The real problem with ChatGPT is that it can never make a joke

I have been reviewing books for nearly four decades – starting in this very magazine – and over the years I have encountered some real stinkers. But this is the first time I can recall being reluctant to pick up the book because of actual physical nausea. Intellectual nausea I’ve had plenty of times. Give me a 900-page book of magical realism and that’s what I’ll get. But this time it metastasised into real queasiness. I’ll explain why. (Well, that is my job.) The odd thing is, Benny the Blue Whale starts amusingly enough. Andy Stanton, a writer of chidren’s books, had been both intrigued and alarmed by the rise

Deus ex machina: the dangers of AI godbots

Something weird is happening in the world of AI. On, you can pose questions to an artificially intelligent Jesus: ‘Ask Jesus AI about any verses in the Bible, law, love, life, truth!’ The app Delphi, named after the Greek oracle, claims to solve your ethical dilemmas. Several bots take on the identity of Krishna to answer your questions about what a good Hindu should do. Meanwhile, a church in Nuremberg recently used ChatGPT in its liturgy – the bot, represented by the avatar of a bearded man, preached that worshippers should not fear death.  Elon Musk put his finger on it: AI is starting to look ‘godlike’. The historian

Has the Vatican abandoned beauty?

The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the Cambridge-shire market town of Ely is one of the supreme achievements of European Gothic architecture. Its octagonal tower lifts the eye to a sumptuously restored wooden lantern from which Christ looks down in majesty. Who on Earth thinks faith can be awakened by seeing a crucifix floating in urine? On the last Friday in June, his gaze fell on a congregation worshipping him at Evensong. Two hours later, as the Times reported, the cathedral was filled with ‘a very different crowd: 800 people [wearing headphones] attending a 1990s-themed silent disco. They wore diamanté strappy heels and leather trousers, carried

The making of Mecca

Later this year, over two million Muslims will travel to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, for the Hajj, one the five pillars of Islam. Yet the historical basis for the Meccan pilgrimage is far from clear. During Muhammad’s lifetime, Mecca was literally off the map for most of the world. No pre-Islamic source so much as mentions its existence, despite the contemporary interest in the region. A number of Roman historians provide detailed descriptions of western and southern Arabia, yet did not make so much as a single mention of Mecca. On this basis alone we are reasonably safe in concluding that, contrary to Islamic tradition, Mecca was at the beginning of the

The wisdom of Rod Liddle

New York At a chic dinner party for some very beautiful women, your correspondent shocked the attendees by quoting an even greater writer than the greatest Greek writer since Homer – Rod Liddle – and his definition of why royalty matters: because it is ‘anachronistic and undemocratic’. Hear, Hear! A particularly attractive guest, Alissa – on a par with Lily James – took me aside and asked me if I really believed what the greatest writer ever, Rod Liddle, had written and I had just quoted. She also asked whom I had in mind as the greatest Greek writer since Homer, and I answered: ‘Moi.’ I then sat down and

Letters: The real AI threat

Irreligious tolerance Sir: Your editorial ‘Crowning glory’ (6 May) celebrated the religious tolerance in Britain that will permit a multifaith coronation. However, it didn’t acknowledge that in modern Britain nearly half of people have no religious belief. This acts as a buffer, making religious differences of opinion of less importance. Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world. In more strongly religious countries, such tolerance is harder to find. Michael Gorman Guildford, Surrey Admirals on horseback Sir: If Admiral Sir Tony Radakin only had to march at the coronation (Admiral’s notebook, 6 May), he was fortunate. At the 1953 coronation, Lt Cdr Henry Leach (later Admiral of the

