Writing for the Gospel Coalition blog, Matthew Barrett shared the concern earlier this week that the replacement of physical Bibles with iPads in the pulpit, while a “subtle shift,” comes with several potential dangers. His post –– "Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church" –– got a lot of people thinking, which is to say, it got them riled up.
An iPad in the pulpit, Barrett contends, sends a different message than a physical Bible to the congregation, because people associate the iPad with media consumption. The physical book we now think of as the text, whereas we still distinguish between the e-reader, a technological device for consuming the text, and the text itself. When the pastor flashes his iPad, we see the device, not the Bible.
Barrett also shares the concern of many culture critics that the use of e-books contributes to the problem of illiteracy. The way we experience the text via a Bible app leaves us with less of a sense of the big picture, how the whole book fits together. And because the virtual text is disembodied, its symbolism seems at odds with Christian theological values: “as physical beings who gather together as an assembly in a tangible place,” isn’t it strange to replace the physical book with a multi-use e-reader? Might not the physicality of baptism and the Lord’s Supper be set in uncomfortable relief when the proclamation of the Word loses its physical touchstone? Not to mention, the use of e-readers removes the physical proclamation inherent in carrying a physical Bible into the world. People see your printed Bible and react to it very differently than they do to your iPad.
Responding to these thoughts, Derek Rishmawy, writing at Christ and Pop Culture, makes a thoughtful case for the opposite point of view. Maybe the problem isn’t the new technology but our enamoration with the old technology:
Actually, you could probably make a Protestant argument along the lines of those made against the icons, that focusing on the physical, printed medium of the text is an improper focus on form of the text, rather than the content of the text. Book types like myself might be tempted to attach more significance to the feel and smell of a page than is theologically warranted. There’s also something to be said about using a Bible app that sits alongside a bunch of other apps on your phone or tablet. It says that the Bible is a part of your real life. It’s not just some religious book, on the religious shelf of your life, to be picked up once a week. It is as much a part of your everyday life as your email and your Facebook accounts. In a sense, it’s the app that speaks to the way you use every other app.
Given the fact that Bible Design Blog is devoted to the physical form of the Good Book, you might expect me to be against the use of e-readers in church. The truth is more complex. I began as an early adopter, self-consciously using Bible software on my Compaq iPaq in the prehistoric days before the smartphone. That experience made me something of a reactionary, turning against gadgets entirely, until over time I mellowed into an advocate of something like a third way. The discreet and thoughtful use of such aids seems appropriate to me. I only fume now when the latest technology becomes the hammer that transforms every problem into a nail.
Today I would argue that the convenience of Bible apps is a good thing, but it's not an unqualified good. There's a larger question that ought to be asked, which has to do with the use of screens in worship, and in that regard e-readers are not even close to being the worst offender. And at the risk of repeating myself, I can't help insisting that paper as a techology should not be sold short.
The convenience of Bible apps is a good thing.
Thanks to smartphone Bible apps, people have access to the text at times and in places they ordinarily wouldn’t. Most of us don’t carry printed Bibles everywhere we go. I can’t count the number of times prior to the advent of smartphones that I wanted to check a quotation, look up a cross reference, or simply read but couldn’t thanks to the fact that I didn’t have a physical copy of the Bible near to hand. Those days are pretty much over. Because the technology is still relatively new, people who don’t ordinarily take an interest in the Bible seem to get excited about it. Outside the Bible Design Blog community, I never have people recommending Bibles to me, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve had Bible apps suggested by a variety of people, many of whom I wouldn’t have pegged as reading enthusiasts.
While I’m not a great reader of e-books, as an author I am in love with them. When I receive an e-mail from a new fan of my novels, do you think I worry about whether they read the printed book or the e-book (or listened to the audiobook for that matter)? What matters is that they’ve read the book. They’ve connected with my words. If the convenience and novelty of e-books –– not to mention the economics –– lead to more people reading, that’s a result.
But e-readers are not an unqualified good.
My hope for e-books is not that they'll go away, but that in the future they will get better, eventually surpassing physical books. They have a long way to go, however. (See "The Form of Digital Books.")
The downside I see with the use of Bible apps is not the software itself, but the larger context of the media consumption device -- not the e-books, in other words, but the e-readers. When sermons bored me as a kid, I found myself flipping through the color maps in the back of the Bible. If you bore me while I’m holding my iPad, I have more sophisticated means of distraction at my fingertips.
I use the ESV Study Bible app in church from time to time, mainly because I appreciate the notes but don’t have a special load-bearing harness required for carrying the printed edition. (I exaggerate, but the thing is heavy.) While I’m not one of those people who forgets to switch his phone to silent mode –– my phone lives in silent mode –– I can’t seem to open it without a flood of notifications spilling across the screen. I’ll admit I’ve found myself glancing at incoming e-mails when I was supposed to be following along with a reading.
