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Why I Don’t Believe in The Bible (App)

August 13, 2013

iPhone - bibleArticles in the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly recently marked the YouVersion Bible app’s 100 million download milestone in breathless terms: “wildly successful”, “the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology start-ups like Instagram and Dropbox”, and “its app hit a monumental milestone — placing it among a rare strata of technology companies”.

The article titles themselves hint at transcendent significance: “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App” (NYTimes) and “The App of God” (Atlantic Monthly).

Elsewhere…

Conversely, my pastor asked us last month to please bring our (print) Bibles to Bible study and to worship, directly speaking to the growing trend in my small, relatively tech-savvy, San Francisco congregation to whip out our smartphones and tablets at Bible study.

Now my pastor is far from being a Luddite. He co-founded a software consulting company and has several computers, a smartphone and a tablet to boot. Sometimes I think his idea of fun is hooking up Windows Media Center or helping his son root his Nook.

And myself? I’m a smartphone-toting techie who serves as president of that software consulting company, which also happens to do app development. I’ve got YouVersion’s app on my phone and used the “Bible in 90 days” reading plan to read through Eugene Peterson’s excellent The Message translation of the Bible last year (seeing the plan calendar fill up with little green squares is no doubt motivating!)

There are many obvious benefits to having the Bible on our always-on (and always-on-me) device. It’s right there when we want it, we can access many different translations, bilingual readers can easily access parallel translations, and it enables easy word searches for starters. For those who follow the daily lectionary, having all of the texts together certainly beats having to continuously flip our print Bibles back and forth.

So, what is it that makes him (and me) think that we as Christians ought to be a bit less sanguine about the Bible on a smartphone?

Let’s be reflective.

Well, first of all, I think we as a rule are not terribly reflective when it comes to technology and Christians appear to be no exception. Although thinking about media ecology and the way our tools affect us (by folks like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul) has been around for quite awhile, we still persist in thinking that technology (and media in particular) “is just a tool” and it’s the content that really matters.

On the contrary, McLuhan tells us that the “medium is the message” (or the “massage”–in his words, “all media work us over completely.”) And by this he means that the medium through which we get content delivered is often as important (and perhaps more important) than the content itself in the way it shapes how we think. Print lends itself to complex, linear thought; texting to short, episodic interactions; etc.

If we start off thinking that “it doesn’t matter. It’s the Bible regardless,” then we’ve fallen into this first trap and discounted the power of the medium. Technologies have tendencies and we need to recognize them.

Mediation matters.

So specifically, how might the Bible on a smartphone shape how we approach the Scripture? Here are a few of my reflections about smartphone tendencies and characteristics that should at least ask us to hit pause on a full-throated endorsement.

  • Tendency toward episodic and interruptible interactions versus sustained attention
  • Characteristic as a multi-purpose device versus a single purpose one
  • Characteristic as personal and individual

Episodic, interruptible

The first thing about the smartphone is that it lends itself well to quick access–to sports scores, breaking tech news, your finances (like with my company’s budget app =) ), connections with friends, and what have you. In all of these cases, speed and efficiency is a prime use case. If you accept the argument that the smartphone has a technological tendency, speed and access would definitely rank high up.

Or alternatively, most of us smartphone owners will occasionally (ahem) use them to fill in gaps in time–whether it’s a Sudoku game while waiting at the checkout or a news site waiting for the train. Chris Dixon outlines his four use cases for mobile apps and two of these are “time-wasters” and “episodic utilities”.

In both of these cases (and, I would argue, all others for smartphones), it’s easy to get in and out. Time-wasting apps can be put down and paused. Episodic utilities are meant to help you quickly accomplish something. Both activities are interruptible.

The problem is that being habituated to using our devices for episodic, interruptible activities does not nurture the habits of sustained attention which should form the core of how we approach scripture.

In the past I’ve had a practice of memorizing large chunks of Scripture. I memorized the letter to the Ephesians over the course of several months to a year; the upper room discourse in John 13-17; the first couple chapters of the letter to the Philippians. Does the type of interaction with a smartphone that we have been habituated to by dint of all of the other ways we use that device lend itself well to the type of sustained attention required to absorb Scripture in this way? I’m not sure it does.

