Holy Bible 3.0: Scripture in the Digital Age
Ten years ago, I wrote a short essay –“What If God’s Name is 01100100? ”– for a theological newsletter in Boston. I was not being facetious or trying to make fun of God. What I tried to do was to imagine God using the binary language of the digital code.
Since writing that article, the impact of the digital revolution has, of course, become far more pronounced in all aspects of modern life. We can hardly imagine how we lived without email or Internet or iPod or BlackBerry or online shopping. At an opening worship of an Asian women’s gathering, a young Japanese student flipped open her cell phone and read the selected biblical passage from the tiny screen, for she had downloaded the Bible into her phone. My student Steve, who is taking Introduction to the New Testament, bought the Bible on CD and downloaded it onto his iPod. As he walks, jogs, or does his chores, he can listen to passages from the gospel or from Paul, just as he can sample different pieces of music.
The transmission and study of the Bible have always evolved alongside human communication. For a long time, the gospel was passed down from generation to generation in oral form because most Christians were illiterate. Basilicas were built and magnificently adorned as “Stone Bibles,” where the imagery in stained glass, statues, mosaics, and frescos proclaimed the Word. During the medieval period, monks and scribes produced handwritten, elaborately illustrated Bibles and manuscripts. Communication in Europe was revolutionized when Johann Gutenberg introduced movable type about 1450 C.E. Before Gutenberg, there were about 30,000 books on the entire continent, nearly all Bibles or biblical commentary. The introduction of moveable type and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular during the Reformation made the Bible accessible to all. The Bible was no longer under the purview of the church and its priests and theologians alone, but available to individual Christian readers. With the advent of printing, higher criticism of the Bible emerged. Even as the philosophical assumptions of the Enlightenment influenced the historical study of the Bible, the sheer availability of texts, including those from other cultures, also shaped the kinds of questions biblical critics asked. Phil Mullins points out: “Only in a world in which the mechanized press has turned into an organ of proliferation, populating the world with many texts, does a connection between text and social world become an important connection.”1
Despite the domination of historical criticism in the academic study of the Bible for the past two centuries, a new question presses upon us: What will the study of the Bible look like in the future as we move from a print culture to one defined increasingly by digital media?
Those of us who entered seminary before the early 1990s remember how we needed a large table for studying the Bible—enough space for our Hebrew and Greek texts, various modern translations, lexicons and dictionaries, concordance, Bible word books, and volumes of history and theology of the ancient Near East or the Roman Empire. These study tools were big and expensive, and they were considered good investments that would last us throughout our ministry. We spent hours poring over the meanings of individual words and scrutinizing their occurrence in the Bible. Today, all we need is a computer with a handful of software programs, allowing us easily to display Hebrew and Greek texts, compare different translations, and check the meanings of ancient words without hassle. In a matter of seconds, we can find out how many times the word “justice” appears throughout the New Testament or in the Pauline epistles alone. We can print out the original Hebrew or Greek texts alongside different biblical translations for use in the classroom or in Bible study groups at church.
In addition to these valuable time-saving electronic devices, of course, the Internet offers a vast world of biblical resources unthinkable just twenty years ago. My colleague Gale A. Yee, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, showed me some thirty Bible links that she has bookmarked in her computer. They include links to professional organizations, scholarly journals, biblical archaeology, and study of the ancient Near East. As a scholar interested in the visual representations of women and the Hebrew Bible, Yee finds that the Internet saves her much time combing through library and museum catalogues, by providing information about paintings, videos, animations, and other electronic products at her fingertips.
