AI Artwork and the Christian Imagination
Engineer and Illustrator Ross Boone shares how using AI to generate art helps bring Scripture to life for him and grow his spiritual imagination.
I’m a Christian, engineer and illustrator who uses AI to generate artwork that brings the Bible to life in a way that I hope helps rekindle the Christian imagination, especially for those who are deconstructing or who have become disenchanted with Christianity.
I have personally benefited from incorporating AI generated artwork into my spiritual practice. In the same way it helps grow and cultivate my own spiritual imagination, I hope that it helps others. While our own imaginations are powerful, they can be limited sources to reconstruct and envision many of the stories we find in scripture.
Popular culture, for example, often pervades our imagination in ways that sometimes gets in the way of historical accuracy. And sometimes we superimpose parts of our own lives onto the Bible story. Consider how baby cherubs and white robed choirs are about as glorious as we have imagined heaven to be. Or how Moses looks like Charleston Heston and Christmas looks like shepherds in robes made of fabric from a department store.
AI art can be useful in stretching and challenging our imaginations—it can push us beyond anything we could come up with or imagine ourselves. But it is also important to know that it has its own limitations as well. AI image generators can be prone to their own inaccuracies and biases, in addition to ethical concerns of copyright and security. I am hopeful though that in the near future we can better address and resolve these concerns.
AI art can be useful in stretching and challenging our imaginations—it can push us beyond anything we could come up with or imagine ourselves.
Despite these challenges, I believe that AI generated images have some redeeming and endearing qualities, and that there are benefits, at least when it comes to their potential to help cultivate and grow the spiritual imagination.
I’m currently working on a project where I generate AI art every day for readings in the daily lectionary, a centuries-old, three year cycle of Bible readings. I use the AI art generator “MidJourney” the most, which is a bot you send a descriptive prompt to on a Discord server and it generates four images. There’s an interactive component to the design process as well, as you can ask it for more variations or even ask it to edit or resize the images it’s created.
I usually have to edit the images in Photoshop afterwards to take out the notorious sixth finger or extra leg on animals, but other than that, I’ve found that AI artwork helps grow, cultivate and stretch my own spiritual imagination. I usually have an idea of what I might see when I type Biblical themes into the AI generator, but I’m often driven to awe and wonder when the software renders images I hadn’t fathomed myself. AI programs are capable of making art that resembles paintings, digital art, cartoons, wooden and stone carvings and even intricate paper cut art. It takes less than a minute to produce what would’ve taken me weeks.
One way Christians have historically interacted with art is through a spiritual practice called Visio Divina. This practice is an opportunity to invite God to speak to us by contemplatively listening to what he is saying while looking at an image.
One way Christians have historically interacted with art is through a spiritual practice called Visio Divina. This practice is an opportunity to invite God to speak to us by contemplatively listening to what he is saying while looking at an image. In my own experience, I’ve found that looking at AI art in this way is capable of moving me and evoking a response from me in ways that traditional Christian artwork and depictions of the Bible haven’t.
For the remainder of this article, I would like to invite you to experience the practice of Visio Divina, yourself, with AI art. I’ve chosen passages from Genesis chapters 1 and 2 for the AI program MidJourney to render in various art styles. Below are some AI-generated images, along with the scripture that inspired them and some questions for reflection.
To practice Visio Divina, consider playing your favorite worship song or listening to instrumental music while you view the images and read the questions. Consider reading the scripture passage that inspired the image aloud. It’s ok if it was uncomfortable or unfamiliar at first. Take your time. Let your eyes pull you to where they will, and be open to God speaking to you.
Genesis 1:1, The Heavens and the Earth
Scripture: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. – Genesis 1:1
- How have you traditionally envisioned the Genesis 1:1 account of God creating the heavens and the Earth? How different or similar are these AI-generated images to what you have imagined?
- What words come to mind, or what emotions do you feel when you look at the images?
- Any words in the passage come alive to you in the images?