As another example, our congregation also has a practice of lectio divinawhere we take a good length of time (30 – 45 minutes) to listen to a short scripture passage read aloud multiple times and to meditate on it ourselves through continuous reading of the scripture. Do our devices with the ways they ping, flash, and notify and their propensity toward speed hinder this type of sustained and, importantly, slow practice?

One might say “it’s better to have people reading the Bible for 30 seconds or 5 minutes at a time than not at all, isn’t it?” But I’m not so sure. Might it not be the case that, rather than conversion, we end up with inoculation? A little bit of a good thing that serves to protect us from the full effects?

Multi- versus single-purpose

A print Bible is a single purpose device. It’s mostly good for one thing–reading Scripture (I suppose the practice of swearing on it could be considered distinct…). In contrast, we use our devices for a plethora of activities.

As a single-purpose device, when a fellow community member sees me looking at my Bible they know what I’m doing. That’s not the case with a device, and I think that distinction matters. If Jenny two seats down is checking sports scores or texting her friend during worship, that has an effect on the rest of the community. The problem is that our devices and the way they are constructed (with vibrating notifications, flashing lights and the whole lot) make it incredibly difficult to ignore their other functions. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that a flashing light on my phone requires a response (even if it’s just a quick one). Single-purpose devices don’t have this problem.

Being asked to bring a single-purpose print Bible to Bible study also means that it requires a certain level of forethought and preparation to be prepared for Bible study. I can’t say that I’m ready just because I happen to have my phone on me (always). I have to remember that tonight is Bible study and take mine with me when I leave for work in the morning. It requires more thought, and this is, I think, a good thing and not a bad one.

Personal and individual

Smartphones (and mobile phones in general) are the quintessential personal device. A friend of mine calls his smartphone “his brain”. As such the Bible on the smartphone may have the tendency to promote the idea that our primary interaction with scripture is as individuals. And yet, this is not the pattern that we see in Scripture, where the primary interaction with the word of God whether Jesus with his disciples, or the epistles to the churches, or Moses to the Israelites is always in the context of the community.

Of course this trend has been accelerating ever since cheap printing technology came about and scripture was no longer primarily heard orally in the context of a community. But nevertheless, I think we would do well to be aware of how we may become habituated to appropriating the scripture as something to be “used” by us — where we think of the word of God as something that we can open and close at our convenience, use to meet a particular need (generally defined by how we currently feel), or (gasp) delete.

There’s probably lots more to say (e.g., can we properly hear James’ “weep and wail you rich people” on a device that weighs in at $529 for Wi-Fi + 3G?) and lots that I’ve left unsaid (both positive and negative).

I have no plans to delete the Bible app and I’m sure I’ll continue to use it occasionally. But I think we’d be well-served to consider how and when we use it. Which is why I titled this post the way I did. If “to believe” means to place our trust wholeheartedly in something without reservation–I can’t do that.

Your thoughts?

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14 Comments
  1. I like your quotes on McLuhan. I did a presentation on this very thing. In that presentation, I wanted to show how technology was affecting us in a negative way. My church did not want to hear that! The pastor asked me my thoughts on technology and I told him that I did think it was neutral, there were crickets in the room. Everybody looked at me as if I was legalistic! Thank you for posting this. Your questions are straight forward and I pray that as a church we begin to think critically about these devices and their uses!

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      @delonteharrod, thanks for the comment. I’m pretty sure you meant to say that you told him you *didn’t* think technology was neutral (i.e., has no propensities; I would differentiate this from “is good” or “is evil”). Besides the technology is neutral mindset, I think another part of the issue is that we’ve gotten sloppy and equated technological progress with Progress, capital P. I think there is definitely room for us to keep in conversation with our communities about this.

  2. Chi-Ming permalink

    For those interested, there’s quite a lively conversation going on over at the Logos Bible Software forums: http://community.logos.com/forums/t/73995.aspx

  3. hanks, Chi-Ming! I was beginning to wonder about how we establish criteria for when and how we use Scripture online or as an app. It’s interesting to notice that simply asking the question, sometimes, can be a bit startling for people. I agree that how you physically receive a text does affect how you receive it mentally and emotionally, and I like the categories of effects you’ve delineated. The app still remains useful and helpful, of course, only in the most appropriate context–and with our full awareness of what *type* of engagement is happening between us and our app text. So, now on to figuring out the best contexts for engagement with little glowing bits and bytes of Scripture…

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Thanks for your comment, Jackie. I think that discernment for how any kind of technology, including this, is used is really what’s called for.