Will the availability of these multimedia digital resources change our relationship with the Bible? Some scholars believe that the electronic medium will transform our understanding of a “sacred text.” In an oral culture, stories are told, interpreted, and embellished based on the context and responses of the audiences. With the printed text, the “hard” copy gives the impression that the text is final and the boundary fixed. For some, the notion of a “sacred text” belonged to a past culture and era. As Richard Thieme writes, “To speak of ‘sacred text’ is to identify ourselves as Print People, post-Gutenberg pilgrims voyaging through vast typographic seas.”2
Today print culture is yielding to a digital one, where visual, electronic text appears much more fluid and malleable. Electronic text has no fixed borders and can be constantly updated and constructed by the creator and the user/reader. Scripture now appears in hypertext format, with links to all kinds of information and Web sites. The reader can read a few lines, surf other sites, and check out video clips, thereby creating her own domain of knowledge and context of knowing. Digital culture is not just another way of delivering the text, Robert S. Fortner argues, but “rather an entirely new and complex reorientation of sensibility, and a new metaphor that is redefining people’s relationship with the texts that have constituted our Christian foundation.”3
Biblical scholarship is surely destined to face new generations steeped in visual culture, with pictures, animations, and videos forming an important new context of learning and understanding. The guiding questions will no longer be focused on the text’s historical setting and the original audiences. “When interpretation involves not only verbal truth-claims about interpretive propositions,” biblical scholar A.K.M. Adam writes, “but also shapes, colors, soundtracks and motion, the matter of historical verisimilitude recedes among a host of other questions.”4 Biblical scholars will need to be conversant with film criticism, art criticism, media, and cultural studies in order to understand the emerging cyber-media interpretations.
Gog, Magog, Blog
One of the exciting developments in cybermedia is the way individuals are able not only to receive information but also interact with it across time and space. When Sarah Dylan Breuer began her lectionary blog during the advent of 2003, her goal was quite modest. As director of Christian formation for youth and adults in her church in Maryland, she hoped to provide some type of mid-week formation for those who were too busy to come to church for Bible study or prayer groups. In the first week after she started the blog, about twenty-five people in her church accessed it. But the number quickly jumped to 700 to 800 a month later, as many people who did not know her began reading it. Her blog was picked up by Google and other sites, and now she has about 8,000 visitors a week, mostly from the United States, but also from other nations, including countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Although trained in biblical studies, Breuer writes her blog in a friendly, dialogical style and does not assume the position of an expert. She sees her role as an “agitator” to incite people to think about the lectionary in light of current events and the social environment in which they find themselves. Because her blog allows visitors to leave comments, people can read the responses left by people from different parts of the world. Breuer and her visitors form a kind of virtual interpretive community, as respondents can comment on how her ideas work out in their own situations. By reading these comments on the blog, Breuer said that she has learned much about cultural specificity in biblical interpretation.
All of these developments call into question the traditional understanding of authority in interpretation. In the past, pastors, scholars, and religious leaders with theological training were the trusted authority figures and custodians of biblical tradition. Many Christians will no doubt continue to rely on these experts, as evidenced by the enormous appeal of popular books on the historical Jesus. But there are many more channels now to look for information about the Bible by surfing the Web, interacting virtually with other interpreters, and sending questions online. Anyone can start a Web site or a blog about the Bible, with or without biblical training.
Seekers and Surfers
Will digital culture, hailed as democratic and granting access to ordinary people, challenge established authority and religious institutions?
The question is a complicated one that should be examined from many sides. Some savvy Christian denominations and religious organizations were quick to see the potential of using cybermedia to reach out to people. The United Methodist Church was one of the first denominations to use computer technology to reach out to its members for religious formation and networking, dating as far back as the early 1980s. By now, the whole range of denominations and local congregations makes extensive use of the Web to champion their interpretations of faith and Scripture. According to a survey, the majority of the young adults who use the Internet to look for religion and spirituality consult the Web sites of their own faith traditions. Therefore, the growth of digital media may not necessarily undercut traditional religious structures, but can be a tool for communication and outreach.
