Artificial Evangelism: Why Christian Characters Fail to Connect

Picture the following scenario: 100 years into the future, you receive a strong knock on your door. Opening it, you’re presented with a man dressed in normal, futuristic attire (probably just vintage dress from the 2050’s) with a book in one hand. A moment after your greeting, the man jerks to life, thrusting out his book with both hands towards your empty palms. It takes you a moment, but after glancing at the cover of the book, you realize what’s going on, as the robot asks you in a monotone voice, “Do you have a moment to talk about our creator and savior William Gates?”

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We may laugh at this image – a door-to-door evangelizing robot – but why? What’s so absurd about it?

Our humorous outlook on the scenario may be formed around the fact that robots, including those found in creative works such as the Terminator films and TV show, “I, Robot,” and Star Wars, have what is called “artificial intelligence” (abbreviated as “AI”). This is the theory and development of complex computer systems able to perform and complete various tasks that require human intelligence. We see this in our everyday technology-driven lives in the form of speech recognition, war machines, and even chess players. AI is not a new concept in 2016, but as advances in technology rush forward, more and more people are left wondering if one day in their lifetimes there will be robots walking among us – and we may not even know it.

One more way that the “robot evangelist” may seem humorous to us, especially to Christians, is that we have the awareness that robots do not have everything that makes a person human. Primarily, the soul – our core being – is missing from their various builds. Robots are machines – task driven and genuinely unresponsive to emotions such as love and hate, and oblivious to humor or sadness. To one-dimensional beings, this isn’t a problem, but as humans, we recognize the three-dimensional nature of our fellow men and women which make up the human race. Whether in fiction or in our real lives, this three-dimensional nature confronts us every day – if not every second.

What are these three dimensions? The first dimension is, simply put, our personality. This makes up what we’ll call our exterior nature. Surface attributes, various habits, and mannerisms fit into this dimension, and this is the dimension we observe when we first meet someone.

As time goes on, and a first meeting evolves into a relationship, one gets past the first dimension and heads deeper. Within the second dimension lives our inner nature. All of our backstories and what comes from our own personal histories make this dimension intriguingly complex. This is where our greatest joys can be relived, and where our inner demons can take hold. It is in this dimension that our strengths, weaknesses, inclinations, and fears are highlighted for others to see.

But how are these backstories and histories formed? What makes a person do what they do? The answer to that lies in the third dimension, which is our true character. This is where our worldviews reside, and where our behaviors, actions, and rationalizations are performed. In this sense, our true character is defined as what makes up our moral substance – or a lack thereof. We humans are not defined by our second dimension demons or backstories, but by our own actions and outlooks on life.

Looking at our robot evangelist friend, we can see that this entity doesn’t go past the first dimension. It has physical attributes (mainly electronic in nature), distinct mannerisms, and can even have a speaking voice. But these speaking voices are not paired with real emotion. Their mannerisms are, on the whole, abrupt and blunt – not flowing and careful like ours can be.  Lastly, their physical attributes can be replicated perfectly on the assembly line, whereas each human bears distinct physical marks, with one differing from the next. That all being said, we chuckle at our robot evangelist because this one-dimensional machine is attempting to connect to our third dimensional qualities – especially in regards to telling someone how they can be saved from their corrupted dimensional qualities.

Throughout the process of evangelism, the Christian needs to successfully connect with all three dimensions of the person they’re talking to, usually over an extended period of time. That person is not a robot, but instead carefully crafted in the image of God. That person also doesn’t employ artificial intelligence, but instead uses the wondrous and powerful mind to rationalize beyond mere functions, answering the whys behind the whats. While God works through the Christian’s evangelism efforts, the Christian needs to acknowledge these three dimensions of the person in front of them, else we cannot truly love our neighbor as ourselves, therefore violating the second greatest commandment.

What I fear most Christians don’t realize is that this fact carries over into the creative spheres of Christian work as well. Pertaining to the Christian presence in filmmaking, I believe this is why most “faith-based” films not only fall flat critically and with folks outside the targeted audience at the box office, but also fail as evangelical tools, succeeding only in feeding Christians with a false narrative of God’s creations. With very few exceptions, “Christian” films always seem to play the same tune, climaxing in an “alter call” scene after employing bland pawns to carry whatever sermon message the filmmakers have crafted. To paraphrase a quote from my favorite TV show, all of this has happened before, and I’m sure it will all happen again in the next installment.