  4. Ann Kim permalink

    Hurrah! I first skimmed your article on my phone, late at night when I should have been going to sleep. I read enough to think, “This is so helpful to me (individual me)!” and to share it on my FB feed, but not well enough to recognize the irony of my having done so. Makes me think about Bible apps (not really; I don’t use them — not a Luddite, just techno-limited), but even more about phone use. One might think it would be enough to hear one’s child say, “Mom, don’t play with your phone. Play with us,” but I think your article is pushing me towards more thoughtful use of the thing. Thank you.

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Hey Ann! Yes, I certainly think that there are implications for (smart)phone use generally. I think the interruption-oriented tendency of the smartphone (and its often perpetual presence on our person by reason of being the quintessential personal device) is particularly relevant here. It acts to shifts the priority away from the physically present (by its interruption) and provide us a way to escape from the physically present (by its own perpetual presence and thus our easy access to the non-present).

      I love a passage from John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology where he says “The people in front of us might be sick, moody, unfriendly, or in need of a diaper change…The people on our phones are beautiful and interesting, and we can ignore them when they are not. However, the world in our pockets doesn’t give out rewards for faithfulness and long-suffering, only for the moment-by-moment interactions it requires…But we followers of Jesus do value faithfulness.”

      • Ann Kim permalink

        Oh my! That Dyer quote is a zapper!

  5. Dale Gish permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  6. Michael Childs permalink

    I think the article could be better titled, “How To Be Sure Your Church Does Not Reach Young Adults”.

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Hi Michael, thanks for the comment. I’m curious why you think so?

  7. Chi-Ming permalink

    My friend Brian pointed me to this piece by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has been studying our interaction with technology for decades. She speaks of how our interactions with new technology affect fundamental ways we practice our humanity. Not directly related to this post, but interesting nevertheless. http://www.npr.org/2013/02/25/172900833/do-we-need-humans

  8. Mark Phifer-Houseman permalink

    Chi-Ming,
    Good post. I think it’s as much a spot on commentary about ubiquitous smartphone use as it is about the bible app. People having smartphones onthe table at dinner are as discouraging as those looking at them in worship, both are sacred activities invaded by distraction. I think the “brownie point” Bible reading check boxes are seductive ways of stealing our focus from the joy of Scripture and feed our performance/pride, like little Pharisees we can say, “i made it through the Bible but none of itade it’s way into the dark recesses of my soul.

    But, to be schizoid, here are a couple aspects of the Bible app which commend it to me. 1) free audio Bibles. I and many others are aural people and I cannot tell you how many times I have been encouraged by hearing the Psalms read, and hearing them repeatedly through the lectionary. 2) foreign language Bibles. With 100+ languages there is always a Bible version in a language one is trying to learn or has mostly forgotten. 3) anything to get young people interested in the Bible I will take. Screens are where the world’s youth increasingly live. Even if its a deeply flawed presentation of God’s word, it’s a start, like people from medieval timesreading the Vulgate. (Hey, it was Luther and Calvin’s starting engagement with God’s Word).
    -MPH

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Mark, thanks for the comment. I appreciate the thought about how there are other “sacred spaces” that are intruded in–the table being one primary place. I was very pleased (with myself as much as anything else) that at the dinner you and I were at just recently we could spend several hours conversing with one another at our table without phones coming out. A theologian friend of mine, Phil Kenneson, has written:

      “If [St.] Augustine and Catherine [of Siena] are right, and I think they are, that God has no greater gift than God’s own presence, then it seems likely that the same is true for us, we who are made in the image of this self-giving God. For all we humans might offer to one another, no gift is more precious than our presence, our full-bodied attention, our willingness and ability to enter into the lives of others and have them enter ours, our willingness and ability to know them and in turn be known by them.” (Practicing Ecclesial Patience pamphlet)

      I’ve majored on one side of the “helpful/unhelpful” equation in this post, to be sure. I definitely think recovering the aural nature of the Word is something that audio Bibles can be very helpful with, so long as it’s not displacing the community gathering together corporately to itself hear the word. The translation one is an obvious one to me. And I do believe that the Word of God is itself, or rather Himself, taking advantage of every opportunity to engage and woo us. Amen to that.

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