Back in January, I started a series of posts looking at the impact of mobile phones on the Christian Bible. Millions of people are now reading the Bible through phone apps like YouVersion, rethinking what the Bible is and how we engage with it. My first post looked at the importance of the mobile phone as a physical object. This time, I’m thinking about the app inside the phone. Here are 6 more suggestions about the future of reading.
1.) Instant access to a library of commentaries and translations
This one is pretty obvious. A digital text can connect to a digital library much, much bigger than anything you can have on your shelf at home. When you’re reading a digital Bible, you can find a word or a verse that puzzles you, click on it and link straight into the best resources available. In theory, a digital library could be essential for everyone interested in Bible study – the only limit is what the publishers who own the copyright to these translations and commentaries will agree to share.
2.) Make the text your own
Digital reading can be much more interactive than scanning text on a Kindle. Most Bible apps let you highlight text, add bookmarks, write comments for anyone to read and keep your own private journal. These are all classic evangelical Christian ways to engage with the Bible. Lots of academic scholars of digital religion now focus on the continuity between traditional and online religion, and this is a great example: evangelicals create technology that supports evangelical ways of reading.
3.) Bible reading becomes public and social
Click a verse in a digital Bible, and you can share it with all your friends/followers through the social network of your choice. Completed your daily reading? Tweet that too. Sharing Bible verses is a classic evangelism strategy, a low-key way to encourage others to read parts of God’s Word. In the digital age, it’s easy to push Bible verses to everyone you know, start conversations about the passages you struggle with, and make sure everyone knows you’re a Bible reader. Digital Bible reading encourages performance and collaboration, not just solitary contemplation.
4.) Bible reading can be monitored and held accountable
There’s another side to this, too. A digital Bible app could be set up to automatically notify a friend, reading group or church leader every time you do (or don’t) use it. Discipline and accountability are big themes in Christian writings about the Internet, and technology can help keep track of your online activities.
5.) Bible reading becomes private and invisible
You might be tweeting everything you read and sending records back to your leaders, but no one actually watching you playing with your phone can tell if you’re reading the Bible or checking your email. That could be a good thing, if you’re in a place that’s hostile to Christianity. Digital Bibles are much easier to smuggle and hide. But is it important, sometimes, for people to actually see you reading? Youth minister Andy Johnson has argued that digital reading is a challenge to Christian parenthood: ‘If a child simply sees you on your device, how do they see that Bible reading is a priority? What they see, unless they crawl in your lap and ask, is that being on a device is a priority.’
6.) Software is interpretation
These examples all show that the way a Bible app is designed is actually a kind of theology. The activities that designers have chosen to make possible through digital Bibles reflect ways of thinking about the Bible. These designers want you to read often, highlight bits, take notes, share your favourite verses and be held accountable. For the most part, what’s happening in the landscape of Bible apps is a digital re-creation of evangelical and sometimes fundamentalist Bible culture, which might be something for non-evangelicals to think about.
We should certainly all keep asking questions about the unintended theology of the digital Bible – the impact of digital reading on the family is one example, but there are lots of other possibilities.
This post is long enough already, so I’ll leave it there. What do you think? Is there something I’ve missed? I’ll try to come back to this topic again soon, to think more about unintended theologies. If you have suggestions for me to think about, let me know!