Axios What's Next
March 10, 2023
The next sermon you hear may just have been written by ChatGPT, Jennifer reports today.
- Today's newsletter is 1,088 words ... 4 minutes.
1 big thing: Sermons à la ChatGPT
Religious leaders are dabbling in ChatGPT for sermon writing, and largely reaching the same conclusion: It's great for plucking Bible verses and concocting nice-sounding sentiments, but lacks the human warmth that congregants crave, Jennifer A. Kingson reports.
Why it matters: As scarily good generative artificial intelligence tools start to disrupt all manner of professions, men and women of the cloth are pondering how eerily close it can come to projecting a human — or divine — soul.
Driving the news: Curious leaders of all faiths have been plugging in prompts to ChatGPT — for example, "Preach to me about the raising of Lazarus in John 11" — and writing about the plusses and minuses of the results.
- Early sermon-writing experiments have shown that ChatGPT can pull together cogent and relevant thoughts from religious texts and eminent theologians, plus turns-of-phrase that seem stirring and poignant.
- A consensus seems to be emerging that ChatGPT can alleviate some of the religious leaders' more routine or repetitive tasks — like explaining particular holidays — while freeing them for more meaningful spiritual counseling.
What they're saying: "It's really impressive — it's kind of amazing," Ken Sundet Jones, a Lutheran pastor and theology professor in Des Moines who posed the Lazarus question, told Axios.
- Yes, but: While "Pastor ChatGPT" can do "an adequate job of assembling a string of facts and propositions about a topic," it's a "bit of a didactic bore" and "no real preacher," Jones wrote.
- Plus "it can't do visitation, like meat-and-potatoes pastors do," he tells Axios.
Case study: Rabbi Joshua Franklin, of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, New York, delivered what he warned his flock was a "plagiarized" sermon about the theme of vulnerability in a story from Genesis — and was shocked when congregants guessed that it had been written by his father or a famous rabbi rather than AI.
- "The more I was able to prompt [ChatGPT] and tell it what I was looking for and describe the style of how I wanted it to write, the better it got," Franklin said.
- One notable missing piece: the rabbi's own perspective and anecdotes. Had he written the sermon himself, "I would have told a story — something about me that modeled my own vulnerability and showed how it was a strength," he said.
Reality check: While the technology "is extraordinarily intelligent," it's "missing the ability to show empathy," Franklin tells Axios.
- Its flaws as a spiritual guide? "It can't actually feel emotion," Franklin says. "It can't show genuine love. It can't show compassion."
Todd Brewer, managing editor of a religious publication called Mockingbird, had a similar take after asking ChatGPT to write a Christmas sermon "based upon Luke’s birth narrative, with quotations from Karl Barth, Martin Luther, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Barack Obama."
- "The AI sermon is better than several Christmas sermons I've heard over the years," Brewer wrote in an essay.
- "Devoid of any obvious heresy, the AI even seems to understand what makes the birth of Jesus genuinely good news."
- And yet: "As good as the AI sermon might be, the message would fly like a lead balloon on Sunday morning. Its content is mostly ok, though it lacks any human warmth."
The bottom line: ChatGPT "can tell you thoughts about the anthropology of divinity, but it can't articulate its own thoughts on God because it doesn't have a consciousness," Franklin said.
- "I think it's going to force me to evolve as a rabbi, but I don't think that it's going to put me out of business."
- Jones puts it in starker terms: ChatGPT "could be divine, but it might not be," he said. "Often, you can’t tell the difference between God and the devil."
2. U.S. EVs set range record
Electric vehicles (EVs) sold in the U.S. last year had an average range of 291 miles, per a new Bloomberg analysis — a record, as buyers flock to new higher-range offerings.
- The average EV range has quadrupled since 2011 when early, short-range EVs like the Nissan Leaf were the only game in town.
Why it matters: Range anxiety is a key hurdle slowing EV adoption. As electric cars' range expands, uptake will likely increase.
Driving the news: The latest EVs, such as Ford's Mustang Mach-E and GM's Chevy Bolt EUV, offer 200-plus miles of range, depending on options.
Yes, but: The actual distance you'll get out of a given EV can vary wildly depending on various factors — including the weather, as Joann Muller recently found.
Reality check: While consumers say they want lots of range, very few people regularly go on long road trips.
3. 🗺️ States take aim at "period tax"
Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have banned taxes on menstrual items, Axios' Kelly Tyko reports, while 12 more are considering new "period tax" bills.
- According to the Alliance for Period Supplies' legislation tracker, 108 bills related to menstrual health are in deliberation nationwide. Many would make period products more accessible or equitable.
By the numbers: Tampon prices rose by nearly 10% in the first half of 2022, and pads by more than 8%, NielsenIQ found.
- Menstrual products cost about $20 per cycle on average, adding up to about $18,000 over the average lifespan, per the National Organization for Women.
- One in four people in the U.S. who menstruate can't afford period products, says the nonprofit Alliance for Period Supplies.
What they're saying: "We're really seeing an increase in recognition on this issue when in the past people didn’t even know this was a problem," alliance national campaign manager Ameer Abdulraman tells Axios.
4. One fun thing: The World Baseball Classic returns
The World Baseball Classic is underway for the first time in six years, Axios' Jeff Tracy reports — and with 20 teams in the field, it's the largest one yet.
How it works: Four pools of five teams are competing in round robins across four host cities: Taichung (Taiwan), Tokyo, Phoenix, and Miami.
- The top two teams from each group will advance to the single-elimination knockout stage, which ends with the championship on March 21 in Miami.
State of play: The WBC, up from 16 teams in each of its first four editions, was delayed two years due to the pandemic.
- Fans' patience has been rewarded with a stacked group of talent that signed up to play after rave reviews from the previous edition.
The big picture: Baseball has never had a premier global tournament, with the sport played only sporadically at the Olympics, where MLB players can't compete.
- The WBC has a chance to fill that void.
Big thanks to today's What's Next copy editor, Patricia Guadalupe.
Was this email forwarded to you? Get your daily dose of What's Next by signing up here for our free newsletter.