PureFlix and Kendrick Brothers Productions are notorious for giving audiences the same formula over and over again, and every time a new film is released from these studios (and others like them), Christians flock to theaters to embrace this stale formula. However, I have a hard time believing that these audiences would do the same with any other kind of film genre or series. Christians seem to be championing these movies not for what they are (an art form), but for what they’re representing. The scenes portrayed on the big screen are similar to what they’re comfortable with hearing on Sunday mornings, and of course, they don’t have the questionable content that (in common Christian opinion) plagues every other screen in the cinema. What’s not to like for the Christian? While concerns regarding eyebrow-raising content and getting the Gospel message out to the masses are understandable from first glance, the problem with this mindset is that anytime a person champions a film for what it represents, the art itself will suffer. And the art in “Christian” films does indeed suffer. Primarily, they suffer from the poor quality of the screenplays. By focusing on preaching the sermon, the stories themselves crumble. Tough times that Christian characters go through in these works become tied up in a nice bow in a matter of days, usually leaving our leads with nary a scar. Character dialogue is functional; everyone says what they’re feeling, what their motivations are, and it’s a rare sight when we see the second and third dimensions of our protagonists and antagonists displayed in full.

With artificial stakes, we can’t take the story seriously. Consequences for actions, especially sinful actions, need appropriate weight. What we see with movies such as those in the Kendrick Brothers’ catalog, everything works our perfect with our leads, as the filmmakers choose to purport the unbiblical message of, “If you embrace God, God will embrace you back and give you everything you need, and nothing bad will happen to you!” Does real life work that way? Did the events leading up to and immediately following Christ’s Crucifixion work that way?

With artificial dialogue, we can’t take our characters seriously.  If our characters are lacking in our second and third dimensions, we can’t connect with them. Instead, our leads are placeholders for ideas, not living and breathing people like those we sit next to in the theater. The houses our characters live in don’t look lived in; every single room is clean and orderly, a fairer comparison being that of a well-maintained factory. All the while the filmmakers are trying to make us believe the featured family is being torn apart. But this is not the world we live in – this is not what we’re familiar with. We don’t live in factories, and we don’t thoroughly converse with robots. God doesn’t require perfection in order to work through His people. We are faulty, we are messy, and we have stories to prove it. Chances are, these stories are going to be very different from those we see on the screen.

As our opening scenario is reflected, how can we take any kind of evangelism effort given to us from these one-dimensional robotic characters seriously? These characters are set up ahead of time with the objective of delivering their message/sermon, and they execute without any sense of exploration outside their programming. But can we expect robots to grasp full reality, including theological truths and comprehension of a sinful nature? Can we expect robots to converse with people and connect with them in real, meaningful ways which aren’t degrading to our being? Although there are those who believe robots can play a part in religious themes, I think we can see that in overcoming obstacles commonly aligned with faith-based films, we can lead audiences to a much more respectful and loving understanding of the God we worship – if only we expressed love for our characters just as we express love for each other. People are incredibly complex, and not limited to just one defining characteristic or idea. If Christians are going to write about people, especially Christian people, then it’s time to shut down the assembly line. We can’t risk allowing a robotic caricature of a Christian do the work that God has commanded us to do, because the chances of them not being able to do it well are high. If someone sees an ineffective one-dimensional Christian on-screen, the faith and message shared by said Christian will be ineffective as well, if not dangerous.

For the time being, however, the assembly line is still moving along steadily. On April 1st, “God’s Not Dead 2” will be released to theaters. The sequel to the popular hit of 2014 (which was filled with more than enough problematic features), “GND2” promises more of the same – one-dimensional characters dressed up as ideas, unbiblical teachings (“What does your heart tell you to do?” Thankfully our scriptures have something to say about that), and exaggerated cultural and political narratives to entice frustrated Christians (with social media promotional images looking like war propaganda).  Thankfully, we aren’t obligated to support these kinds of movies, financially or otherwise. While most Christians may be discerning about movies with swear words, specific violent acts, and degrees of exposed skin, it would help if those same Christians were consistent with their worldview and apply even more discernment in regards to the messages and sermons preached in movies like “GND2.”

Lastly, from an apologist perspective, I’m thrilled that individuals I pitch my case-making tent next to are featured in this film and get their turn in the spotlight (including J. Warner Wallace, Lee Strobel, and Dr. Gary Habermas). Hopefully their scenes will turn viewers on to seeking out understandable apologetics books and writings that can be utilized for proper evangelism. While I will continue to work with and beside these men regardless of their involvement with a film I cannot conscientiously support, I can’t help but think that there has to be a better way to get this kind of information out there. Christians shouldn’t have to be put in a position to thematically approve of a muddled film which they believe could be damaging to one’s walk with Christ. Don’t get me wrong – I want to like “faith-based” films. I want movies with clear Christian thematic material to excel. I want to be able to put my stamp of approval on something that I’m sure will be resonating with the Christian culture at large on release week. Many other Christians feel the same and share my concerns about this topic. But as the total box office returns will surely show by the end of the month, we’ll probably have a long while to wait until the studios pick up that message.

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