Does Digital Bible Reading Make Us Biblically Illiterate and Spiritually Immature?

The changing medium

From the stone slabs used by Moses (Ex. 24:12; 31:18), to the various wooden, clay, or metal tablets used by the prophets (Is. 8:1; 30:8; Hab. 2:2; cf. Ezek. 27:5), to papyri scrolls (Jer. 36:2; Ezra 6:2; Ps. 40:7), to parchment codices, and finally, to paper books, the Word of God has been preserved and communicated through a wide range of media.

Currently, we are witnessing the ascendancy of yet another kind of medium: the electronic hand-held devices (e.g. e-readers, tablets, and various smart phones). But is this a good development?

This is an important question, because there is no such thing as neutral media. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying goes, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the medium influences the message, because the content cannot be extricated from its form.

Are digital texts making us Biblically illiterate and spiritually immature?
Recently, a bevy of writers from prominent Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Gospel Coalition and Modern Reformation, have criticized digital texts for their lack of “thereness” or physical presence. Their objection is that Christ’s incarnation demands respect for the physical Word of God, and that the disembodiment of Scripture fosters nothing less than deficient discipleship and substandard worship.

However, the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation and hypostatic union precludes any argument from analogy. In fact, it borders on bibliolatry to identify the incarnate Son of God with Scripture. Jesus himself instituted the sacraments when he said of the bread, “This is my body,” and of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:24-27). He never said of the Scripture scroll, “this is my body.”

Furthermore, before the invention of the printing press, most Christians could not afford a physical copy of the Bible, were these Christians inferior disciples than we? Stephen the martyr? Barnabas the encourager? Philip the evangelist? I think not.

Most of the critics of digital Bible-reading are professors at Christian colleges or seminaries who attribute the increasing Biblical illiteracy of their students to digital reading, but correlation is not necessarily causation. The reason young Christians cannot locate books and chapters of the Bible is not because they are used to the decontextualized approach of locating books and chapters via the search function, but because they simply don’t read the Bible.

(As a member of this Biblically illiterate generation, I have dozens of friends who own physical Bibles yet never open them outside of church on Sunday.)

As Alan Jacobs argues, “It’s not reasonable to think of technology–in the usual vaguely pejorative meaning of that term–as the enemy of reading” (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 82). Our reflection on the intersection of emerging technologies and Bible reading must be more nuanced.

Theology of books
In his article in The New Atlantis, Jacobs unpacks his ideas further and suggests that the codex, a collection of manuscripts in book form, recommended itself to early Christians for its economy, portability, integrity, and sequentiality. 

We may call this the “theology of books.” The theological reasons for reading from books rather than from papyri scrolls or any other media. First, a book was economical, because it allowed for writing on both sides of the leaves (unlike scrolls). Since Scripture addresses not just the affluent, but all people “small and great” (2 Kings 23:1-3), a book’s affordability was a plus.

Second, a book was portable, because it was condensed (double-sided) and bound without the scroll roller. This enabled Christians to study and apply the Scriptures everywhere they went (Deut. 6:4-9; Prov. 7:1-3).

In The Epigrams of Martial (Book II), the 1st century Spanish poet writes:

You, who wish my poems should be everywhere
with you, and look to have them as companions on a
long journey, buy these which the parchment confines
in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great;
this copy of me one hand can grasp.

The “book box” was a scroll capsule that Romans used, which was much more cumbersome than a codex (not counting hefty codices like the Codex Sinaiticus, which also served ornamental purposes). Therefore, Martial is recommending a codex version of his poems for its portability.

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Third, a book showcased Scripture’s integrity. Combined in a single volume, the book showed that the Scriptures are not disparate documents open for cherry picking, but a single, united witness of the Holy Spirit to divine revelation (2 Pt. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Fourth, a book was a visual demonstration of the sequential history of redemption. The Bible was arranged by the Jewish rabbis (OT) and Christian bishops (NT) to reflect theology, not chronology. The Old Testament proceeds from creation to covenant, covenant to desolation, and desolation to consolation, and the New Testament proceeds from Christ to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the Church to the New Creation, altogether demonstrating God’s covenant faithfulness and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

So then, there are good theological reasons why Christians are known as the “People of the Book,” but does Bible-reading on hand-held electronic devices forfeit these qualities?

