“My Bible died.”
I was teaching a class and asked for someone to read a Bible verse. As soon as the student had opened his Bible app and located the verse, his digital tablet—and Bible—died. This declaration made me realize we are living in a brave new world of Bible reading.
The digital age is doing some curious things to the Bible. Not only can modern Bibles “die” because of low batteries, but they can also speak, search, share, notify, and hyperlink. It takes two taps to tweet text from Titus. It is normal to announce to an empty room, “Alexa, add blueberries to my grocery list and read Esther chapter four.”
Social media, smartphones, and new media are changing everything, including how we interact with the Bible. The digital age has created a cornucopia of new opportunities for us to read, mark, learn, and digest the Word of God.
To navigate this brave new world, God’s people need both biblical literacy and digital literacy.
Bible in a Digital-First World
We live in a “digital first” world. Newspapers now write almost exclusively for digital platforms and print only a fraction of their total content. Amazon is first and mostly a digital bookstore that only recently built a few brick-and-mortar storefronts.
The Bible is not impervious to this trend. Every year we’re seeing more and more Bibles that reflect digital trends and innovations. Take Streetlights Bible as an example. Producing audio, video, and curriculum, Streetlights is a “team of ‘Digital Scribes’ mobilizing Missional Creatives to translate and teach God’s Word so all people can understand and know Jesus Christ.” One of Streetlight’s main projects is the Streetlights App, which allows listeners to hear Scripture read aloud over a hip-hop score. This digital technology provides a tremendous opportunity for a wide range of people to experience God’s Word.
We live in a ‘digital first’ world. The Bible is not impervious to this trend.
Digital personal assistants are another instance of Scripture intersecting with digital technology. With a simple voice command, Alexa or Google Home can read the Bible to you. YouVersion has integrated its Bible reading plans with these smart speakers. Likewise, Concordia Publishing House created an Alexa Skill for reviewing Luther’s Small Catechism. These smart speakers allow for the unusual experience of hearing God’s Word and listening to devotional writings while making dinner or doing the dishes.
The digital age is even influencing analog forms of Scripture. For example, Alabaster Co. designs Bibles for a “visual culture” and has been described as catering to the Instagram generation. Created by a graphic designer and a digital artist, Alabaster publishes artfully designed books of the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of Mark is laid out with captivating photographs, beautiful typography, and a powerful aesthetic. These printed Bibles are designed for readers living in a digital first, visually saturated, social media-steeped culture.
Good? Bad? Both?
Binary-based Bibles tend to elicit binary responses:
“These are awesome” or “These are horrible.”
“Digital Bibles are the future” or “Print Bibles are real Bibles.”
Moving beyond a binary response will require a more nuanced understanding of digital technology and how it is shaping our interactions with Scripture.
Designers use the term “affordance” to describe possible actions allowed by an object. A door allows someone to walk through a wall without a sledgehammer. A staircase allows someone to ascend without the help of levitation. A “like” button allows users to express appreciation for a social media post. These affordances allow us to do certain tasks, they inhibit our ability to do other tasks, and they incline us to use an object in a specific way.
Digital and analog Bibles have their own unique affordances. A Bible app allows you to digitally scroll, share, and search. An audio Bible allows you to hear God’s Word while walking, commuting, or mowing the lawn. Print Bibles allow you to quietly leaf through pages without notifications, email alerts, or the blank screen of a dead battery.
These affordances provide unique, practical benefits but also powerful, subtler influences. Having your Bible just one tap away from Facebook influences how you experience God’s Word; toggling between an envy-inducing newsfeed and the envy-indicting New Testament creates internal dissonance. Hyperlinking Scripture to the internet can affect your theological understandings, sending you on meandering rabbit trails that can complicate or distort a passage’s meaning. A sea of unfamiliar words on an austere page conveys a certain visual message.
Design is never neutral. It is a form of persuasion and communication. Whether digital or analog, a print Bible or a Bible app, designed technologies have an influence on how we think, feel, see, and act.
Design is never neutral. Whether digital or analog, a print Bible or a Bible app, designed technologies have an influence on how we think, feel, see, and act.
Slow Down, Ask Questions
As Bible readers, we must pause to reflect on the technology we are using to receive God’s Word. This means slowing down and taking time to consider the design of a print Bible, a Bible app, or an audio Bible. Only when we slow down can we begin to ask ourselves good questions about how the medium may be shaping the message of Scripture.
How does a hip-hop score played alongside Ephesians affect the message? How does constantly toggling between social media apps and the Bible influence my daily Bible reading? Does it matter if there are paid ads surrounding Scripture on a webpage? Is hearing the Bible the same as reading the Bible? How is this technology influencing my experience of God’s Word? Addressing these questions will help us begin to develop some basic digital literacy as it relates to Bible reading.
These are complex questions that demand nuanced reflection. We should celebrate how digital technology enables more people to encounter God’s Word, but we must also recognize that how people engage it matters.
The speed and rapidity of modern technology can easily trample over things like wisdom, discernment, and quiet contemplation. Abandoning technology is not the answer. Rather, thoughtful Christians should slow down to discern how technology influences our life, theology, and faith: “The wise of heart is called discerning” (Prov. 16:21).