Why your digital Bible could be part of a broader ecology

In a recent Gospel Coalition Australia article ‘Why You Should Ditch Your Digital Bible,’ Matt Smith made a compelling case for the priority of paper Bibles over the modern technological solution; the digital Bibles we now carry around in our pockets on the screens of our smart phones or tablets.

Smith concludes:

But, in consistently choosing them over paper Bibles, we are inadvertently robbing ourselves of the opportunity to store up God’s precious and life-giving word in our hearts, contenting ourselves to sip from the fountain when we could be drinking deeply from it.”

His piece was a thoughtful engagement with an academic discipline sometimes called ‘media ecology.’ Media ecology is the idea that our tools — as part of the physical world (or ecology) we engage with — form us as people, it was pioneered by Marshall McLuhan.

Before the digital explosion, McLuhan predicted that electronic communication would collapse the barriers of space and time and create a “global village.” McLuhan drew on the insights of another scholar, Harold Innis, and his  book Empire and Communications. Innis described how empires through history rose and fell based, in part, on how well rulers communicated their imperial vision and so formed their citizens; he saw lots of this boiling down to the technological choices these rulers made.

In the ancient world, you could choose between your messages travelling a long way across space, or lasting for a long time. A statue or inscription was permanently embedded in a place; whereas a verbal messenger could carry a memorised message from one place to another, but if that message was not written down, it lasted for just a short time. Writing on various transportable mediums (papyrus, for example) became a game changing technology, because messages could be carried a lot more easily than big stone tablets, from one end of an empire to another. McLuhan drew on Innis to argue that in communication, content matters, but so does the form we receive it in (“the medium is the message,” he said). Communication choices are ecological; the technology we introduce into our lives forms us.

McLuhan also recognised technological choices actually occur before questions about carving words into rock, or writing in ink on papyrus; writing, even the alphabet, is a technology. When writing was introduced, producing a shift from oral to written transmission of information, people then observed it would have the effects Smith identifies digital bibles have on us moderns. So Plato, quotes Socrates on the danger of writing in Phaedrus:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Smith joins a long line of people concerned about the impact technology will have on us as people; and asks good questions about how the forms and things we introduce into our reflections on God’s word, might shape how we receive and are transformed by God’s word. Tim Challies wrote a book on this titled The Next Story, back in 2011, while Nicholas Carr wrote a more generic look at how technology is affecting our ability to think reflectively, and to remember things, in his 2010 work titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

In the present Covid-19 age, we’re learning, perhaps more than ever, that technology disrupts. That our technologies aren’t ‘neutral tools’ but that they shape us as we shape our world with them; zoom fatigue is real, disembodied church mediated to us by screens is different, our ability to have side conversations and monitor body language and make eye contact properly with others limits our ability to connect. Thinking about how we shape the ecosystem that shapes us is an important part of thinking about our formation as people, and for followers of Jesus, how we are shaped as disciples. Our technology habits are part of the disciplines that will disciples us; and as Faith For Exiles a recent book on discipleship in ‘digital Babylon,’ by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock puts it “screens disciple.”

Screens also disenchant. There’s a romance to tactile and tangible objects; like books, with their paper selection and typesetting, and smells, part of the ‘form’ that forms us as people (even if we don’t notice it). Technologist David Rose wrote a book a few years back titled Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, where he pitted two visions of the future against one another; a vision where the world is overtaken by interactive black glass services that serve up whatever content we desire; a kind of global village where space and time (and all human limits) are eradicated as we ‘plug in’ — versus a world where tangible objects are given ‘tech powers’ to make them function like tools from the pages of a fantasy novel. He suggested one is more ‘human’ and more aligned with our desires and our embodied interactions with the world. He remembered growing up with a grandfather who had an array of woodworking tools in his shed; one for every occasion, and bemoaned the rise of the one size fits all tool; in part, because of the ecological impact such changes might have on us as people.

I have strong sympathies with his concerns. I read digital books on a kindle rather than an iThing, and I prefer public Bible readings in church from a paper Bible, while I use my phone when in the pew. But this is an area for us to pursue wisdom, not prescription, and not a silver bullet piece of theologically endorsed technology (whether pixel, or ink).

And yet, Smith’s arguments about the reduction of God’s word to pixels on screens — that it enables distraction, limits context, and limits retention — can also be made about every other publishing decision made around God’s word. The way to counter the impacts he observes might not simply be about the best technology, technique, or medium, but the ecology around those mediums.

His argument about context can also be mounted in a different direction about the decision to compile the Bible, a library of books, into one book — which emphasises the coherent whole at the expense of the 66 individual books. Then there’s the question of ‘which context’ one brings to a passage. Smith defaults to the surrounding passages, but our interpretive context is bigger (and one we bring to page or screen), whether the individual book, or the narrative unity of the whole Bible; centred on Jesus as the Messiah who fulfils the Old Testament in his death, resurrection, and pouring out of the Spirit. It is good to ask how our media decisions frame our reading in any direction, so we might push against that. It’s possible that a hyperlinked Bible connecting you to the Bible’s 63,000 inter-textual references might actually help you appreciate the context better than one that keeps you rooted in one passage.

Martin Luther harnessed the power of the printing press to kickstart the Reformation. He was deliberate in its use; recognising its power remove the authoritative gatekeeper role of a priesthood that kept the word obscure in part by medium decisions. The church kept the Scriptures bound up in hand-transcribed Latin copies. The Reformation was supported by its ecological and technological approach. Printing the Bible, in the vernacular, supported the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Luther chose a technology that supported the re-formation he was hoping to see in people and the church. He chose forms that were not as limited by space and time as those he replaced, and so spread both the Gospel, and the message of the Reformation further and faster than the Catholic church could (and had it adopted the same technology, doing so would undermine its theology). Luther also cared about the physical form of his publications, in a letter complaining that “John the printer is still the same old Johnny,” he says “they print it so poorly, carelessly, and confusedly, to say nothing about the bad types and paper.”

