“I don’t like it at all – it feels like talking on the phone compared to a face to face conversation.”
The force of this reaction took me back and was in stark contrast to our calm, sun-dappled surroundings. We were enjoying coffee and the light mood was interrupted as the opposing arguments were put forward without, perhaps, a great deal of listening from either side. Clearly this was an issue of the heart as well as the head. We were talking about reading, not just in general, but specifically reading the Bible. The Word of God. The leather-bound, thin-papered, ‘most-popular-book-in-the-world’ Holy Bible.
“A physical, paper Bible is somehow special because God is in there somewhere, isn’t He? Feel the weight!”
Or, at least, that’s how the argument went. But actually, is God more present in a physical Bible than in a digital version on a screen? If so, how much of God is in each one? And how much is this tied up with the fact that we are tangible, physical beings with a history and a tendency to attach meaning to material objects?
On the other side of the argument were the proposed benefits of Bibles in digital form – on tablet, phone and Kindle. The most widely used Bible app is called YouVersion and has been downloaded nearly 200 million times. However, a 2015 BARNA survey revealed that only 17% of Christians in North America prefer reading the Bible on a screen. 76% still prefer a printed Bible. Over 60s are more likely to listen to audio versions while under 30s are adopting digital Bibles faster than any other group. Who is getting the most out of their Bible reading? Is it even possible to measure such a thing? I took a straw poll of a few dozen Facebook friends to see what the general feeling was, though this was hardly a fair sample as the respondents had to be relatively comfortable with technology to use Facebook. Nonetheless, some general patterns emerged which were in line with the BARNA findings.
The arguments go something like this:
My digital Bible is great. It’s so easy to search and find things. You can change the text size and appearance to suit your preferences (and eyesight!) and read it in the dark. It’s always with you – you can snatch a moment while queueing to buy the milk. It can remind you what you should be reading and connect you with others reading the same thing. You can have different versions and commentaries in parallel on the screen, enhancing your engagement and learning.
Why would you not want all these benefits?
Well, there is something about the look and feel of a paper Bible that is almost totemic. Naomi Baron, in her book ‘Words Onscreen’ notes that in seventeenth century England there were many who owned Bibles even though no one in the household could read. There is something deeper about the printed page, as many people will testify. I’m happy to read my email on a screen, but in common with many others I will print out anything I need to study in depth so I can mark it up and highlight areas. As Baron points out: ‘Screens hasten us along. Print invites us to linger’
Many reasons are given for preferring a paper Bible (a ‘p-Bible’):
It is a dedicated “device” – there are no alerts, temptations or hypertext links to distract you into a realm of wiki-surfing. As my friend said, “It just doesn’t feel like God is in a digital Bible – it’s too casual and there are too many opportunities for temptation”. This point is well made in Alan Jacobs book “The pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” (OUP 2011). A physical Bible is also an archive of an individual’s personal Christian history – highlights, marginalia (a term coined by Coleridge), old bookmarks and so on.
Paper Bible readers claim to intuitively ‘know where things are’ in their Bibles. Whim and serendipity are easier – and are taken as divine guidance by some.
Tradition and habit cannot be discounted. Many people prefer paper simply because they grew up with it, but this will be less relevant for the next generation of ‘digital natives’ who are very comfortable with the technology.
A paper Bible is also a sensual object: its physical weight suggests gravitas. The feel, smell and sound of the thin paper and the leather binding are significant. Electronic reading devices just don’t feel the same. This fact has not been lost on the marketing men – a company called Durosport electronics make an aerosol ebook enhancer called ’Smell of Books’ that can add ‘classic musty smell’ or ‘new book smell’ to your device.
How far should we try to bridge the gap between paper and electronics? Various software developers have made strenuous efforts to make the experience of reading an eBible as close as possible in experience to a paper one. But is this actually desirable? Isn’t that a bit like making a computer that looks and behaves more like a typewriter? Or making a car that looks like a horse and cart? Great for those who are familiar with the old technology but not really a progressive long term solution.
Tim Hutchings points out that ‘‘The Bible started without covers, so why should we worry about losing them again?’’
God created the material world and ‘saw that it was good’ (Genesis1:10,12,18,21,25). He loves his creation to the extent that he became an embodied, material being in Jesus Christ. He worked with his hands. He ate fish. He tore bread. However appealing it may be to do so, the material world cannot be dismissed as somehow irrelevant if God creates and engages with it in this way. The Ark of the Covenant was vitally important to the people of Israel because it represented God’s presence with them. As humans we value symbols, relics and sentimental attachments.
My own temptation is to claim that God’s word is somehow ‘pure’ and the means of its transmission is irrelevant. I would prefer to regard the physical Bible as somehow inferior because the content should be what is important. But in reality I know this is not the case. I like the feel and weight of a Bible and the sense of occasion and anticipation it creates.
Ultimately, God can speak to us by any means if we are receptive. But our receptivity may be affected by our experience and expectations of what is in front of us. If a physical book is better at getting me into the ‘right place’ to communicate with God, then that is the best thing for me.
How much God is in my digital Bible? As much as I believe there to be.
It would seem that the eBible is not likely to replace the pBible anytime soon. It might be unrealistic to dismiss the paper Bible as a transitional phase. We are intrinsically physical and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Or will we? What happens when future technologies allow us to experience virtual worlds without leaving the house? Will it be as satisfying to handle a virtual Bible in a virtual world? In years to come, people may look back fondly to the times when the only choice available was the physical book. Perhaps they will regret the march of progress, much like Plato and Socrates as they lamented the demise of the oral tradition when writing itself first became popular. Or perhaps they will laugh that we ever expected the physical book to die out. Next time you buy a Bible, will you choose paper or digital? Your choice could affect the future.
Ben Gunter is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham University, and has recently worked on the subject of digital Bible’s with CODEC Research Centre.
 Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015), 152
 Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015), 141
 van Peursen in Hutchings, Tim. Now the Bible is an app: digital media and changing patterns of religious authority. In: Granholm K, Moberg M and Sjo ̈ S (eds) Religion, Media and Social Change. Abingdon 2014: Routledge, pp. 143–161
visited June 2016
Baron, Naomi S. Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Campbell, Heidi and Not Available. When Religion Meets New Media: Media, Religion and Culture. United Kingdom: Routledge, 2008.
Dickerson, Matthew. The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters. United States: Brazos Press, Div of Baker Publishing Group, 2011.
Hipps, Shane. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Hutchings, Tim. “E-Reading and the Christian Bible.” 44, no. 4 (2015): 423-40.
Hutchings, Tim. Now the Bible is an app: digital media and changing patterns of religious authority. In: Granholm K, Moberg M and Sjo ̈ S (eds) Religion, Media and Social Change. Abingdon 2014: Routledge, pp. 143–161.
Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rodriguez, Rafael. Oral Tradition and the New Testament: A Guide for the Perplexed. United Kingdom: T.& T.Clark, 2013.
Schneckloth, Clint. Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. United States: Fortress Press,U.S., 2014.
Siker, J.S. http://reflections.yale.edu/article/new-voyages-church-today-and-tomorrow/digital-turns-and-liquid-scriptures visited June 2016