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Bible Engagement in a Digital Age

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Technology writer, Richard Carr, suggests that books and book reading are in their “cultural twilight.” Some may disagree with Carr, but we can’t ignore the fact that innovation and change brought about by the digital revolution are reshaping the way people read.

In my lifetime I’ve moved from exclusively reading a printed page to reading text on a smart phone, laptop screen, e-reader or tablet. Cognitive neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, classifies this change as a shift from the reading brain to the digital brain. Like it or not, our new reading habits involve profound technological, cultural, behavioural, and even neurological changes.

Cellular phones, which increasingly provide Internet access, are now used by more than 75 percent of the world’s population. According to a June 2012 article in the Globe and Mail, Canadians are on track to achieving a wireless penetration rate that exceeds 100 percent by 2015. Hong Kong has surpassed this penetration rate – the Office of the Telecommunications Authority reports more than 13 million cell phones being used by the total population of 7.5 million people. That’s about 1.8 cell phones per person!

According to mathematician Vernor Vinge, and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, we can expect the emergence of more and more sophisticated technologies separated by shorter and shorter time intervals. That to say that changes in the way we communicate and access information will continue to accelerate.

So how does the digital age influence Bible engagement? Consider the following:

  • the Bible is being read in multiple formats in an ever emerging variety of forms on a growing range of devices
  • availability and access to different Bible versions and translations are continuing to increase
  • greater access to audio Bibles and podcasts may help us become better “hearers” of the Word
  • sharing thoughts and insights about the Bible is increasing due to social networks like facebook and Linkedin
  • interactive software programs/systems, hypertext, blogs, posts and webinars uniquely facilitate biblical study and reflection
  • sharing favourite or meaningful verses is increasing due to texting and tweeting
  • the individual’s opportunity and capacity to understand and interpret the Scriptures will increase
  • missions could prosper because nations closed to the Gospel will find it more difficult to restrict the availability of biblical texts
  • the Scriptures are readily available in any language or translation to anyone on earth with a smart phone
  • Scripture memorization may decline because Google, Bible Gateway, You Version and such make it easy to look up a passage or text
  • people will become significantly less likely to buy printed copies of the Bible
  • reading Scripture within a contemplative framework may decline
  • sequential reading will decline due to the fact that reading on the web develops inclinations to skip around, dip and dabble, browse or scan information
  • tendencies to read the Bible in short fast bursts will increase
  • concentration and meditation on the Scriptures will suffer because of what Cory Doctorow has called “an ecosystem of interruption technologies” (animations, hyperlinks, live feeds, pop-ups and so on)
  • qualitative depth of reading will be sacrificed for reading geared to a quantitative scope
  • e-books may augment a predisposition to uncouple content from form which may lead to tendencies to view the Scriptures as something detached from their incarnational form – the textual equivalent of Cartesian dualism
  • the role of the local church in the transmission and interpretation of the Scriptures will decline

Without a doubt the positive and negative effects of the digital age represent a challenge for the Church. Hopefully we’ll do what’s necessary to curb the negative effect of technologies while simultaneously encouraging the use of emerging technologies that facilitate and advance engagement with the Bible.

Have your say. What would you add or subtract from the comments above.

© Scripture Union Canada 2013

14 thoughts on “Bible Engagement in a Digital Age

  1. I agree that any new medium presents challenges to the church – but it’s good to be challenged and to evaluate our much-loved and longstanding methodologies and preferences. I am a bibliophile, my home is lined with bookshelves, I will always love the printed words of the Bible but new media are liberating the word from the printed page – and liberating my middle-aged brain to encounter God in new ways. I’m excited by the opportunities that the digital age opens up – the flexibility, the adaptability, the variety.
    And I’m fascinated to study Lawson’s list of ‘positives and negatives’ because I suspect most of his bullet points can be read in either way, depending on the readers, and their own individual preferences and spiritual styles.

  2. Great piece. You might enjoy Dr. Andy Bannister’s lecture, here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/qc0bdczjlvlbsci/The%20Ever%20Alluring%20Screen.PDF

  3. This looks like an excellent list to provoke discussion. I’ve linked to it from http://www.scripture-engagement.org because I’m sure it will be of interest to people promoting Scripture engagement around the world.

  4. I’m writing to invite you to join the new Bible Gateway Blogger Grid (BG²). If you’d like details, email me. Thanks.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Lawson, for a thought-provoking post!

    I’ve worked for a traditional book and Bible publisher (Zondervan), for an Evangelical print magazine (CTI), and for a denominational publishing house (the A/G’s Gospel Publishing House). I currently work at Logos Bible Software — so the question of what people do with text, whether on screen or on paper, has long occupied my thoughts.