- Do you hear God communicating anything new to you about this familiar passage through these images?
- If you could imagine yourself being present in the beginning with God the moment he created the heavens and the earth, in one of these images, how would you describe that experience feeling like? Perhaps you can use your senses as a guide here. What do you imagine hearing? Seeing? Smelling?
Genesis 1:6, Water and Sky
Scripture: “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” -Genesis 1:6
- Have you ever imagined what it might’ve looked like when God separated the waters above from the waters below in this passage? If so, what did that look like for you? If not, what barriers did you face in trying to visualize this passage for yourself?
- These images have been generated in an art style called papercut art. How does the art style affect your experience of Visio Divina? Does its lack of realism compared to the previous image detract or add something new to your experience?
- Pick one of the images, scan it closely, and make detailed observations of its intricacy. What textures, colors, shapes and patterns stand out to you and why?
- Any new insights on the passage with help from the images?
Genesis 1:24, Land and Living Creatures
Scripture: God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” – Genesis 1:24
- Is the biodiversity of animals captured in the image anything like what you’ve imagined the living creatures in this passage to look like? If so, how? If not, how was what you imagined different?
- Pick an animal in the image that you find striking, perhaps because of its colorful plumage, pensive eyes, or intricate patterns. Make close observations about its physical traits and list them. Does it resemble another organism? If not, what elements of its appearance resemble familiar organisms? Use your creative imagination to consider what its traits might suggest about its behavior or habitat.
- Some of the animals generated by the AI program more closely resemble real ones (consider the lion and eagle), while others do not—they are fictional creatures with an assortment of traits from different animals. Does the combination of real and fictional animals in this image hinder, expand or challenge your understanding of this verse? Why?
- Anything God is communicating to you about his creativity and power or the diversity of life in this verse and image?
Genesis 2:7, Dust, Breath and Human Life
Scripture: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7
- How have you traditionally imagined this verse about God creating humans from dust? How different or similar are these AI-generated images to what you have imagined?
- Imagine yourself standing in one of these scenes watching the verse unfold. God breathing life into his creation. What emotions do you think you’d feel?
- These images are in a different art style than the others—the imagery is darker, haunting or perhaps even solemn. Do you find that this art style helps or hinders your creative imagination about this verse? Is it harder to participate in the Visio Divina experience or just different?
- Anything new God is communicating to you about our human origin story with the help of these images?
As you reflect on your experience with Visio Divina using AI artwork, consider your overall thoughts and impressions. Did knowing that the images were AI generated affect your ability to interact with them or ability to see them as a medium through which God could speak? Did the different art styles affect your ability to interact with the images? Were some styles more effective for you than others? If so, which ones and why? Did some passages lend themselves better to being visualized by AI artwork than others?
In my experience with AI, the artwork it generates can give us unexpected, striking and awe-inducing images that help grow and stretch the muscles of our creative imagination. I hope that you experienced this as well, but more importantly, I hope that you encountered God in a different and unexpected yet deeply meaningful way. Perhaps the exercise and images left you with more questions than answers, or perhaps you were unsure how to feel about it. I hope that overall it increased your curiosity and helped encourage you to engage the gift of imagination that God has given us in a spiritually enriching way.
…I hope that [in this exercise of Visio Divina with AI generated images] you encountered God in a different and unexpected yet deeply meaningful way…
Consider continuing this journey by generating images for yourself using AI generators like MidJourney, Dall-E, or Stable Diffusion, and finding ways to use AI in your spiritual practice. Interacting with AI programs first handedly yourself is one of the best ways to learn more about AI technology. This can help destigmatize the technology as well as help you become more familiar with the future direction of technology, both its potential for beauty and harm. You can also consider following my adventures as I continue to use AI to generate art for each day’s daily lectionary readings on my app Creature Habits. Indeed, AI is an amazing tool for which we will have to learn to responsibly use—may we steward it well and use it in ways that are life-giving.
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