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The Printed Word, the Digital Word, and the Word of God

For many of us in the developed world (and probably also in many parts of the developing world), technology is taking or already has taken over our lives. And our churches.

It’s rare to find anyone singing out of a hymnal. Pastoral texts and emails are more common than pastoral visits. People without access to the internet are the new “shut-ins.”

When I got a smartphone, I downloaded an app or two for reading the Bible. There’s easy access to reading plans that don’t require bookmarks or flipping pages. You can switch and check different translations with the touch of a button. You can highlight, share, email, or tweet whatever to whomever whenever. You can even find commentaries and other reading helps to assist you as you read through various parts of the Bible. It’s become more and more common for people to pull out their phones anytime they’re asked to “take out their Bible.”

These features are kind of nice, but I don’t think that technology is making us better readers of Scripture. 

I mentioned last week when I wrote 4 Reasons You Should Try A New Bible Translation that I received a copy of the Common English Bible to read, review, and (perhaps) rave about. I’ve enjoyed reading the CEB; it’s been my default YouVersion translation, and I’ve really enjoyed reading the actual copy (Black, thinline with apocrypha). It sits well. The font is readable. It feels good in my hands, and, for me, there’s just something about sitting down with a real copy of a book and reading it. And it reminded me that I like reading a printed Bible more than a digital Bible.

I’ve been struggling to push myself past purely informational reading to transformational reading. I find it extremely hard to read a digital copy of the Bible in deep and formative ways. It’s too easy to scroll quickly and try to check off all the boxes. It’s too easy to swap apps and be checking my email or Words with Friends instead. I realize that this is an issue with me and will power and intentionality, but a meme-driven techno-culture has not trained me well to spend meaningful, quality, and careful time in a digital environment, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

But it’s not just about me and my personal reading. Few in our church community bring a Bible to our weekly gathering (apart from the one on their cell phone), and it’s been a tough challenge to try to encourage people to change their habits. When the Bible is read to our community, it’s not uncommon to have someone read from their phone’s Bible app. With projected Scriptures up front for everyone to see, on the surface there seems to be little apparent value in having a copy in front of you. I think the digital world which gave us the digital word is affecting our understanding of the word of God. 

I have some more thoughts, but am curious if there are any other thoughts out there.

  • Have you noticed a change in how you read the Bible in the age of YouVersion and Bible Gateway?

  • How has technology affected the way your congregation reads the Bible together in gathered worship?

  • What might be the long-term ramifications (for good or for ill) of all this?

If you’d like a softcover copy of the CEB, leave a comment and interact with some part of this post below. One random commenter will get a copy sent to them (you’ll need to send me your address if you are selected – US only [publisher’s rules, sorry!]). [Last week’s winner was Worth!]

Note: A copy of the CEB was sent to me by the publishers, and they are stirring up thoughts in my mind about the Bible, the Scriptures, the sacred text, the inspired word of God, etc. and I am posting those thoughts here. 

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5 thoughts on “The Printed Word, the Digital Word, and the Word of God

  1. Thanks for the post! In general, we always consider the postive aspects of technology, often referring to it simply as human “progress.” What we often fail to realize is that every technology brings positive and negative aspects at the same time. I agree that technology has “trained” us to be more impatient, and this impacts our reading of the Word. Sound bytes are preferred to a long, slow, consistent reading and meditation on God’s word.

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  2. Jeremy, yes, definitely – we love technology and progress – and I am with you that we have been trained (or, programmed!) to be more impatient.

    Have you found any ways to counter this? Personally or communally?

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  3. Funny, I actually work full-time as a computer programmer (in addition to my preaching and school). The only thing I know to do to combat our Technopoly (good book by Neil Postman btw) is to be aware and take intentional steps to step outside of it and slow down. Here’s a few thoughts: 1) Make a point to engage in human contact (visiting elderly or assembling with church community) 2) Get outdoors and experience nature; it seems to go at a different pace than technology and 3) Unplug!

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  4. Interesting thoughts. Kind of fit in line with some of the recent books like What Technology Wants and The Shallows. I find I do most of my bible reading through my Kindle now – mainly because it’s always with me – either on my phone or iPad. I wonder if the difference we feel is because of what feels comfortable or if it’s an actual change in how we are processing/reflecting on information.

    One of the primary differences may be how the medium triggers consumption habits in our brains – when it’s on a screen, we’re trained to skim and scan and bounce around. The printed page forces us to focus – to uni-task – without (as much) distraction.

    So – I like that digital is everywhere. It’s with me at all times. But is it causing a different kind of reading? Probably.

    Interesting thoughts. Especially because the trend to digital will continue…

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    • Jon, yes, good thoughts! I think the skim/scan/bounce is something I’ve tried to avoid but can’t seem to shake. It’s just a reality with how I do digital consumption, I think. Harder to appreciate the intricacies and details of it all. It will be interesting to see which direction the future of this all heads…

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