Bible-Reading on Electronic Devices
Not necessarily. Most of the Bible apps are free, so if you already have a smart phone, tablet, computer, or an e-reader, they are very economical. And obviously, they are much more portable than physical books, especially considering that you can carry related resources such as Bible dictionaries and commentaries on the same electronic device:

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ESV Study Bible [Hardcover]          ESV Study Bible [Kindle]
Price: $30.83                                       Price: $9.90
Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.2 x 9.2″          Dimensions: N/A
Shipping Weight: 5.2 lb                   Shipping Weight: N/A

Bible Readers can also preserve the integrity and sequentiality of Scripture in its presentation. My Bible Reader, Olive Tree, allows me to change the setting and turn my phone into a virtual scroll so that I can swipe from top to bottom continuously–from Genesis to Revelation, thus preserving the context. And the fact that you can check the cross references without leaving the current passage showcases the remarkable unity of Scripture!

The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc - the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (http://www.chrisharrison.net/index.php/Visualizations/BibleViz)
The bar graph that runs along the bottom represents all of the chapters in the Bible. Books alternate in color between white and light gray. The length of each bar denotes the number of verses in the chapter. Each of the 63,779 cross references found in the Bible is depicted by a single arc – the color corresponds to the distance between the two chapters, creating a rainbow-like effect. (http://www.chrisharrison.net/index.php/Visualizations/BibleViz)

Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) have raised the important point that a truncated approach to literature, devoid of a linear, progressive orientation, conditions our brains to think in facile and fragmented ways. This danger can be avoided through thoughtful setup of the electronic device.

Interestingly, many of the people who criticize digital reading of the Bible seem to be fine with using screen projectors to display Scripture at church. As Jacobs notes, this is the primary, if not the only, way in which millions of Christians view Scripture, completely devoid of context and any semblance of integrity or sequentiality. This is a far more pernicious medium than phones or e-readers.

Shutting out distractions
But aren’t we more prone to get distracted reading from a smart phone? After all, you can switch from the Bible to Twitter, Facebook, or your email with a simple tap on the screen. Doesn’t the very versatility of the smart phone threaten sustained focus in reading?

First, distractions are not exclusive to digital reading. (How many times have you put down your physical Bible because you remembered that one thing you had to do right at that moment?) But given the sheer number of distractions on electronic devices and their siren pull, I concede that this is potentially a genuine disadvantage of digital reading. However, it is not an insurmountable disadvantage. Here are some steps I take to shut out distractions while reading my Bible on the phone:

  1. Silence the phone.
  2. Disable alerts. ImageOn the iPhone, you can go to Settings → Notifications, and disable alerts from individual apps so that nothing pops up to distract you while you’re reading the Bible. I actually keep the alerts disabled at all times, because I don’t want to feed the habit of instant gratification by checking things as soon as they appear, and prefer to check things on my own schedule.
  3. Start with prayer. Before I read the Bible, I pray through Psalm 19, which I have committed to memory for this purpose. It’s a magnificent psalm that talks about God’s general revelation of himself through creation (vv. 1-6) and his special revelation of himself through Scripture (vv. 7-14). God’s disclosure in Scripture is for his people who know him personally, which is why God is addressed generically as “God” (אֱלֹהִ֑ים; elōhîm) in vv. 1-6, but personally as “Yahweh” (יְהוָ֣ה; yhwh) in vv. 7-14. I pray through the verses, “Lord, through your Word, refresh my soul and make me wise (v. 7), bring joy to my heart and light to my eyes (v. 8), and fill me with the fear of God and righteousness (v. 9). Help me to desire and treasure your Word (v. 10), and be warned by it and kept from sin (vv. 11-13). May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you (v. 14).” This exercise centers my heart and prepares my mind so that I can submit to God’s Word and be shaped and molded by it, rather than subject it to fit my whims.
  4. Meditate on Scripture. We don’t read the Bible just to “download” information. We read it to encounter God through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So instead of reading just to get through it, dwell on a passage of Scripture. Read at a slow, deliberate pace and be attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The ability to read without getting distracted is a skill and discipline that we can, and need to, cultivate, regardless of what media we use.

Between two worlds
When I was at Urbana Missions Conference in 2006, Jim Tebbe, the Vice President of Intervarsity at the time, had the 22,000 people gathered there lift up their cell phones on one hand, and their Bible on the other. It was an amazing sight. Then, he prayed that God would reveal what the Bible had to say to our world, represented by our phones.

This is similar to John Stott’s statement that when he prepares a sermon, he takes “the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other” (Between Two Worlds, p. 149), in order to apply the unchanging Word of God to the ever-changing world of man.

Reading the Bible on our phones, then, can serve as an apt reminder of this application. If we reach for our Bibles as often as we reach for our phones, and if we search the Scriptures as often as we search through our inboxes, Biblical illiteracy would be the least of our concerns…