The Bible is not just any old book. It’s alive. The stories in it have actual power. It is the Word of God.
And because there’s a spirit and a strength to this book, we treat it differently than the rest of the things we read. We have unique respect for it. We believe it differently than we believe in Divergent. We are captivated by it differently than we are captivated by Lord of the Flies. We trust it differently than we trust Mere Christianity.
And while we don’t worship the Bible, we give it a special place. In our minds, and, probably, on our bookshelves.
Over the last decade, Bible apps and digital scripture have taken off. I think that’s really good news — wordplay intended. Now the Bible can be shared more easily, reproduced more cheaply, and accessed, possibly, more conveniently.
Sentimental as I am about hardcopies, the feel of paper and book bindings, I figured I should give a Bible app a try. I downloaded Glo Bible on my iPad and have been using it daily for the last two months.
But — and you knew there was a but — I’ve come to think digital Bibles are hurting us. For all their usefulness, they’re taking a toll. And while I don’t think you should delete your Bible app, I do think it shouldn’t replace your paper-and-ink, thousand-page tome. A digital Bible shouldn’t be your default Word of God, and here are eight reasons why:
1. Digital is distracting
A problem with Bible apps isn’t the app itself; it’s the venue. We all know, and study after study verifies, that it’s difficult to concentrate in the face of a million distractions. Well, tablets and phones are absolutely loaded with distractions.
All the time I see people in churches scrolling through their digital Bible, and the next minute they’re checking Facebook or scanning the deals on Amazon. The same thing happened to me as I spent time in the Word on my iPad. I caught myself tapping my email and being tempted by the ESPN scores just a screen away.
If our digital Bible is our go-to place to get God’s Word, we’re likely to be distracted. You can take a hardcopy Bible to your bedroom and close the door, and there will be distractions there too, but for some reason those distractions seem far fewer and far less tempting than the 64 gigs of distraction that, with a digital Bible, are only a second and a click away.
2. It looks suspicious.
Related to the problem of distractions is the problem of appearances. Of course it should not really matter what others think if we’re truly in the Word, but please know that using Bible apps in church or small group is distracting to others.
You know how pastors see every yawn and fidget and scowl in the pews? They also see the flicker of all those screens. I can’t help but think this is at least a little worrisome to the person behind the pulpit. Even if every congregant is honestly just reading their Bible app, the pastor has to be wondering what all that flicking and scrolling and tapping is about.
We know we shouldn’t judge. We know we should trust people, especially other Christians. But, from up on that stage, seeing half your congregation with their noses down in their phones while you try to preach the truth of Jesus Christ, it’s got to be frustrating. So, if only for the peace of mind of the pastor, so he knows you’re not ignoring him with Angry Birds, a crinkly-paper, red-letter pew Bible seems the way to go.
3. We don’t take notes.
This may be just me, but I doubt it. While I regularly jot notes in the margin of my big old NIV, I only once ever typed a note to myself in my Glo Bible. It’s just not convenient on a phone or tablet to type anything of substance, so we don’t do it unless we need to. And, even if we do go to the trouble of pecking away at onscreen keyboards, the notes don’t stay visible in any margin. You have to click on the exact verse in order to see what you were thinking.
In a hardcopy Bible, you can write a lot in the margins. You can highlight and color-coordinate to your hearts desire. You can draw lines between verses. You can make graphs and draw pictures and do all the little things that mean something to you, that will make you remember what you want to remember. And, best of all, all those scribbles and thoughts jump out at you whenever you open your Bible again. You can scan a chapter for a specific note, or just admire (perhaps somewhat vainly) how colorful and ink-filled your margins have become. The ability to share notes is a nice thing about digital Bibles, but the actual art of note-taking is almost completely lost.
4. We don’t learn the Bible.
Digital Bibles, I think, are neither more or less useful than paper Bibles in terms of memorizing scripture. But I do think digital Bibles are far less useful when it comes to learning the books of the Bible, the length of them, and their order.
Growing up, my siblings and I would have races with other church kids to see who could find Amos the fastest. No one does this with Bible apps. But that’s how I learned that 1 Kings comes after 2 Samuel. It’s how I learned that Psalms is really long, and right in the middle of the Bible. And that Titus was a good one to read in the boring parts of church because it was tiny.
You learn a book not only by reading it, but by opening it up. Flipping through pages. Exploring it. Feeling it. Digital Bibles don’t lend themselves to any of this. And I worry that kids who grow up exclusively with a Bible on their phone will never know the book — the structure, if not the theology — as well as someone who has carried and held and leafed through one.
5. it’s not faster.
Again, this may just be old-fashioned folks like myself, but I find that digital Bibles aren’t actually faster at locating chapters and verses than I am with a hardcopy. If you know Scripture, if you’ve grown up with your hands in it, you’ll be able to find John 3:16 faster than you can click and swipe and scroll to it.
What is more, a hardcopy makes it much easier to jump between books and verses. During a sermon, I’ll often have my fingers or bookmarks holding open three different spots in scripture simultaneously. If Glo Bible can do that, I haven’t figured it out yet.
6. Missed opportunity for evangelism.
A Bible app can and should be used to witness to others. But it doesn’t do it on its own.
What I mean is this: in the last two years, I’ve had three or four conversations with people on the train after they’ve approached me reading my Bible and said, “Hey, what are you reading?” I don’t read my Bible in public to show off, but it definitely lets people know something about me. Nearly everyone knows a Bible when they see one.
A Bible on your Android, however, gives no clues and no invitation to those around you. No one looks at the dude at the end of the car with his face buried in a screen and says, “Hmm, he’s reading a Bible.” But to read a Bible in public, an actual leather-bound book, is a public profession, is an invitation, is a conversation-starter.
7. Digital is not personal.
I’ve only used my Bible app for a couple months (though I’ve had it for a year), and I never think of it as “my Bible.” But I’ve had a gold-lined Life Application NIV Study Bible for about ten years, and I’m very attached to it. It’s always what I think of when I think “my Bible.”
I know it’s just a collection of pages with ink on them, but I feel emotion about it. Partly the character of it, but mostly the physical presence of it. The history of it. This is something sacred. If someone deleted my Glo Bible, I’d just download another, but if someone burned my Study Bible, I’d feel a real loss.
8. A missing beauty.
In the same way that a physical Bible is more personal, I think it’s also more beautiful and meaningful. Beauty might not be a reason to pick one form of Scripture over another, but, then again, maybe it is.
I’ve already told you I’m sentimental about real books. Libraries and coffee table books, scrapbooks and family Bibles; I just like that world more than the invisible bytes of a digital bookshelf. I know times are changing, but call it nostalgia.
So I can’t quite put my finger on this last reason hardcopy Bibles are superior to digital ones. It’s abstract. Maybe undefinable. It’s like the reason walking through Barnes and Noble is better than looking at books on Amazon. Something about activating all the senses. You can smell a Bible, feel it, hear it.
So next time you’re sitting in church or teaching children or going to a Bible study, consider leaving your phone in your pocket and hauling out that old, deep, powerful book instead.