    The fact is, the technology of printed communication is moving ever more digital, but while digital forms of Bible engagement may eclipse printed forms, they likely won’t eliminate the older formats entirely. After all, the oldest form of Bible engagement was through oral delivery of text. While the oral culture surrounding the Bible has certainly changed (its more peripheral than central to how we learn), it has never entirely been eradicated. And we have always had the printed Word with us, but those forms, too, have changed. I imagine there were legions of monks in monasteries who decried the appalling lack of illumination in texts that were printed by machines like the Gutenberg press. Over time, the monkish art of textual illumination gave way to other forms of textual marginalia-assistance and we now have study Bibles with vast collections of insightful material added to the text, a modern midrash of commentary. And digital Bibles open those potential margins up nearly infinitely. Considering the cross-references, footnotes, interpretation decision commentary, and application commentary, it’s not surprising that I’ve heard anecdotal testimony that modern digital Bibles have opened people’s eyes to the biblical text in ways they’d never considered before.

    After all, consider this, the American Bible Society, with the help of the Barna Group, conducted a survey (The State of the Bible 2012) where they uncovered some interesting responses as to why people don’t read their Bibles:

    » Not enough time: 32%
    » Language is difficult to relate to: 12%
    » Lack of excitement about reading it: 11%
    » Don’t understand background or history of the Bible: 7%
    » Can’t find the desired stories or verses: 6%

    http://americanbible.org/uploads/content/2012_analysis.pdf — Page 16.

    A good translation in a study Bible format can address most of those barriers, but I would contend that a good digital study Bible can actually address *all* of them. The best Bible is the one you have with you: A digital study Bible in your pocket can easily be accessed during the daily “down times” we have when we find ourselves waiting or with extra free time on our hands. There’s certainly unparalleled value in long Bible study sessions, but there’s also a lot of overlooked value in just dipping into the Bible from time to time for small periods of engagement.

    While a good translation certainly makes the language easier to relate to, excellent study notes go along way toward doing this as well — and textbook makers have known this for years. This is way many famous works of classical literature and poetry are often sold with marginal notes to aid the reader in bridging the gap between here-and-now vs. there-and-then. This is ever more important with the Bible, whose youngest text is nearly 2,000 years old, and written within and to a culture that would be foreign to most modern Westerners.

    I could go on, but I hope you see my point… While I agree with you that there is a lot to be concerned about when it comes to how digital texts are changing the way we interact with the text and maybe even the way our brains are actually wired, there are some positives, too.

    In case it was’t clear: I work for creator of digital Bibles, Logos Bible Software. These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, coworkers, or peers.

    Regards,

    Rich
    http://twitter.com/richtatum

    • Hi Rich,

      Appreciated your thought provoking comments – thank you. Your point is well made – digital texts, online study notes and such have expanded our interaction and engagement with the text in many positive ways. I’d add to what you’re saying by noting that digital study Bibles provide us with the added advantage of ease and speed of access, storage (volumes of information in the palms of our hands!), and mobility (anywhere at any time).

      Blessings on your ministry!

      Warmly in Jesus,

      Lawson.

  6. Thanks for this piece and to friend who linked it to the SE site. As the owner of over 3000 books I can attest to the fact that I love them, but I also readily (and somewhat regretfully!) admit to the fact that I read this article “on-line” and I am now commenting “on-line” and that is a feature that a static book does not have.

    Please contact me steve_baughman@sil.org if you would like to discuss how we are using digital means to promote Scripture Use and Scripture Engagement in Eurasia.

  7. Why ‘somewhat regretfully’, Steve? Good use of any medium does not need any sense of apology 🙂

  8. Please see ETHNOLOGUE, SIL/WBT for facts and figures regarding the number of languages (each with their own gramar, alfabet etc) who stil have not heard, read or known of The Word of God, the Bible, in the language that they understand. There’s still a long way to go, brother. God Bless You – real good in the going and serving.

  9. Great insights Lawson. This is a powerful shift in Bible interaction and one we’ll need to keep a close eye on. So many possible positive and negative changes! I’ll need to seriously consider how we might explore this a bit in the 2014 application of the Christian Life Survey to students at Christian colleges. We’re almost done with the large report on the students’ scripture engagement from this year’s administration. I expect it to be out at the web site (http://tucse.taylor.edu/research) in a few weeks–certainly before Christmas. There are several other summaries and four-minute videos on results there to look at already if you’re interested! We did not ask the 4000 plus students in the 2013 research how they accessed the scripture but we will in 2014!

    • Dr. Lawson,
      Thanks for this helpful summary of changes. I’m currently working on a PhD at Durham University to study this very trend.

      Dr. Bird,
      I spoke at a Taylor chapel a few years ago, and I’d love to see your 2014 data when it’s published. American Bible society’s data is great, but I’d love to see how a US Christian campus looks in regards to digita/print Bible engagement.

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