The printed word has a certain sort of formative effect, and part of that comes from a connection to the physical world; part of a decision to read from a paper Bible is an act of resistance, or disruptive witness, against the world of black glass and instant gratification; and we should embrace that to push back against the formative power of screens. But screens — and digital communication — also collapse the limits of space and time; like the alphabet, paper, good Roman roads, and the printing press, they allow the message of the Gospel to be transmitted further and wider and faster than ever before. Smith makes the case that a printed Bible a formative tool. It is. But if we bring an ecological framework to the question of how we access and share the text of the Bible, it’s not our only tool, or always the best one.

The trick with our ecology is to remember that the Bible itself, from start to finish, is not meant to operate in an ecological vacuum. As a communicative act from the divine; an act of Revelation from God, the Bible is relational and is to form part of a broader ecology. For Israel, the Old Testament was received by a community, and created a community with a particular sort of formative ecology; a community that enacted a series of festivals, and liturgical practices, that ate together, that memorised its words, that prayed and sacrificed, that dressed differently to the people on the outside; an interpretive community that lived out the distinctives the Bible called for, and so became a formative community. Operating as a priestly nation; God’s image bearing people revealing his nature and character to the world; God’s images aren’t statues rooted in one part of the empire; they live, breathe, speak, and love.

The New Testament continues this trajectory; but marks an even more substantial act of Revelation. In the New Testament the word that spoke the world into being becomes flesh, and makes his dwelling among us. In the New Testament, authors take advantage of new communication technologies that are available to transmit the message of this word becoming flesh, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, as far across the world as they can; and as people believe the message, it creates a new interpretive community; a new community of people in relationship enacting the message they receive. The church. Whatever form the words of the Bible take in our lives, whether digital or printed or spoken, as we receive them, they come with a broader ecology that forms us. John, who wrote about the word becoming flesh at the start of his Gospels, often, in his written work — a medium decision — acknowledges the limits of that medium because they aren’t fully enfleshed. He says on two occasions “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink,” he desires to be there in person.

Perhaps the answer Smith is seeking as he employs a hard copy Bible when sitting down to read with students, and encouraging them to do likewise, is not simply in the medium decision he makes about a paper Bible versus a digital one, but in the decision he’s also making to share not only the Gospel, but his life as well, as he reads with others.

Perhaps the biggest problem screens and i-devices contributes to is not the disconnection from the word Smith identifies, but a disconnection from others — perhaps screens serve to individualise us, where the message of the Bible is one that draws us together as a community of priests, called to let the message of Jesus dwell among us richly. But books can do that too.

NOTE: A shorter version of this may or may not appear on the TGC Australia page later this week.

NOTE 2: Check out an old hot take I wrote on a similar argument from someone else. I think the building blocks of my response are the same, but I’m much more sympathetic to the argument about paper now than I once was…

A comparitive analysis of Kindle’s KJV and ESV users

I love our kindle. I’m playing with some of its features as I use it to study today. I’ve set up a new Twitter account for the passages I highlight in the books I’m reading. You can keep tabs on it in the sidebar (on my actual blog for you feed readers). One of Amazon’s nifty features (which I’ve mentioned before somewhere) is displaying paragraphs other people have highlighted on their devices. I thought it might be fun to look at the different interests of people who have self selected as ESV readers and KJV readers of the Bible. The ESV is the fifth most highlighted book on the Kindle, the most popular KJV version comes in at 109.

Here are the popular ESV passages.

“…and we [3] rejoice [4] in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly – Highlighted by 100 Kindle users

“…because [6] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, [7] for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… – Highlighted by 97 Kindle users

“37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s Sovereign Choice ROMANS 9 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying… – Highlighted by 113 Kindle users

“12Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. – Highlighted by 73 Kindle users

“19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness [2] were through the law… – Highlighted by 92 Kindle users

“…as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Highlighted by 112 Kindle users

“in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. One in Christ 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…” – Highlighted by 126 Kindle users

“…again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8†Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable… – Highlighted by 178 Kindle users

In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share [3] my trouble. – Highlighted by 122 Kindle users

…which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God [2] may be competent, equipped for every good work. Preach the Word 2 TIMOTHY 4 ‡†I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… – Highlighted by 69 Kindle users

Here are the KJV mob’s favourites:

“…and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this. 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 23:3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil…
Highlighted by 46 Kindle users

…3:4 So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man. 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. 3:6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. 3:7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil. 3…
Highlighted by 37 Kindle users

…for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 6:9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 6:10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 6:11 Give us this day our daily bread. 6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 6:14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 6… Highlighted by 37 Kindle users

…lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 7:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 7:9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? – Highlighted by 29 Kindle users

…24:53 And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen… – Highlighted by 36 Kindle users

…3:15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world… – Highlighted by 77 Kindle users

…because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 8:29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son… – Highlighted by 33 Kindle users

…wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. 4:11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. 4:12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 4:13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. 4:14 Notwithstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction. 4:15 Now ye Philippians know also… – Highlighted by 11 Kindle users

And here they are as wordles.

The ESV one.

And the KJV one.

Farbeit from me to make judgments about people’s theology based on which translation they choose. There are a few similarities there, that cancel each other out for the purposes of comparison – what’s really interesting is the outliers. The KJV texts have a bias to quotes from Jesus, and seem to be predominantly about prayer. Intecessory prayer in fact. The ESV texts are predominantly Pauline, and if you had to pick a few themes they’d be the Spirit, suffering, and God’s grace.

Let the reader understand.