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According to a Premier Christianity article published in 2018, the “verse of the day” feature common on Bible apps could actually “be skewing your view of God.” The apps populate “their verse of the day lists with those verses most tweeted or shared by the user community.” Because people are more likely to share feel-good verses than more meaty or difficult passages, this algorithmic approach produces a “tendency towards therapeutic texts,” creating “a therapeutic filter bubble.” As such, the frequent user of a Bible app runs the risk of placing his feelings and desires at the center of his devotional life, of practicing an “algorithmic spirituality,” rather than facing the uncomfortable and demanding task of conforming himself to reality.

In her 2020 study of “new religions for a godless world,” Strange Rites, cultural critic Tara Isabella Burton described the contemporary religious landscape as intuitional, self-curated, and results-focused. This “remixed” spirituality (she includes everything from witch covens and SoulCyclers to polycules and Silicon Valley transhumanists) is the religion of the Instagram feed, no less than Protestantism was the religion of the printing press.

The Instagram user sees more of what she likes, follows, and lingers on and less of what she skips past. The inscrutable, oracle-like algorithm considers these preferences and serves up new content, which the user can then share or respond to as she wishes. Even if the content is Christian, the medium teaches us to engage with it in ways that would be unrecognizable to our forebears in the faith. As communication theorist and Catholic convert Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.”

It’s no surprise that people conditioned in this way gravitate toward bespoke syncretism and the belief that their own attitudes and “energies” can shape the fabric of reality through “manifestation.” “Many people simply resort instantly to the occult, to ESP [extrasensory perception], and every form of hidden awareness in response to this new surround of electric information,” McLuhan told an interviewer decades before every American obtained what amounts to a prosthetic organ designed to interface with that virtual world.

In one sermon (which features as an interlude on Lana Del Rey’s latest album), megachurch pastor Judah Smith says he felt a divine prompting to incorporate his Bible app’s verse of the day into his message. Smith approaches the app’s algorithm as a sort of Sortes Vergilianae (or “Virgilian Lottery”). Ancient Romans developed the practice, which involves opening a volume of Virgil to a random page and taking it as a personalized oracle.

A biblical studies professor I had as an undergrad cautioned us against treating Scripture this way. One might, he joked, open the Bible in distress only to read, “Then he went away and hanged himself,” and then, on a second attempt, “Go and do likewise.” God reveals himself to us on his terms (as he does through the Eucharist)—not ours. To expect random engagement with Scripture to regularly produce insights tailored providentially to one’s own circumstances is to engage in divination.

Performing a Sortes Biblicae by algorithmic rather than random means may be an even graver sin. The one who does so expecting a message from God conflates vox populi with vox Dei, mistaking a proprietary computer program that runs on user inputs for the inscrutable will of God. 

Modern Christianity is plagued by “main character syndrome.” Digitally catechized believers assume—and the churches that cater to them affirm—that God will make himself felt in their lives. When he doesn’t, they either lose their faith or convince themselves they’ve heard God when they haven’t. They expect prayer to be rewarded by divine intuitions that help them address their quotidian problems.

No such promise exists in Scripture or tradition. Churches would do better reminding their flocks of the decades of silence Mother Teresa endured and encouraging them to distrust their affective responses. The Desert Fathers spent lifetimes in prayer and knew that those efforts did not entitle them to spiritual fireworks. In fact, they were trained to assume that visions and transcendent promptings were demonic deceptions until proven otherwise.

All we have any right to say is, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then keep listening, whether he speaks or not.

Grayson Quay is a writer and editor based in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Image by Ryk Neethling, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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