From Bible journaling to preaching to non-believers: meet the Christian influencers of Instagram

By Alma Fabiani

May 13, 2020

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A few weeks ago, while I was scrolling endlessly through YouTube, I ended up on a video titled Bethany and David Engagement Story posted by Girl Defined, a channel created by Bethany Baird and Kristen Clark. “Just two sisters striving to be God-defined girls in a culture-defined world,” states their about page. Also present on Instagram, the duo has more than 50,000 followers.

As I started looking at similar Christian accounts, I noticed that many of them had an impressive following and how different types of religious posts could be separated into categories. From Bible journaling to preaching to non-believers, Jesus lovers have become a new type of influencers on Instagram, YouTube and even TikTok. But what exactly characterises them, and is there anything wrong with influencers promoting a specific religion?

Although I am not religious myself, and should have probably steered clear of Netflix’s The Keepers, my aim is not to pull religions apart. Religious beliefs should always be respected. That being said, some religious people can occasionally go to extremes. Catholicism, more specifically, is not all good or bad, and that’s exactly the image Christian influencers seem to display on social media. Some of them want to share the word of God, while others think being religious gives them the right to dictate other people’s lives. It’s a fine line.

Let’s go back to the Bethany and David Engagement Story video I mentioned. In it, viewers can notice how uncomfortable David Beal seemed—almost unable to touch his wife for more than a few seconds. This pushed me to search for more information online on Baird and her husband. Apparently, before this video was posted, Baird had openly shared with her followers how she sent Beal to “conversion therapy” twice, which is an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

After the couple allegedly opened up about Beal attending conversion therapy twice in a previous video, it was reportedly deleted. Since, both have chosen not to address the video regarding the therapy. On its website, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has shared numbers collected by the UCLA Williams Institute which states that in the US, 698,000 LGBTQ adults aged 18 to 59 have undergone conversion therapy, and 57,000 aged 13 to 17 years old will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.

This kind of therapy presents great risks and can sometimes lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. And, just like conversion therapy, religion can also reinforce self-hatred experienced by people who feel like they don’t belong in society. While this has sadly been proved in many cases, spirituality and religion can also impact someone’s well-being through social and emotional support. For example, I found many Christian influencers promoting healthy and uplifting messages on Instagram.

Christian blogger Meg Flower, mostly known as @Radiating_Jesus on Instagram, is one of the many US-based Christians using the social media platform as a way to share selfies, religious motivational quotes and over-edited pictures of her Bible journaling skills to her 16,700 followers. All in all, her account is pretty much harmless, apart from a few posts that shame ‘sinners’ or others that stipulate a good Christian can’t love God and the world they live in at the same time—apparently, Flower asks for absolute devotion from her followers.

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FOR YOUR INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT. Unfollow anyone who makes you rethink where your worth is found. Unfollow people who advertise sinfulness. Unfollow people that influence you to love the world instead of the One who created it. Unfollow people who influence you to fall into temptation. Unfollow people who are leading you astray from the gospel. Unfollow people who stop your influence from Jesus and start influencing you into being more like the world. Unfollow people who make you question God's grace and love. Unfollow people who create a false advertisement and false claims to happiness. Unfollow people who ultimately stop you from pursuing Christ to the fullest. Get it? Social media is a beautiful gift full of wisdom and teaching, encouragement and truth BUT it can also be a ticking time bomb that can slowly yet quite suddenly influence you and coax you into worldly temptations tricking you- thinking your worth is anything but found in the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed for “unfollowing” someone, your relationship with God is at stake. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23. If an Instagram account is blocking your view from above… Jesus counsels drastic action/ seriousness to remove it “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” — Matthew 5:29. We are called in Philippians 4:8 to focus on true, honorable, just, pure things that are commendable. Romans 8:5 tells us to not live according to this world but to set your minds on the Spirit. If your clear focus is off remove it. In Romans 12:2 we are told not to conform to this world but to renew our minds and to focus on the will of God which is good. We are told to walk with the wise to become wise- proverbs 5:20-21. 1 John 2:15-17 tells us to not love this world- love for the world and love for God cannot co-exist. It explains that this world will pass away but the will of God is forever. So, unfollow anyone who helps your sinfulness and start following people who help your godliness.

A post shared by MEG FLOWER ╳ CHRISTIAN BLOGGER (@radiating_jesus) on

But although I could spend a while looking for small things to pick at, Flower’s account also preaches messages that everyone should get behind. Flower suffers from depression and anxiety and previously had an eating disorder. On @Radiating_Jesus, she openly discusses mental health and often offers her followers some advice on the topic. From medication and praying to speaking to friends and family, Flower has tried it all when it comes to dealing with mental health problems.

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See these? This is what keeps me going. Yes; I'm a Christian and I take medication for my mental illnesses. Yes; I'm not ashamed. No; I'm not a failure, I didn’t fail at being a Christian. I'm not embarrassed or full of guilt. Many Christians have a narrow perspective saying “Jesus is enough” or “just trust God for healing”. I take medication, not because my faith is lacking or I don’t trust my God for healing. In response to the narrow questions, yes, I do feel like we as Christians need to implement management strategies to deal with our mental health and the gospel. I consider Medicine and doctors are divine blessings; God knows this world and its corruption. Taking medication is a blessing not a lack of faith. You see it in the bible many times. See Isaiah 38--King Hezekiah is "mortally ill" with a skin disease, God hears him and extends healing through a cake of figs to be applied on his skin. God blesses the use of modern-day medicine. See Luke 10:34 aswell. Medicine is ONE of the ways God can issue healing which can also be part of a faith experience. My medication isn’t a perfect cure, however, I have experienced first hand what it can do for my life- what God can do through it for my life. Being prescribed from a professional, being properly diagnosed, utilizing those professions and having access to medication can be used to honor God. If you need medication to help you function in your day, don’t be ashamed, you'd be surprised what God can use for His ultimate glory. #chritianmentalhealth #christianhealthandwellness

A post shared by MEG FLOWER ╳ CHRISTIAN BLOGGER (@radiating_jesus) on

Unlike Baird, Flower never expressed any homophobic views or mentioned conversion therapy, at least not online. And she’s not the only relatively digestible Christian account for people like myself, @SimpleBible and @TrueandLovelyCo are also part of a similar group of Instagram influencers.

Of course, generalisations shouldn’t and can’t be made about all Christian influencers. Many are only sharing positive messages and preaching their religion in inoffensive ways. But it is the few of them that go too far who not only risk negatively influencing young Instagram users and their mental health, but also distorting what religion is about in the first place.

Acceptance and bringing a sense of community to people who might need it should both be celebrated in religion as well as on social media platforms, and yet they seem to be the last things people preach and practice in life outside of social media.

Whether you believe in god, in something or even in nothing at all, maybe it’s time we all start worrying about the principles that we (knowingly or unknowingly) stand up for through our social media presence.

From Bible journaling to preaching to non-believers: meet the Christian influencers of Instagram


By Alma Fabiani

May 13, 2020

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AI

A robot is now delivering sermons in Japan: the beginning of AI and religion?

By Alma Fabiani

Sep 18, 2019

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In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?

Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.

At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.

Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.

When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”

Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.

The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.

A robot is now delivering sermons in Japan: the beginning of AI and religion?


By Alma Fabiani

Sep 18, 2019

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