In the second post of our ‘Data & the Bible Online’ series, we are delighted to interview John Dyer, Executive Director of Communications and Educational Technology for Dallas Theological Seminary, and PhD Candidate at Durham University (working with Dr Pete Phillips, director of CODEC). John has been involved in digital technology for a long time (GitHub profile), including lots of experience in Bible-related tech.
- Would you summarise your project(s) related to digital biblical studies in general, as well as the Bible Web App in particular?
I started building online Bible apps as a fun side project while I was studying languages in seminary. At the time, I didn’t really have an end goal other than to make things that I wanted to use. For example, when I was studying Greek, I came across the printed Reader’s Greek New Testament which includes definitions of rare words at the bottom of the page, and I thought it’d be fun to make a customizable online version of that. Then later, I wanted to make a tool that could display English and Greek side-by-side and which would highlight the corresponding word in both panes when I hovered over a word as well as offer lexical and morphological data. The Bible websites of the early 2000s didn’t display multiple texts at one time, and desktop Bible applications were only available on licensed machines and didn’t do things as simply as I wanted. So my motivations were to see if I could learn some new programming techniques and also strengthen my original language skills at the same time. Later, the fine folks over at the Digital Bible Society (DBS) asked if I could customize what was on biblewebapp.com so that it could be distributed on CDs and SD cards in closed countries, and we’ve been working together on that project for a few years now.
- Do you feel that the web app’s functionality could approach that of proprietary scholarly software? What is its place amongst today’s software choices?
Yes, I do think that web technology is at a place where it can compete with desktop apps in certain cases, especially in terms of study and search features. There are several teams out there working on projects like biblia.com, stepbible.org, and others who are working to create powerful experiences online. However, while I think a lot of the study features can be replicated, for a pure reading experience on something like a phone, it still seems like a native application is necessary to achieve the smoothness needed to be distraction free. For example, biblewebapp.com works on mobile and the lexical popups function well, but the HTML5 experience isn’t nearly as smooth as something like NueBible which is a native iOS app.
- What has motivated you to exploit new technologies for use in biblical studies?
My initial interest was to see if I could make things work the way I wanted them to. I should also mention that it wouldn’t have been possible if the Lockman foundation hadn’t been so kind as to offer me the use of their tagged New American Standard Bible (NASB) which provided a modern translation from which to base a lot of what I did. Today, the work I’ve been doing is a combination of things I’m interested in (such as visual navigation through the Bible’s books and chapters or visual representation of search results) or features that the Digital Bible Society asks for, such as a way to display videos for deaf men and women next to the text.
- What are the more promising aspects of recent developments in technology as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?
I see Bible software splitting into different use cases for different devices. Desktops seem more suited toward deeper study, connection with extra-biblical resources, and writing, whereas mobile platforms like phones seem better suited toward developing smooth, immersive reading experiences and delivering audio versions of the Bible. Certainly, you can read on a desktop or study on a phone (or tablet), but I’m when I’ve surveyed Bible readers about which forms of engagement (devotional reading, lectio divina, memorization, study, etc.), they are starting to differentiate by platform more and more. They also say things like “The closest Bible is the best Bible” meaning that when they can’t choose between platforms, the ever presence of a phone is the most formative factor in their Bible reading.
- What concerns do you have about technological developments as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?
I do worry that even for those of who value Scripture as part of their spiritual lives, it’s easy to confuse access to the Bible (i.e., having an app installed) with wisdom, maturity, or formation. In some sense, this is an extension of Socrates’s old concern that writing would inhibit the kind of learning that happens in human community and digital texts seem to abstract that one more layer. Users also tell me that the other things on their phone that compete for their attention (games, texts, reminders, etc.) seem to take hinder their ability to focus and meditate. Perhaps in the coming decade as we replace smartphones with AI devices that work through voice, we’ll have screens that are less multi-purpose and better suited to reading.
- What has most surprised you in working on these projects?
I’m continually reminded that it’s very difficult to predict how things will work in real life. It seems that much of our knowledge of technology is either tacit and experiential or learned after the fact when the trends have become clearer. For some this might be scary, but as Kevin Kelly reminds us when things are changing very rapidly that means everyone is a newbie and everything is obsolete, and that’s the best time to try something new.
(See also the first post in the series, an interview with Dr David Instone-Brewer).