Do We Want Freedom?
NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock has a quirky show titled Mrs. Davis that combines themes of religion, artificial intelligence, and human freedom. The show leans into a pseudo-campy vibe which make sit a fun ride. The premise was too intriguing to not watch. Mrs. Davis is an algorithm that has incorporated itself into global human society through a phone app. The users of the app have allowed Mrs. Davis to direct their lives, relationships, careers, and governmental decisions. The result of several years of interaction with Mrs. Davis is that most of society believes that war, pestilence, and other things have been taken away so that everyone can live happily. Sister Simone is one of many people who refuses to engage with Mrs. Davis because she believes the algorithm is harming people by removing agency.
Unlike many dystopian stories, Mrs. Davis does not completely reshape human society. Nations still exist, churches and businesses go on as normal, but almost all people interact with and learn from Mrs. Davis by being almost always connected. Like our current Social Media experience, Mrs. Davis wields power through a system of rewards, which can lead to users receiving wings. These are visible within the user app and people desire the wings much like likes and shares on Social Media. This desire is what Mrs. Davis leverages to make things happen. As Sister Simone recognizes, the dark side of an artificially peaceful society is often the willingness to do almost anything to receive a desire.
Into this world, Mrs. Davis uses people to reach out to Sister Simone and works to make Simone listen to a proposition. Once the futility of resistance is reached, Sister Simone agrees to listen to the proposition. Here is where the religious intersects and we see the fictional method by which Simone has encountered and married Jesus (why she became a nun). The quest offered to Simone is to find and destroy the Holy Grail. Even Mrs. Davis has a deep desire and, because of that, asks Simone what she requires to accept the quest. That request is for Mrs. Davis to shut down if the Grail is found and destroyed. To Sister Simone’s surprise, Mrs. Davis agrees, and this begins the quest.
A variety of characters and situations ensue as Simone embarks upon her quest. There is comedy, a tinge of drama, and over the top action. But at its core, the show is about deeply help beliefs and the struggle between the human desire for freedom and the desire for comfort. Many people along the journey implore Simone to understand the contentment they feel because of Mrs. Davis, but Simone continues to argue that contentment is not real. She wants people to have freedom to make actual choices and regain a sense of mystery.
As I watched the limited series, I was cheering on Sister Simone because I could not help but see the parallels to an ongoing difference in expressions of faith. On the one hand, many want the certitude and general comfort of a deterministic understanding of God. This is a view of God as sovereign in power and direction such that humanity has little true freedom. While it can seem comforting and safe, it is an idea in which God can easily become a monster responsible for unspeakable evil. If God is sovereign over all and controls all, that places God as responsible for all things. The other idea is that of an open and relational God who is sovereign in love and has influence and sustaining power in creation. This is the essential view of Wesleyan traditions, even though we sometimes get caught up in the determinist view. We believe in true freedom of choice, and that includes the choice to be disciples. We believe that humanity is given the opportunity to respond to God through grace such that we can be transformed, but even in that transformation we have the freedom to cooperate or not with God. yes, having the responsibility for choice upon human beings (as well as all creation) means that we are responsible for the consequences good or bad that arise from our choices.
Ultimately, Simone must decide if she wants her desire and has to look deep inside when she faces the decision to allow freedom or to allow the status quo. I will not spoil the end, but it is an amazing series of events where we find out the absurd origins of Mrs. Davis. Then we encounter the choice between allowing the supposedly peaceful but determined society to continue or to free humanity to be responsible and free, even if it brings sadness. That choice is also ours to make. How we view faith and God, whether in a deterministic and controlling way, or in an open and relational way, influences how we view and treat our fellow human beings, our environment, and life itself. Are we content with the falsity of certitude and fatalistic determinism, or do we want to live in a free and open relationship with one another and God? The former may seem the safer option, but the latter brings growth, transformation, and cooperation between us, creation, God, and our community of faith. I know I desire to know the God who hears us, sees us, knows us, and is with us, even in our doubts and fears. The God who allows us to decide, but desires for us to choose cooperation with God so we become more like Jesus and show the world who God truly is.