A week ago, I wrote an article challenging people to be “Bible app free” for at least a week when in church, small groups, and while doing personal devotions. This week, the Gospel Coalition posted an article (reprinted in full below) challenging pastors, in particular, to bring their “old school” printed Bible to church and up to the pulpit with them when they preach. The writer, makes it clear that he is not anti-technology, anti-Bible apps, or against tablets in the pulpit (“for, say, sermon notes”). Rather, the writer writes about five distinct dangers about replacing the physical Bible with a digital tablet.
Of the five reasons to keep a physical Bible as the text from which one preaches, instead of reading the Scriptures from one’s tablet, items one, two, and five speak the loudest to me as I can tell stories of my own about seeing individuals slide unconsciously into the realities of those dangers. So, instead of quickly dismissing or arguing away the author’s concerns as being “old fashioned” or “technologically out of date,” take time to examine your own life and those in your small group and church to see if the dangers are becoming a reality in your life and world.
I enjoy using an iPad. It is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive devices yet invented. In one light-weight, travel-sized tablet the user has everything at his fingertips. That includes not only the typical social media apps that every user has on his smartphone, but also countless tools that have characterized the laptop or even the home television.
And yet I am finding that cutting-edge, 21st-century technology is subtly but quickly changing important, even indispensable aspects of Christianity. Consider just one example: the ever-growing tendency to substitute a physical, visible Bible (remember . . . the ones where you lick your finger and turn the pages) with a tablet in the pulpit.
To clarify, I am not against pastors using a tablet in the pulpit for, say, sermon notes. Rather, I’m concerned about replacing the physical Bible with a tablet in the pulpit. As the pastor enters the pulpit to bring the Word of God to the people of God, no hard copy of the Bible is to be found in his hand, gracing the top of the podium, visible to the entire congregation as the book at the center of attention. Instead, the congregation sees a tablet. While this may seem harmless enough, I believe there are several potential dangers this subtle shift generates.
First, the tablet as a replacement for a hardcopy of the Bible sends an entirely different message to the congregation. Yes, this tablet contains the digital text of the Bible, but visually that tablet represents so much more. It is an icon of social media and a buffet of endless entertainment. Ask my children. The sight of an iPad screams instant access toSesame Street on Netflix. For the adult, the tablet is an immediate window into his or her social life. As advertised, the iPad is ESPN Magazine, a Visa card statement, decorating ideas on Pinterest, hotel reservations in Hawaii, the latest college football scores, Adele on iTunes, directions to the nearest Starbucks, instant tracking of the stock market, and, oh yes, the Bible, alongside thousands of your favorite e-books.
In contrast, how simple, and yet profound, is a hardcopy of the Bible, perhaps leather-bound and worn from constant use. Carried by Pastor Steve into the pulpit, this large, even cumbersome book, reveals he is ready to bring to the people a message from God himself. In short, a print copy of the Scriptures in the pulpit represents something far more focused and narrow: a visible symbol of God speaking to his people, the master Shepherd feeding his flock.
Biblical Illiteracy in the Pew
Second, the tablet may, oddly enough, unintentionally and indirectly encourage biblical illiteracy in the pew. This no doubt sounds shocking. After all, how could a tablet that provides us with gobs of biblical research tools, a digital manuscript of the Scriptures, and countless other resources create a culture of biblical illiteracy? One of the severe limitations of a digital text, as you sit there with your iPhone or smartphone, is the unnecessary task of passing by books of the Bible as you find the sermon text. When the preacher says, “Turn in your Bibles to . . . ,” the layperson simply clicks on a link or enters the text into a search box. As a result, I am increasingly discovering as a professor at a Christian university that students do not know where books in the Bible are located, let alone how the storyline of redemptive history develops. Many laypeople do not possess the ability to see the text in its context. Consequently, these old-fashioned, basic, Bible-learning skills are being lost.
Even secular scholars, such as Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation), get this when it comes to reading a book digitally. As John Bombaro explains, these authors, and many others, conclude that we have adopted a “truncated approach to texts, with no peripheral vision of what the next page holds or orientation to the linear progression of the entire text,” which only “trains the mind’s learning plasticity to think in pragmatic, detached, fragmented ways.” Therefore, when it comes to Scripture, we have lost by abandoning the printed text a “linear progression to the total story,” since “digital texts militate against a big-picture perspective and comprehension of the whole story of the Bible.”
Flesh and Blood
Third, the tablet may undermine the spatio-temporal nature of church. When a member stands before the congregation, reading the sermon text from a tablet, there is something missing, something lifeless at play. Again, John Bombaro observes, “Digital texts are ephemeral; they are ontologically diminished.” There’s no “there” there, Bombaro laments.
Surely this should rub us wrong, as physical beings who gather together as an assembly in a tangible place. We see with our own eyes a standing, breathing minister preach about a God who is, yes, invisible, but is really with us as Lord of space and time. This God has made himself known by sending his own Son in flesh and blood.
Fourth, when the spatio-temporal nature of Scripture is replaced with a digital, even ephemeral, cyberspace text, there is an awkward inconsistency at play given the physicality of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the lineage of the Reformation, evangelicals have long affirmed at least three marks of the church and means of grace: the proclamation of God’s Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Why not perform a baptism in private or take the Lord’s Supper alone? There is an essential corporate dimension to these somatic means of grace, as the church witnesses the gospel in the waters of baptism and together partakes of the flesh and blood of Christ represented in the elements. The materiality of these means visually remind us that we are accountable to this gospel and to one another.
Likewise with God’s Word. The Scriptures, preached and read, teach us, reprove us, and train us in righteousness so that we are equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If baptism and the Lord’s table become lifeless when we disintegrate their materiality, do we not risk a similar danger when we remove the spatio-temporal presence of the Word of God for the people of God? And should an unbeliever walk in for the first time, would he know that we are a people of the book?
Fifth, when the smartphone or iPad (or name your mobile device) replaces a hardcopy of Scripture, something is missing in our nonverbal communication to unbelieving onlookers. When you walk to church, sit down on a bus, or discipline one another at a coffee shop, a hard copy of the Bible sends a loud and bold message to the nearest passersby about your identity as a Christ follower. It says, “Yes, I am a Christian and I believe this book is the Word of God telling us who we are and how we should live.”
If you don’t believe me, take a physical copy of the Bible with you on your next plane flight, and when you sit down next to your neighbors place the Bible on your lap for all to see. Notice the reactions; you might as well have shared your social security number with the whole plane. Typically, for the person on your left just the sight of the text makes them uncomfortable, defensive, and reclusive. But for the person on your right, it may instantaneously create a conversation that leads to the gospel. My point is simple: if we, as Christians, abandon the physical text in our own assembly, what is lost when this text does not warm our hands in front of a lost and dying world?
No doubt, my warning touches an uncomfortable and irritable nerve. To insult our use of technology is one of the seven deadly sins in the 21st century. Technology infiltrates and saturates everything we do, and therefore defines everything we are, for better or worse. But is this subtle shift changing the way we read the Scriptures? Is it ever-so-quietly removing the visual centerpiece of the local assembly? I think so. And while I never imagined I would have to say this, I close with the following admonition: Dear pastor, bring your Bible to church.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University (OPS), as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (forthcoming, P&R) and co-editor of Four Views on the Historical Adam (forthcoming, Zondervan). He also editedWhomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy.