What is a Bible? A few years ago, everyone knew the answer: a Bible was a book, very thick, with really thin pages. Now? People are still buying books, sure, but that’s just one option among many. You can read the Bible online in any number of different designs and styles, with hundreds of translations and commentaries right there on the same site. You can download a Bible app to your phone and keep it in your pocket wherever you go, typing in your own notes and tweeting your favourite verses. You can get yourself an audio Bible instead and keep the whole thing on your MP3 player. Suddenly the world is full of Bibles, and you can’t even see who’s carrying one.
I just moved back from Sweden to join the CODEC team at Durham, working on the Lindisfarne Gospels Digital Arts Project. You can read more about that. CODEC has always been interested in the relationship between new media and the Bible, and the LGDAP will look even further into that question. What happens to the Bible in a digital world?
I presented some initial suggestions last week at the International Conference on Digital Religion in Colorado. Part of that talk was a list of some of the ways in which a phone app like YouVersion can change how readers engage with the Bible. I’ll share that list over my next three #digidisciple blog posts, with the first installment today. This post looks at the actual physical object of the mobile phone. Next time, I’ll talk about the app (so if you want to hear about bookmarks and social media, you’ll have to wait). The third post will focus on what we’re doing right now at CODEC with digital art.
So what difference does your phone make? Here are 6 suggestions, all focused on the actual lump of plastic you hold in your hand.
1. Instant, free, constant access to the text.
This is huge. When the Bible goes digital, it goes everywhere. On a mobile device, the Bible is always with you. The whole rhythm of Bible study can change to suit your lifestyle – five minutes on the bus, ten minutes on your lunch break, whenever you have the time.
2. The Bible is invisible.
When the Bible is stored on a digital device, no one knows you’re carrying one. That’s really important in mission work, particularly in countries hostile to Christianity. But I’ve also met Christians who carry paper Bibles everywhere, to show the world they are ready to talk about Jesus. When the Bible disappears into your phone, one of the most visible signs of faith disappears too.
3. Phones are now tools for evangelism.
Of course, that might not be such a bad thing. When missionaries come to my door, I always invite them in and ask some questions. If they open a paper book, I know immediately that our conversation will be disappointing, because they’ll quote chapter and verse and refuse to engage with what I’m really asking. Would it be any different if they took out a phone? It’s possible – and evangelists in some cultures around the world are finding that carrying the latest model of smartphone can actually be a great conversation starter.
4. Phones are now part of church attendance
This is a favourite topic here at #digidisciple: is it OK to use your phone in church? I’ll talk about this more in my next post, but for now I’ll just focus on the physical: more and more people are leaving their paper Bibles at home and bringing their phones to church instead.
5. Learn your way around a new Bible-space.
This may seem trivial, but it’s an issue I’ve heard from quite a few digital Bible readers. Book-readers learn where to find every part of the Bible in that great stack of paper. In a digital Bible, you find everything through the search function. You develop a completely different sense of how the Bible hangs together as a whole, and a once-valued memory skill becomes worthless.
6. No more pages.
Digital religion researchers (like me) think a lot about people and content, but we tend to forget the importance of hardware. What happens when you open the Bible with a touchscreen or a mouse, instead of gently peeling back those tissue-thin pages or cracking open a thick leather binding? Is it important that you now access your Bible through your ordinary phone, instead of taking a special book down from a special shelf? Many Christians still own the Bible that guided them through their most formative years of faith. Does it matter that kids today, growing up with cellphone Bibles, will never know what that means?
It’s worth being a little suspicious of the claims made by Bible publishers. Ultimately, the only way to get someone to read the Bible is to encourage them to love and need the Bible, and that kind of spiritual formation is not a job that can be done by a gadget – or by selling teenagers a fancy paper Bible with a pretty cover. It really does look like digital and mobile Bibles are changing the way some Christians engage with Scripture, though.
We don’t yet understand exactly what’s going on, but these six suggestions reflect some of the questions I’m asking in my own research. In my next blog post, I’ll share a few more.