The Anglican priests charged with exorcising evil spirits

Last month, a trailer for the new Exorcist film – the scariest trailer ever, apparently – was released. The Exorcist: Believer isn’t out until Friday 13 October – just in time for Halloween – but Hollywood movies about demons are legion. This one follows The Pope’s Exorcist (released on Good Friday), in which Russell Crowe is a maverick exorcist who doesn’t play by the book, but gets results – despite the pen-pushers at (Vatican) City Hall. The Reverend Canon Dr Jason Bray, the Bishop of St Asaph’s ‘deliverance minister’, will not be watching either film. He hasn’t even seen the original Exorcist – ‘I don’t go big on horror movies,

The myth of atheist America

The American comedian Bill Maher is an intelligent man with a good sense of humour. When he’s right, he tends to be very right. However, when he’s wrong, he tends to be so wrong it leaves a person scratching their head in disbelief. He has a tendency to sometimes misrepresent the facts. This is true when it comes to weed. For the uninitiated, Maher loves weed. I mean, he really loves weed. He is forever talking about it (see here, here and here), arguing, repeatedly and unapologetically, that it’s a largely harmless drug. As I have shown elsewhere, it’s not. It robs many people of motivation and happiness. Nothing good comes from smoking weed on a

In defence of the Free Church of Scotland

Recent days have shown an upsurge of interest in a small Presbyterian church (the Free Church of Scotland, colloquially referred to as ‘the Wee Frees’) because one of its members, Kate Forbes, is running to replace Nicola Sturgeon as first minister. As a former Moderator of that Church, an honorary role as an ambassador for the movement, it is fascinating, amusing and not a little frustrating for me to watch the ‘expert’ commentators get it so wrong, so often, when they discuss it.  In the past few days, some have publicly wondered if Forbes believes in dinosaurs; if she will be able to do her job on Sundays; and even

Cardinal Pell’s righteous fury at the Vatican’s theological direction

Cardinal Pell, a former head of Vatican finances, does not criticise Pope Francis directly in the piece he’s written for The Spectator. But it was the latter who instituted this ‘synodal way’ which, according to Pell, ‘has neglected, indeed downgraded the Transcendent, covered up the centrality of Christ with appeals to the Holy Spirit and encouraged resentment, especially among participants’. Pell states quite plainly that the whole process – which began with a ‘consultation’ of the laity in which only a minuscule proportion of the world’s Catholics took part – is in the process of being rigged. The synod’s participants will not be allowed to vote and the organising committee’s

How ‘iconic’ became anything but

Though I love words, I don’t generally get on other people’s cases about them as I don’t expect everyone to have my almost parasexual attachment to the English language. I’ve suffered silently through the flagrant misuse of ‘epic’ and ‘awesome‘ and numerous moronic reference to food as ‘orgasmic’ and ‘artisanal’ featuring ‘curated table-scapes’. If you’re older than five and say ‘nom’ (in any multiple) then frankly, I believe that you should have your voting rights taken away – it’s called Universal Adult Franchise for a reason. However, I’m going to make an exception for ‘iconic’, the overuse of which has mildly irritated me for quite some time. I reached tipping

AA only admits the right sort of alcoholics

The support group groupies have issued another ban. They have attempted to slap an exclusion order on another long-standing member, in addition to the one they have meted out to my friend, the bricklayer. This latest victim hasn’t been to a meeting in Surrey for seven years because the last time he went, the local area committee accused him of something so Orwellian it was impossible for him to do anything other than leave. They accused him of believing in God too much. During a ridiculous row over whether members should be forced to applaud the giving out of sobriety chips, this fellow wouldn’t back down in his belief that

The Archbishop of Canterbury has risen to the occasion

Archbishop Justin Welby has done a good job of relating the Queen’s virtues to her Christian faith. This is no easy task. The writers of the New Testament would have been very surprised by the notion that a monarch could be an exemplary Christian. And any sensible Christian leader is mindful that monarchs should be praised with care, lest religion seem cravenly reverent of tradition and worldly grandeur. She was a model of practical virtue In her life, he said in his official statement, ‘we saw what it means to receive the gift of life we have been given by God and – through patient, humble, selfless service – share