The ease of accessing biblical materials on the Web may create confusion and conundrums about the reliability of the information one may find. Some biblical scholars have used their expertise to provide helpful advice and guided tours. Mark Goodacre, a professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, has created a Web site, The New Testament Gateway (http://www.ntgateway.com), which is regarded as one of the best resources for biblical studies on the Internet and provides a model for others to follow. The site is a gateway to other sites, and is searchable and topically organized in a user-friendly way. R. Christopher Heard of Pepperdine University has created iTanakh (http://itanakh.org), which provides information about the academic study and teaching of the Hebrew Bible. The site is arranged alphabetically and covers a wide range of topics, including archaeology, languages, methods, scholars, software and publications.5
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has argued that since the 1950s, a spirituality of inhabiting sacred spaces has slowly given way to a spirituality of seeking. This traditional spirituality of dwelling identifies with traditional religious structures and feels secure in the spiritual heritage passed down through generations. Religious boundaries are clearly drawn, and religious authority is respected as the custodian of the sacred.
In contrast, seekers do not have an identifiable spiritual home; they are explorers and sojourners, not dwellers. They exchange certainty for freedom to explore; they combine various spiritual practices.6 In his new work, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, Wuthnow describes young adults as “tinkerers” who pull together bits and pieces from different cultures, traditions, belief systems, and backgrounds to create tapestries of meaning.7 For these tinkerers, the electronic medium further relativizes their approaches to “sacred text,” including the Bible. The boundary and meaning of the Bible is not fixed, and its meaning is no longer universal, or to be deciphered and controlled by the experts. Rather, the Bible is an open “book” whose meaning can be actively constructed by the reader through a comparative reading of or in combination with many other texts and traditions in the cyber marketplace. The concepts of orthodoxy, heritage, tradition, and authority are continually challenged.
A New Interpretive Community
There are other issues to ponder. Even as the digital age has led to the shrinking of the world and the compression of time and space, it has also resulted in a huge digital divide between the haves and have-nots. Though much attention goes to how the electronic medium has changed our relation with the Bible, African biblical scholars such as Musa Dube and Gerald West remind us that most of the world has yet to benefit from the new technology. They have urged us to pay attention to the “ordinary readers,” who are not only nonacademic readers but include the majority of third-world readers relegated to the periphery of the global economic structures. The inclusion of these ordinary readers will enlarge the moral horizon of the interpretive community, for these readers often possess “suppressed knowledges” that are vital to their survival. These readers read the Bible privately and in small groups in order to find out how the Bible can provide sustenance for their ongoing struggles for food, safe drinking water, and means for survival. The experience of reading with these ordinary readers, including women in the African Independent Churches, has contributed to a postcolonial and anti-imperial reading of the Bible.8
It would be premature to predict the approaches and scope of reading the Bible in the twenty-first century, but I hope scholars and critics will pay attention to the religious dwellers and the tinkerers, the biblical experts and ordinary readers, the baby boomers and Generation Net, and the impact of cybermedia interpretation on the generations to come.
1. Phil Mullins, “Sacred Text in an Electronic Age,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 20 (1990): 101.
2. Richard Thieme, “Entering Sacred Digital Space: Seeking to Distinguish the Dreamer and the Dream,” in New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium, ed. Robert M. Fowler, Edith Blumhofer, and Fernando F. Segovia (New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2004), 51.
3. Robert S. Fortner, “Digital Media as Cultural Metaphor,” in Fowler, Blumhofer, and Segovia, New Paradigms for Bible Study, 42.
4. A. K. M. Adam, “This Is Not a Bible: Dispelling the Mystique of Words for the Future of Biblical Interpretation,” in Fowler, Blumhofer, and Segovia, New Paradigms for Bible Study, 14.
5. See Matthew W. Mitchell, “Biblical Studies on the Internet,” Religious Studies Review 32, no.4 (2006): 216-18.
6. Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 1-18.
7. Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 2007), 14-15.
8. Musa W. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000).
Kwok Pui-lan teaches Christian theology and spirituality at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass. She is the author of Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005), Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Pilgrim Press, 2000), and other books. She was a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School in fall 2007.