Jesus’ Mugshot Available

Jesus’ Mugshot Available August 25, 2023

I’ve been doing my best to explore the possibilities and limits of AI text and image creation technologies, as you know. The release of Donald Trump’s mugshot provided a perfect opportunity to some more experimenting with tools like Dall-E and NightCafe.

What, I wondered, would it look like if I asked them to produce a mugshot of Jesus.

The main thing that prompted that line of thought (other than just the way my mind jumps from one thing to something via lateral leaps) was the way Jenna Ellis and others who are Trump’s co-defendants in Georgia deliberately smiled when their mugshots were taken. Some have criticized them for this, but anyone trying to be fair will recognize that they were coached brilliantly. The classic mugshot in which a person looks solemn tends to also convey to us their guilt. It is subconscious at this point. Making yourself not look like that is strategic.

Donald Trump, it has been noted before, prefers a scowl to a smile, believing that it projects strength. I don’t think that served him well when his mugshot was taken.

I tried to imagine what it might be like if there were modern technology in ancient Rome. No, I didn’t think about the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” in connection with this until just now, honestly. But now that it did occur to me, presumably there would have been a mugshot floating around of “the Son” who is elusively referred to throughout that episode, mistakenly thought to be “the Sun” by the crew of the Enterprise until Lt. Uhura enlightens them.

So what might that look like? AI isn’t good at imagining things far away from the patterns that predominate human speech and art. Sometimes you have to force it along a path it wouldn’t otherwise have taken (which in itself illustrates what AI does and why human creativity is needed now more than ever). To begin with I used NightCafe and fed it the mugshot of Trump to start with. I asked it to transform it into a mugshot of Jesus. The first result had Jesus in modern clothing so I thought I’d try again, but the result wasn’t that different. Here are the two images it created:

I was amused by what it did with the logo of the Fulton County Sherrif. I had thought it might do something odd, but I didn’t expect that. I had been thinking I might paste in some sort of Roman military emblem in place of that.

Not satisfied, I tried again, asking for a mugshot of Jesus but this time not using the Trump mugshot as a seed for it to begin with, instead giving it free reign. The above were made with my last free trial of SDXL 1.0, their latest version of the AI most adept at producing realistic images of people, so I went back to its predecessor SDXL 0.9. Here is the first result I got:

As you could probably guess, I was happier than with the other two, but also felt this was still too much like the traditional depictions of Jesus in European art to be satisfactory. Interestingly, when I asked NightCafe to evolve the image and make Jesus look more like a Middle Eastern man, it also gave him a crown!

It would be easy to turn this into a sermon illustration and say that the takeaway message is this: it is hard if not impossible to start with something that looks like Donald Trump and end up with something that looks like Jesus. But the truth is that we don’t know what Jesus looked like, and it might be helpful to imagine him looking like Donald Trump or anyone else you’re inclined to dislike. What makes Jesus different from Donald Trump is not the obvious fact that one is from Middle Eastern Jewish ancestry and the other European. The big difference is in their character. That is the point that needs to be made, and to be made over and over. I’m kind of glad that the AI, for whatever inscrutable reason, gave Jesus a crown in the process, although it would have been better if it had been a crown of thorns. Conservative Evangelicals have been making the news lately because they clearly don’t know what Jesus taught and stood for. When they hear their pastor quote some of Jesus’ famous sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, they are liable to object that such things are “liberal talking points.” Even when it is pointed out to them that those are the teachings of Jesus, they still object to them as “weak.” Perhaps AI can be useful, providing images that can help convey points such as these visually. I certainly could not have made art like this with my own hands. The AI tool makes the image quickly, making a blog post like this one possible. It is not as though it was a choice between doing this and working with a human artist. By the time I did that and an artist created an image, the interest in this topic would be past. Also, as you’ve seen in the examples above, an AI requires direction and input across the various stages of the process. If this were less about the news and more about the art, I’d take more time with it to make the image even better. The good news is that you can go to NightCafe and (in addition to hopefully clicking “like” on my images) make adaptations of what you find there, likely with much better results than my own efforts have produced. A risk of AI art is that we’ll see a proliferation of images that reinforce the impressions we already have rather than challenge them. In an era of polarization that is something we can scarcely afford. It is possible for human users to direct and coach AI to produce images that challenge us, and that is a good use for them.

Returning to the people whose images I was working with, the contrast between Jesus and Donald Trump is not that the latter now has a mugshot. If the technology and the custom had existed in Jesus’ time, he would have had one too. The point is not even what the accusations were, since false accusations existed two millennia ago and exist today. The contrast between the two is what we can see coming through clearly of the character, aims, and behavior of each amid the various other things that might be spin or where there is uncertainty. The historical Jesus is my field. There’s most definitely ideologically-motivated spin and misinformation in our ancient sources. Whether you’re a Trump supporter or opponent, unless you are completely dishonest you’ll acknowledge that those who align in either camp have reasons to make him look as good or as bad as possible. In the case of both Jesus and Donald Trump, the efforts at spin and what false accusations have been brought forward don’t ultimately obscure either of them from view. We can still get a clear enough look at both. The contrast between them is absolutely clear even when you leave room for ideology. If you consider yourself a Christian, and yet it feels natural for you to support someone like Donald Trump, then you clearly have not taken a close look at Jesus or don’t actually care about following him. I doubt that AI-generated art or a blog post of this sort will help, but I can hope. What is more likely to help is if, in your anger at what I’ve said here you turn to the Gospels, determined to prove me wrong. I’m confident that if you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the teaching of Jesus – not just snippets but the whole – you’ll see my point. You might even become persuaded to repent and follow him.

If you are tired of all the political news then I have something funny to end with. While OpenAI’s ChatGPT is the most impressive AI chatbot thus far developed, its art generator Dall-E is spectacularly inept. I’ve rarely used it and been genuinely pleased with the result. This time, however, is an exception. When I asked it to generate a mugshot of Jesus Christ it gave me four to choose from here they are:

This post hopefully makes clear why I’m less worried about an AI apocalypse at the moment than about the way a significant number of people in the United States are rallying around the identity of “Christian” as an identity marker while having no understanding of or interest in what that label is supposed to mean. It is very telling indeed that these are the same people who will insist that others cannot choose an identity at odds with traditional gender categories or biological sex or whatever. If we are going to impose strict limits on the flexibility of identities, then let’s start with Christian identity. If you are not at least seeking to emulate Jesus, then you should not be allowed to claim that label.

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