Digital Turns and Liquid Scriptures
Over the last 20 years or so we have witnessed what has come to be called the digital turn, a fundamental shift in human interaction spurred on by the digital revolution. Evangelical churches in particular have dived into all things digital as the wave of the future. Most mainline churches have warily put their toes in the streaming water, unsure of what role digital futures can or should play in revitalizing faith communities.
Given the central role of the Bible in all Protestant denominations, free-church traditions, and increasingly the Roman Catholic Church, I have been most interested in how the digital turn relates to scripture. What difference does it make to read, study, proclaim, and pray the Bible in digital form on screens rather than using the traditional book with physical pages? What impact will this shift have on the place of the Bible within churches?
As a professor of biblical studies (a Protestant teaching for over 25 years at a Catholic university) and as a Presbyterian minister, I routinely see students and parishioners pull out smartphones, tablets, and laptops to read the Bible rather than any physically bound version with “real pages.” Reflecting on this digital transition, I offer the following cautions about the use of what I would term “liquid scriptures,” also noting potential benefits.
When I ask developers of Bible apps about the shift to digital Bibles, I am met with a collective shrug. More and more people are using digital Bibles, and that’s all that seems to matter. There appears to be little thought given to whether the use of such Bibles is substantively different than the use of print Bibles, what those differences might be, or why they might be important.
If anything, the promotion of digital Bibles is presumed to be a good thing. The most widely used Bible app, YouVersion (produced by Life.Church) has been downloaded nearly 200 million times. Life.Church’s high view of scripture is the source of their goal to make the Word of God present everywhere, always ready at hand. (As its website states, the Bible “is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs about living. Because it is inspired by God, it is truth without error.”) What better way to pursue this goal than by offering a free smartphone download that gives access to 1,115 versions in 799 languages? The YouVersion site proclaims: “Now the Bible is an app. God is near, and so is His Word. As you wake up. While you wait. When you meet a friend. Before you go to sleep. When the Bible is always with you, it becomes a part of your daily life.”
Bible on the Go
On one level this claim is hard to dispute. Handy access to a Bible on your phone is less cumbersome than carrying around a thick study edition. But on another level, and here comes the first caution, this Bible is implicitly a “Bible on the go.” It is a Bible for in-between moments, for quick reference, perhaps for today’s inspiring Bible tweet (one option in YouVersion). Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it does tend to atomize and oversimplify the biblical narrative, or reduce the texts to little more than slogans ripped out of context. Bible sloganizing is nothing new, but it gains incredible speed and scale in the digital age.
This becomes more acute with smaller screen formats like smartphones, where only a fraction of a passage is viewable at a time. Scrolling rather than turning pages, students get easily lost in the digital text. There is little sense of the Bible as a whole. All one ever sees is one page of text, an endless page. There is no heft to the text, no physical sense of beginning and end, no awareness of one book of the Bible bumping up against another. There is only search and scroll.
This leads to a second caution: The digital Bible is a book without covers. Whereas printed versions come with a clear shape and a linear, canonical ordering of books, the digital Bible experience is relatively shapeless, coverless, even sterile. It gives no impression of the organization of Torah, Prophets, Writings, of Gospels, Paul, and the latter writings of the New Testament. The canonical boundaries of the physical Bible vanish in digital form. The print Bible has more contours than the digital versions can convey, with the result that digital Bibles can lose the historic function of a canon that has served for the last 16 centuries.
A third caution involves the seemingly endless number of easily downloadable versions and translations of digital Bibles. It is not uncommon for students to download a free King James Version as the path of least resistance, unaware of the difficulties of reading such aging translations. This is fairly routine in the digital era, though most mainline Protestant churches left the KJV behind long ago. The tendency to download the KJV as the default version speaks to the irony of having an antiquated translation on the latest technological gadget.
The KJV, of course, is not the only digital choice. For a truly head-spinning experience see the more than 35,000 different Bibles available at The Bible Store on Amazon.com. In any case, the babel of Bibles in the digital realm makes it difficult to talk about a communal text within the life of the church. There is no longer anything Standard about the New Revised Standard Version, nothing International about the New International Version. Each implicitly claims a consensus and authority, yet each is subject to the consumer whims of our fingertips in the digital domain.
A fourth caution has to do with hypertexts, which take one out of the biblical text at the click of a mouse into a commentary, a map, a concordance, a Bible dictionary, a lexicon, and more. Wonderful as they are, the thousands of hypertext resources available in such Bible programs as Accordance and Logos provide far more information than anyone can reasonably handle, with few guidelines for discriminating between resources. There is the danger of mistaking the sheer volume of information for knowledge. As Claire Clivaz has noted, the Bible is fast becoming a book that for all its girth is increasingly a biblaridion (a very little book; cf. Rev. 10:2,9- 10) lost in the World Wide Web.1
A fifth caution concerns the science of the reading brain. The most recent science concludes that reading comprehension is notably higher when reading physical pages than when reading text on screens. Printed words on a page have a greater tangibility for the brain than do the slippery pixels on a screen. Studies show that we tend to skim texts on screens, whereas we read printed texts more deeply.
A sixth caution revolves around the problem of multitasking and distraction. The technology of books is simple. They do one thing – present printed text on pages, all bound in a volume. Digital screens allow us to do many things – text, surf, tweet, email, make phone calls, read an e-book. The problem is that our attention is constantly interrupted. It is difficult to engage a book like the Bible with so many distractions. As studies reveal, we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are. It compromises our ability to concentrate and understand.
Despite these cautions, as a culture and as a church we are clearly moving headlong into all things digital. Physical Bibles will persist, but scripture will be increasingly digital in form and function.
In practical terms, digital Bibles are low cost and easily disseminated. Further, the great accessibility of diverse translations reminds us that prior to print culture there was no one monolithic version of the Bible. Before Gutenberg, relatively few people read. They heard the Bible proclaimed in church or saw biblical stories dramatized in stained glass. The digital world allows a more holistic approach to the Bible through images, videos, and audio files.
In short, the digital turn is opening up a vast array of interpretive lenses that can potentially erode the dominance of written text through the addition of sight and sound.
The radical democratization of the digital realm, where all voices can appear equal, will likely continue to empower new interpretations of the Bible and lead to the formation of faith communities and subgroups around common values identified through social media rather than through church pronouncements.
Even as we remain aware of the cautions, perhaps the digital turn will provide Christians of all stripes opportunities to discover the Bible as an ever more fluid source of inspiration and conversation, of proclamation and prayerful reflection.
Jeffrey S. Siker ’81 M.Div. is professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. His books include Disinheriting the Jews: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy (Westminster John Knox, 1991), Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth- Century Portraits (Oxford, 1996), and Jesus, Sin, and Perfection in Early Christianity (Cambridge, 2015). He is completing a book called Liquid Scriptures: The Bible in a Digital World, forthcoming from Fortress.
1 Claire Clivaz, “New Testament in a Digital Culture: A Biblaridion (Little Book) Lost in the Web?” in Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture 3:3 (2014), pp. 20-38. http://jrmdccom.
2 See Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015); Ferris Jabr, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper,” Scientific American 309:5 (November 2013), pp. 48-53; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Stanford University Press, 2010). MaryAnne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007).