When the Bible Becomes an App

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A surprising statistic in research on Bible engagement among Americans is that more than 90 percent of regular Bible readers prefer print to digital. That percentage holds true even though more than 90 percent of Bible readers also indicate that they engage with the Bible on digital platforms and through an app. So, the trends show exponential growth in digital Bible engagement alongside a strong preference for a print Bible reading experience. (In case you’re wondering how those statistics hold up generationally, consider the fact that three out of four millennials say they prefer a print Bible.)

Needless to say, printed Bibles aren’t going away. But many pastors tell me that they’re showing up less often in the hands of congregants at church on Sunday. J. D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church, says “open your Bibles” and “turn on your Bibles,” and has remarked at the change in years past from the rustling of paper as people flipped through the text to the soft white glow of people today accessing the Bible via their phones.

Does the Form of Your Bible Matter?

As a Bible publisher, I’m thrilled to see people engaging the Bible, whatever the format. That’s why our team devotes attention to multiple digital platforms while caring deeply for the value of printed Bibles. At the same time, I wonder if many Christians assume the format for a Bible is neutral, that it’s irrelevant where or how you engage with the Bible, so long as it’s the Bible you’re engaging. That assumption is wrong. The form matters, because it affects the way we encounter God’s Word.

Let’s set aside the question of Bible apps for a moment. Just consider two forms of the Bible in print. The first Bible is leather-bound with gilded edges and opens up to a beautifully designed single-column interior. The presentation of this Bible says something about the value of these words. The second Bible is a pocket New Testament with a tiny font. The presentation of this Bible says something about the accessibility and availability of Scripture. Both of these Bibles are the Word of God, but surely no one would say the format doesn’t matter. Both can be helpful. Both can be valid. (I use a leather-bound single-column Bible for my daily devotions, and I carry around a little New Testament in my shirt pocket so I can read occasionally throughout the day.) But surely the form matters, because the form says something. 

The same is true for Bible engagement through various digital platforms. We encounter the Bible differently through an app than we do through a book. The question we must ask is: what is the difference, and does it matter?

Scrolls, Codices, and Books

The pragmatist waves off this kind of reflection and chalks up concern or caution about digital Bibles as being nostalgic for a different era in history. After all, books themselves were once inventions, and the widespread availability of Bibles in printed form did not exist until after the Reformation. Weren’t books an improvement over codices? And weren’t codices an improvement over scrolls?

These are good questions worthy of consideration. But the questions themselves make my point: there is a difference in encountering the Bible as a collection of scrolls versus picking up the Bible as one distinct book. Binding together all of the books of the Bible into a single volume, between two covers, makes a statement about the canon of Scripture and the unity of the story it contains. And the availability of the Bible to the masses certainly made a statement about the priesthood of all believers and lifted high the expectation that we could and should encounter Scripture on our own. My point, again, is that the form matters. The format influences our engagement of the biblical text.

Difference Between Online and Print

So, what is the difference between encountering the Bible as a printed book and accessing the Bible’s contents online or through an app? Are we likely to see the same kind of revolutionary effect for digital Bibles that the printing press had for printed ones? It’s hard to say. Whereas books replaced codices and codices replaced scrolls, it’s not clear that digital access will replace the printed text, especially since digital sales have stalled out for books in general and never really took hold with the Bible in particular.

Still, there is a difference in engaging the Bible online versus in print, and we should be aware of it. Jeffrey Siker’s book Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World lays out some of the ways our encounter with the Bible digitally can shape our approach to this book. “What happens when the Bible is simply one additional app on one’s smartphone or tablet?” he asks.

Siker’s treatment is not one-sided. He recognizes the possibility of significant new insights that may emerge from millions of people encountering the Bible digitally. At the same time, he wonders what problems the shift from print to digital could cause. A digital transition would be a mixed blessing, with several tradeoffs.

Surface vs. Deep Reading

First, Sikes points to the research that shows screens to be best for surface reading and the skimming of texts, but not ideal for the kind of deep and meditative reading usually associated with the Bible. Reading well takes concentration, and most of our devices are filled with distractions that make comprehension harder. (Not all devices are created equal, of course, which is why a Kindle may lend itself to higher reading comprehension than, say, the iPhone.) Multitasking, another practice we’re accustomed to on our phones or computers, makes it harder to read the Bible online, especially if we are enticed by all the tools and helps available on our apps. The thing we love about a Bible app (its features and helps) can become the thing that keeps us from reading the Bible well. Research also shows that humans read differently on a screen than on paper, which is why exhaustive reading online is rare (no wonder we call it “browsing”!).

Take these challenges into the church service and the Bible on your phone can become an intrusion rather than a benefit. Sikes admits:

“My worship experience may be enhanced by the capacities of the Bible app on my phone, or these same capacities may distract and take away from the worship experience because I’m off in the Bible spaces they have constructed. . . . Rather than giving our full attention to our role in the worship life of our faith communities, we increasingly suffer from ‘continuous partial attention,’ a kind of peripheral attention wherein we have one eye and one ear on the so-called real world around us, and another eye/ear on the virtual world mediated via smartphones.”

The Loss of the Bible’s Geography

Another loss when we move from the Bible in print to the Bible online is the sense of the Bible’s geography. When the Bible “loses its covers,” Sikes writes, it no longer has a beginning and end, a shape or geography, and we may slowly lose our knowledge of the contours of the text. We no longer know our way around the Bible because we’ve never needed to have internal, mental maps. We can get to any place in the Bible in an instant.

The technological gain leads to a loss of intimate familiarity.

Submitting to the Master

The format of Bible engagement matters. What is helpful in one encounter may hinder in another. Sikes quotes Christine Rosen on how different a book is from a screen:

“You enter the author’s world on his own terms, and in so doing get away from yourself. Yes, you are powerless to change the narrative or the characters, but you become more open to the experiences of others and, importantly, open to the notion that you are not always in control. In the process, you might even become more attuned to the complexities of family life, the vicissitudes of social institutions, and the lasting truths of human nature. The screen, by contrast, tends in the opposite direction. Instead of a reader, you become a user. Instead of submitting to an author, you become the master. The screen promotes invulnerability.”

Apply this to Bibles, and the practice of submitting yourself to a text—to something that is intended to master you instead of you master it—becomes even more important. How will our view of the Bible change if our primary encounter with it is on the same device from which we exert so much control and manipulation of our self-image?

Bibles Online, Yes. But Not At the Expense of Print

To be clear, I’m not opposed to Bible apps. I use them. I benefit from them. I’m excited to use the different tools and study helps available online. Engaging the Bible this way has aided me in study, in devotional exercise, in accessibility, and in sermon preparation. I am pro-Bibles-online.

But I’m not pro-Bibles-online as a replacement for engaging the Bible in print. The form of digital engagement is not neutral, and we need to be aware of the losses we will experience if we shift to online Bible reading as the primary or only way we encounter the Bible in the future. Aspects of engaging the Bible as a printed book are lost when we only and always turn on the Bible instead of open it.

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