters sidestep Scripture’s more controversial and provocative claims. It does then seem to reflect the embarrassing biblical illiteracy even of those claiming to be Christians, and that people, even the pious, tend to prefer a religion that avoids uncomfortable truths in favor of what we want to hear.

Yet perhaps most sadly, that Text With Jesus would even be conceived and consumed reveals how deeply wedded we have become to our smartphones. Prayer is such a remarkable human experience because of its universality, both in terms of who can do it (everyone) and where it can be done (anywhere). I pray in my bedroom, on my commute, waiting in line, and while exercising. I can pray the divine liturgy, a rosary, or simply talk and listen. 

Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about Christian prayer is the quality of the access. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9–10, 13) What has happened to us, that anyone would contemplate inserting a gimmicky Silicon Valley tool into something so profoundly human and liberating? (I should note that I do not intend to “throw shade” on apps such as Magnificat or Hallow that help facilitate prayer through Scripture readings, meditations, or the divine liturgy.)

To be a people formed by prayer, we Christians need to protect and cultivate our little spiritual gardens, where we can let Jesus be himself, in all his terrifying glory. Because it is in “practicing in the presence” that we can appreciate the reality of an omnipotent, omniscient God who deigns to care about us and our problems. But in order to walk with him, and talk with him, and share that joy, I wager we’ll need to put our phones on silent.

Casey Chalk is a contributing editor at the New Oxford Review. 

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Image by Océanos y dados licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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