When Apps Replace the Book: Musings on the Significance of the Bible’s Physicality in our Digital Age

books verses deviceI’ve been called a bibliophile, but I’m no technophobe. I love being able to lug my flat screen up multiple flights of stairs with one arm. I like having access to the world’s information with one click anytime, anyplace. I’m still amazed that I can carry a library in my hand across land and sea. And yes, flying to various places around the globe on Google Earth using my brother-in-law’s VR headset is pretty cool too. The digital revolution has brought the world and its knowledge to our fingertips and the benefits are undeniably legion.

Yet, the world is fallen, broken by sin, and by implication the digital world at our fingertips is also broken, containing an abyss of darkness, and deception. Prudence calls us, then, to reflect deeply on the digital age and its potential to subtly weaken our allegiance to the form of sound words entrusted by our Triune God. For a sage analysis of the broader issues, I commend Toney Reinke’s book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You (2017). What concerns me here is the digitalization of the Bible itself. Particularly, what potential losses, if any, await the generation that comes of age hearing the pastor say, “Turn on your devises and navigate to the Luke 4 and 17 tab.”? Broadly speaking, at least three potential loses come to mind.

The generation that exchanges the Bible’s physicality for a glowing screen may lose vital intimacy with the Bible and its content. Bible Apps unavoidably share a digital pantheon with other cyber gods, and these digital deities never cease to crave devotion to their cultus. It’s easy to imagine how distractions may multiply, by exchanging solitary leaves for a collage of pixels and intrusive buzz. Also, physical Bibles seem to encourage certain pedagogical benefits Apps don’t cultivate. For example, punching book and verse tabs subtly dispenses with the need to know the order and place of books within the Christian Canon. Likewise, digital navigation forfeits the review of the Bible’s narrative that often occurs when thumbing pages to the desired text. The Bible’s physicality, with its manual catalogue of books, its distinctive page aesthetic, and even the feel, sound, and smell of the material, arguably invites a level of knowledge and intimacy apps can’t rival.

Thinking more broadly, orthodox faith entails a sense of solidarity with the past that digital Bibles potentially forfeit. Technology rehearses a distinctive narrative: the past is obsolete, it has no significant meaning for the present, and the future is all. Yet, orthodox faith grounds its identity in the past, on the testimony of the prophets and apostles. Notably, one of the driving convictions behind the early Christians’ possible invention and use of the codex was a desire to declare solidarity with the apostolic tradition (e.g. Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods, 105-144). Thus, the question arises, “If the orthodox had theological and not merely pragmatic reasons for housing their Scriptures in a physical binding, will displacing the Book with digital apps subtly weaken, or obscure the sense of orthodox catholicity the codex was meant to display?” Of course, I anticipate some will object by insisting the words and message of the Bible alone are important, and the medium through which they are conveyed is irrelevant for maintaining fidelity to the Bible’s message. Perhaps, but every medium preaches a particular narrative. What if digital devices subtly preach a message contrary to the Bible’s message? In a very real way, for better or worse, the medium inevitably shapes the message. Before we shelve our physical Bibles as historical artifacts, wisdom calls us to ponder the ramifications of replacing something woven into the fabric of orthodox faith from earliest times.

Finally, exchanging our Bibles for digital ones may contribute to an already dwindling sense of Christian distinctiveness in the present. Rodney Stark, a leading sociologists of religion, observes that Christianity survived when other religions from the period died, because believers maintained a certain balance within their culture. Not only did Christians display a certain level of continuity with their culture, but they maintained a clear tension with it as well. In other words, there was a clear difference between insiders and outsiders. This observation meshes well with our calling to be a peculiar people (e.g. Due 14:2; Titus 2:4; 1 Pet 2:9, KJV). So, the question remains, “Will the wholesale digital displacement of physical Bibles subtly weaken our peculiarity as God’s people?” Arguably, digital devices could never match the discrete witness a Bible bears. Physical Bibles testify to a unique historical and theological identity that is lost when placed alongside other apps on our devices. Our devices with their multi-media capacities, swallows the unique symbolic resonance the Bible bears as a solitary physical object. Clearly, our devices don’t illicit the same sort of glances and assumptions from “outsiders” a Bible inevitably does. Stanley Hauerwas has said in a hundred years Christians will have done well if they are known as those odd people who don’t kill their babies and elderly. Perhaps a small part of that peculiarity should also be that they are still known as people of the Book.

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