By Mike Haynes
Technology moves faster than a rumor at a church social.
Just 16 months ago, I wrote about a few members of our Sunday school class using smartphones before the lesson to look up recipes and during class to search the scriptures. I admitted that I hesitated to use my iPhone or iPad at church because I felt pretentious flaunting those posh devices.
Boy, has that changed.
I attend a church where lots of members have good jobs that allow them to own smartphones or digital tablets. Still, I was leery of showing off by pulling out a fancy screen.
Fast-forward to a recent Sunday morning. Fourteen people sat in circled-up chairs of the Couples in Christ class that Kathy and I attend. Kevin, the teacher, directed us to Hebrews 11, the Bible chapter that focuses on faith, our topic of the day.
Four of the men and women opened paper-and-ink Bibles. The other 10 swiped the screens of smartphones or tablets to navigate to Hebrews 11.
I don’t have to feel pretentious anymore, at least not in that setting.
Kevin pointed out a difference for the teacher. He said that while his head is down, perusing his lesson notes, he used to be able to determine when everybody had located a Bible verse. It was when the sound of fluttering paper pages ended.
Now, with so many people silently flicking screens instead of turning pages, he has to look up to see who’s found the verse and who hasn’t.
For many, electronic Bible reading has become as common as Angry Birds or Candy Crush. Now that I’ve gotten used to the interface, I love being able to search for Philippians 1:6 or for all instances of the name Hezekiah.
Our friend Tony, though, said he still likes to be able to underline passages and write marginal notes in his well-worn Bible. Of course, digital versions now allow you to highlight words and to type notes that stay on your device, but it takes more time and effort than doing it with a physical pen or pencil.
And the battery never runs down on a paper Bible.
More substantive qualms have been expressed about digital scripture. Matthew Barrett of California Baptist University wrote that pastors should use a traditional Bible in the pulpit and that church members also lose something with phones or tablets.
He believes the Bible is devalued when it’s just one of many apps alongside Pinterest, ESPN Magazine and an app to make vacation reservations. He argues that some learning is lost when the preacher says, “Turn in your Bibles to…” and the person in the pew just types text into a search box. Physically locating John 3:16 among hundreds of pages forces the reader to understand where that verse is in relation to the rest of the Bible.
Barrett quotes John Bombaro: “… digital texts militate against a big-picture perspective and comprehension of the whole story of the Bible."
He also says “something is missing in our nonverbal communication to unbelieving onlookers. When you walk to church, sit down on a bus, or disciple one another at a coffee shop, a hard copy of the Bible sends a loud and bold message to the nearest passersby about your identity as a Christ follower.” If you’re reading the Bible on a Kindle, you could just as well be reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” as far as an observer is concerned.
I’ll continue to use both paper and silicon. I agree with Tony that holding a printed book still gives a sense of weight and permanence. But the advantages of digital devices outweigh the negatives. If they put the Bible into more young minds, they’re a plus.
The Word is the Word, from papyrus to parchment to printing press to pixels to whatever platform comes next.