Last month, I shared some first thoughts and early findings from my research into digital Bibles. This time, I’ll look more closely at why people read on screens. Are Christians really putting down their paper Bibles and turning to phones and iPads, and if so, what’s the big attraction?
Before I started this research, I expected to find that digital reading would just be an added extra on top of paper reading. Over the last twenty years, academic research into digital religion has consistently reported that digital media are not rivals to life offline – people do not stop going to church or stop talking to friends, just because they discover YouTube and Facebook and church online. My research isn’t finished yet, but so far it looks like digital reading might be an exception. Most of the people I’ve spoken to so far happily admit that they just don’t use their paper Bibles any more. Some still turn back to paper if they want to read something slowly and carefully, but most of the people I’ve spoken to say that digital reading is just better.
So what makes digital reading so good?
I created a survey earlier this year to try to find out, and 250 people replied. These were committed readers: 40% said they used a digital Bible every day, and another 45% used one every week. More than 200 of these readers included a written answer to the following question: “In what ways (if any) have digital media changed your relationship with the Bible?”
Now, I’ve interviewed designers of digital Bibles, so I know what the answer is supposed to be. Some designers are trying to sell a product, and they don’t really care about changing how you read – they just want to find out what you want, and sell it to you. But more often, designers described their work as mission: they are trying to encourage people to read the Bible more frequently, to understand the Bible better, and to connect with new generations who preferred screens to print. They are trying to create what Ian Bogost has called “persuasive technologies”, designing their Bibles in ways that subtly (sometimes not very subtly) teach you how to relate to God’s Word.
Very few of the respondents to my survey had anything to say about this. Instead, there was one big theme: convenience. Reading the Bible on a screen is just easier, particularly for people who already love reading the Bible every day. I created the Wordle image above from all 6000+ words of responses to that survey question, and convenience is the obvious theme: easier, access, accessible, always, available.
Looking through the written answers, readers are interested in different kinds of convenience:
1. It is easy to carry a Bible with you all the time, because it’s always on your phone. Five minutes to spare on the bus? Your Bible is right there, and it doesn’t make your bag heavy.
2. It is easier to look up references, because you can quickly search for the verse you want.
3. It is easier to study a digital Bible, because you can quickly compare different translations and access commentaries, without needing shelves of paper books.
4. It is easier to read on a screen (for some people, anyway). If you find it difficult to read printed books, you can change the font or the size of letters.
Most (not all) of the people I’ve spoken to have admit that something is lost when they read the Bible on a screen. They don’t feel an emotional attachment to their digital texts, they can’t flick through and browse the way they want to, and some find it hard to see the context of a whole passage when they are reading a few verses on a little screen. But they still prefer their digital Bibles, because digital is easier.
So what does this mean for the dream of digital Bibles as persuasive, missional technologies? Can you convince someone to start reading the Bible, or to read it more, by giving them the right software? Maybe, maybe not. I’ll think about that in my next post.