Salman Rushdie overcame his fear

After Ayatollah Khomeini ordered Muslims to kill him for publishing The Satanic Verses in 1989, Julian Barnes gave Salman Rushdie a shrewd piece of advice. However many attempts were made on his life and the lives of his translators and publishers, however many times Special Branch moved him from safe house to safe house, he must not allow the ‘Rushdie affair’ to turn him into an obsessive. When I interviewed him ten years ago he had learned to live without fear. No shaven-headed bodyguards accompanied him as he walked into a Notting Hill restaurant. His eyes did not scour the room for signs of danger. If the other diners knew

An intense slab of religiosity: Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms reviewed

 Grade: B There has always been a seriousness and intelligence about Nick Cave quite at odds with that which usually attends to the rancid, tottering, old tart that is rock music, so there should be no surprise that he’s left it completely behind. This is a collection of seven spoken word prayers to that entity with which the Australian has had a long and not always straightforward relationship, God. They are accompanied by minimalist synth and piano compositions – kind of three-note fugues – from collaborator Warren Ellis and none of them clocks in at more than two minutes. Intense religiosity has always both repelled and attracted Cave: here he

Is Russian Orthodoxy dying in Ukraine?

Ivano-Frankivsk has just become the first city in Ukraine to have no Russian Orthodox Church, amid a mass defection of churches away from the Moscow patriarchate and towards the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine.  At the start of the invasion in February, almost two-thirds of Orthodox churches were still formally aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church whose leader – Patriarch Kirill – is a close ally of Putin. Until recently, the Russian Orthodox Church claimed dominion over Ukraine for centuries. The 2014 invasion of Crimea dampened its appeal. In 2019 a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine was recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew – the archbishop of Constantinople and the de facto leader

Why the West still needs the Bible

If you look to our schools and universities, you will not see a serious engagement with the Bible as part of the study of politics, of philosophy, or even of literature and culture more generally, despite the huge influence of Biblical ideas on the development of British, American and European politics – and so also across the Commonwealth and the world. University courses on political philosophy take a fundamentally ahistorical position of focusing on purely secular philosophers, rather than facing the reality of the Bible’s impact on the actual development of modern politics.  From Bristol to Warwick to Glasgow, the works of Hobbes and Rousseau, Mill and Rawls, are compulsory

The best films about faith to watch this Easter

The best religious films aren’t always the obvious ones, featuring either clerics or bible stories (though there are some good movies of both kinds – and an awful lot of terrible ones). Rather, some of the best capture Christianity sideways, expressing the numinous or the fundamentals of faith through a human story or through a portrait of a way of life. This being Holy Week, when we’re right in the middle of The Greatest Story Ever Told (one to watch), it’s a good time to explore how film reflects religion, straight or infused. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson, 2004 It’s hard to imagine how even Mel Gibson got

How Putin weaponised the Russian Orthodox church

In the week before Orthodox Lent began, some 233 Russian Orthodox priests published a petition calling for peace. The signatories spoke of the ‘fratricidal war in Ukraine’, with a call for an immediate ceasefire, and deplored ‘the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to’. Anyone who knows how authority is exercised in the Russian Orthodox church, and how closely it has allied itself with Putin’s authoritarian state, will recognise the clerics’ courage. But what effect is it likely to have on the attitude of the highest authorities in the church? To answer these questions, we need to understand not only the centuries-old link between political

Why the destruction of Ukraine’s churches matters

One small, deadly incident in the Ukrainian war proved memorable because it involved the ordinary things of life. A mother and two children trying to leave the town of Irpin on foot on 6 March died from Russian shelling. Their suitcases fell beside them and, miserably, a pet dog carrier. They lay on an ordinary road that could be in Surrey, on the steps of a memorial to Soviet dead from the second world war. That spot is opposite a little row of bells under a tiled roof in the grounds of the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St George. A neat hoarding was visible in 2015 on the building next