We give ourselves far too much credit when it comes to multi-tasking. The people in my life who rely uncritically on screens tend to be the most scattered and disengaged, the most shallow. (Sometimes I'm one of them.) This is not because such outcomes are inevitable with the switch to screens. It’s just that they’re harder to avoid, requiring more discipline. Still, some context is helpful. I’ve done a lot of Bible reading in church that had nothing to do with the sermon simply because I was more interested in the text than I was in the sermon. Distractions weren’t invented in Cupertino.
There’s a larger question: screens in worship. And e-readers aren’t the worst offender.
Our anxiety about small screens in worship seems belated, mainly because the battle seems to have been fought and lost some time ago. For many evangelicals, at least, the idea of worshipping without screens is rather scandalous. Hymnals are remembered as something akin to a medieval torture device. Ditching them in favor of the then-new projection screen is supposed to have liberated worship. Instead of looking down, we could look up. Instead of each worshipper absorbed in a private world, ours eyes could be fixed on the same object.
To be frank, if I could give every pastor in the world an iPad in exchange for pulling down the projection screens, I would do it in a heartbeat. My tolerance for misspelled, unpunctuated lyrics projected onto sentimental backdrops ran out long ago. The conversion of our churches into something resembling a mid-tier sports bar is more than a subtle shift, and the messages it sends are not subtle, either. For every instance of the technology being used well, there must be a thousand examples of it used poorly. In my mind the experiment has failed, only most of us are too deep in to back out now.
Perhaps that knowledge is what makes some of us want to push back against the enthusiasm of early adopters. Once a medium is embraced uncritically and goes mainstream, people come to expect its use. So what if it’s used badly –– that badness has become the new norm. Some people prefer it, just as they prefer other inferior experiences to which they’ve grown accustomed.
To the extent that the rise of the new screens prompts us to go back and examine the question of screens as a whole, I welcome the scrutiny. It seems to me that Bible apps in worship have a lot of potential, but if we adopt them in the same spirit with which we have adopted projection screens, the results will be similar: a flawed norm whose ubiquity tends to mitigate against necessary course corrections.
Of course, that’s the pattern when every new technology emerges. Precious few of us are thinking critically beforehand.
Paper as a technology should not be sold short.
One footnote is in order, since this is a site dedicated to the physical form of the Bible. Don’t sell paper short too quickly, as if its the technology equivalent of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of the First World War. While I'm a lover of obsolete technology, my thing for print isn't an expression of that fondness.
Before there was a digital revolution, there was a desktop printing revolution which made print a more viable and flexible technology than ever, putting the tools of the book into the hands of the people of the Book like never before. If your pastor carrying a printed Bible into the pulpit is the last vestige of physical literacy present in your church, well ... it doesn’t have to be that way. Paper is still the best technology for a lot of applications, and there’s no reason why churches can’t be places where print is done well.
My own church found itself in a dilemma when moving into its new space. When everyone stood to sing, the ceilings weren’t high enough for people to see projected lyrics over the heads of the worshippers in front of them. The church occupying the space before us had gone the full sports bar route, mounting flat screen displays all over the place. You could look forward, to the left, to the right, and anywhere your eyes landed there was a screen to watch. That seemed like a costly and impractical solution, so we went in a different direction: print. We use a printed order of worship that contains liturgy, music, announcements, basically everything. Worshippers can follow along (and more importantly, participate) without any difficulty, and they can take the physical document with them when they leave, referring back to the songs and readings throughout the week.
This wouldn’t have been a practical solution prior to the desktop revolution and the advent of affordable short-run digital printing. It might look traditional to a layperson, but it is actually a rather high-tech affair, much more complex than plugging Powerpoint into a projector. That’s not the appeal, however. We use this approach because it solves our problem most effectively. And like the best solutions, it introduces benefits we did not anticipate at the outset. To people experiencing it for the first time, our approach can feel more authentic, more grounded than what they're accustomed to in church, and the technology reinforces that sense.
My point is, people who feel defensive about printing often do so out of an anxiety that printed books can’t defend themselves. Like the arts, they need some kind of subsidy to survive. I’m not sure that’s the case. All print needs, really, is for people who’ve overcome their uncritical love of screens to recognize that, for all their potential, screens aren’t the solution to every problem. Sometimes paper is better technology. The ideal future would be one in which we use the print where print works best and e-books and apps where they work best without letting the means of delivery or transmission loom larger than the message itself.