David Mitchell responds to Matt Smith’s post “Why You Should Ditch Your Digital Bible”
In his recent article Matt Smith identifies some key issues associated with the increased use of digital Bibles. On most of the issues raised, Matt’s observations accord with my own: digital Bibles are on devices prone to cause distraction, they reduce how much of the text you can see in one field of view and they do play into a cultural demand for instantaneous short-answer solutions. There are also some advantages to paper Bibles with regard to spatial retention. Both Matt and I want those among whom we minister to be “diligent students of the Word, rather than casual readers.” I don’t however, think that the use of paper Bibles actually makes a big difference this way or that on this matter. I think there are some alternative solutions.
So here’s my response to Matt’s article, with some personal examples of how I think becoming more device friendly could help us in our mission to make and grow disciples.
Is Old Best?
The main problem that I have with Matt’s conclusion is that it could be applied to just about any development in biblical convention and technology. Neither Jesus nor his apostles carried their Bibles with them in any physical form—the double-sided bound codex (think early book), which changed a stack of 10kg scrolls into a single 20kg book, hadn’t been invented yet. And there have been many other innovations: the adoption of upper and lower cases; the introduction of spaces between words; chapter and verse references; and of course invention of the printing press.
Neither Jesus nor his apostles carried their Bibles—the double-sided codex hadn’t been invented yet.
These have all made the Bible far more accessible. But, at any point along the way, there would have been people saying: the old way is fine, better even. In some ways they all would have been right, yet the trade-offs are almost always seen as definitively worth it (especially now that we sit with the benefit of a few hundred years of hindsight). I don’t think we’ll find that this advance will be different with digital versions.
Now it’s true that the amount of Bible you can read on a screen is an issue. But I’m not convinced that, in the overall teaching ministry of a church that consistently explains biblical contexts, this will be a particularly big problem.
Indeed, my first example shows how electronic media helps, rather than hinders when it comes to reading. About a year ago, my five-year-old discovered the Reading Eggs app. Within about four months, he went from knowing his alphabet to being able to read whole passages of the Bible. Of course, it’s entirely possible he would have learned to read just as quickly if he’d been taught with more traditional methods, but I doubt it. The technological opportunities for reading and learning the Scriptures in a digital environment have hardly even begun to be explored having only existed in a popular way for around twenty years.
The biggest thing to remember in all of this is that the heart of a Bible is not its medium but its message. A translation remains God’s word, whether I can understand it or not, but it won’t help me much if it’s not in English. Neither will a Bible left accidentally at home help me, but a remembered phone can enable reading of God’s word on my commute. Sore eyes make me disinclined to read, yet a few swipes will bring on the Bible read to me in the pleasing baritone of David Suchet—and it’s no less God’s word than if I were reading it myself. We should receive all these gifts gratefully from God. We’d be foolish to spurn what’s available to us now, we shouldn’t demand a particular format to be used.
We should receive all these gifts gratefully from God. We shouldn’t demand a particular format to be used.
The “cost of our convenience” in paper versions may also be the cost of our hospitality and I feel that will be a price worth paying, so long as we also give the reminder to switch on “do not disturb”. If my church is device friendly then when I invite my unchurched friend to church, they won’t feel odd because everyone else has their own copy and they’re the only one on their phone. They’re not going to feel like an ignoramus because they don’t know where to find a passage. Enter the passage into any search engine and it’s there. Additionally, if they struggle with English, their phone can offer them a Bible in their heart language, as well as help to translate anything else.
The opportunity for hospitality extends even further when I consider how my wife often ends up reading her Bible—i.e. with a child on her lap (this is my second personal example). It’s much easier for her to be reading using one hand to both hold and scroll, than to have both hands holding a paper Bible. Later, when she leaves the house carrying a backpack full of stuff for the children, a phone is far easier for her (and many people like her). Indeed for many people, due to physical or other circumstances that may not be obvious to an outsider, a Bible on a phone may have a number of benefits.
Welcoming all-comers is particularly difficult when it comes to non-verbal messaging. We cannot avoid choosing things like a particular translation to read or custom of dress, but being aware of what those choices are, why we’re choosing them, and whether they are core or non-core issues for us is important. As far as possible, we want to avoid disputable matters dividing God’s people and remove any hinderance to the proclamation of Jesus. What I’m getting at is that it would be awful for people to get the message that paper versions mark who’s really committed to Jesus and who isn’t.
My third personal example is how I use my digital to enable not just fast, but deep study. My phone app provides Hebrew and Greek with morphological data along with twenty English translations. While listening to a sermon or Bible study I can check up different ideas or answer particular questions in seconds. Preparing sermons on my computer is even more in depth. Thirty years ago it was only the huge brains of the world or those with excellent research skills and a vast library who could do what now takes me a matter of seconds on a device I have in my pocket. While that work might be somewhat peculiar to me I’ve certainly seen others use their phones to compare English translation alternatives at incredible speed.
Thirty years ago, only huge brains could do what now takes me a matter of seconds on a device I have in my pocket.
Overall I think we’re dealing with an unstoppable generational and technological change that needs to be accepted and leveraged. We don’t have to be early adopters pushing technology along, but nor should be asking tech-natives to become luddites. I think people should be free to use the Bible format that works best for them. Even if we count ourselves as “paper preferred”, we should be “device welcoming”, if not “device friendly”.
While accepting there may be some trade-offs, I think there’s much to be gained in welcoming technological advancement and making the most of it, though I know I’ve got a long way to go.