Why we all need printed Bibles

It’s not uncommon in churches, when the time comes for the Bible reading, to see people reach not for a printed pew Bible, but for their phones, to read the Bible on a phone app. When I was in a session at New Wine this summer, the speaker at the morning Bible study (Miriam Swaffield) commented that she thought it was better for people to read print Bibles than read them from a screen. It made me sit up, since I say this frequently when teaching in different contexts, but this was the first time I had heard someone else say it from ‘up front’. When I commented on this on social media, I was taken back by the torrent of reactions—I hadn’t realised that this was quite such a controversial suggestion!

Electronic texts are very useful for certain purposes. I probably spend 98% of my time working with the electronic text of the Bible on my computer, because I am often looking for particular texts and wanting to copy the English or Greek into something that I am writing. (It isn’t very easy to find the seven occurrences of ‘cried out in a loud voice’ using a specific grammatical construction in the Book of Revelation in a printed text!) And I will often read on my phone (using the same app, Accordance) when I want to read along in Hebrew or Greek in a church context. Some people read on their phone because it is easier to make the type size larger (this concerns people of a certain age!)—for the sight-impaired, this is really important—and electronic texts allow you to read in different translations easily and compare them. But I suspect that the reason why most people read the Bible on a phone app is because a. it is convenient as I already have the phone in my pocket and b. all of my life is on the phone, so it is something that I am used to. (I omit c. it means I can easily check social media when the sermon gets boring without anyone really noticing.)

Apart from avoiding the distractions of really urgent text messages and social media notifications the must be attended to, there are other really important reasons why print Bibles (technically called a codex) offer a better reading experience.

Searching

When a reading is announced, it is quicker and easier for those with print Bibles to find the reading, especially when the page number in common pew Bibles is given. The basic reason for this is that electronic texts are, in effect, scrolls; they read across, but are a virtual form of a continuous linear text. It is rather ironic to note that codices became the preferred form of text because they were smaller, cheaper, more convenient, and easier to find one’s way around than scrolls, and these issues became the main drivers when ordinary people, becoming Christians, were interested in the Christian scriptures. Electronic scrolls are, essentially, two dimensional; books are three dimensional, and that makes all the difference.

Because of their easy navigability, paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption in a text. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything inbetween and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,” Mangen says.

Supporting this research, surveys indicate that screens and e-readers interfere with two other important aspects of navigating texts: serendipity and a sense of control. People report that they enjoy flipping to a previous section of a paper book when a sentence surfaces a memory of something they read earlier, for example, or quickly scanning ahead on a whim. People also like to have as much control over a text as possible—to highlight with chemical ink, easily write notes to themselves in the margins as well as deform the paper however they choose.

Canon

When you open a print Bible, you are immediately aware of where the text you are reading comes in the Bible as a whole. Genesis is at the beginning; the Psalms are in the middle. Revelation is at the end. Noticing these, even unconsciously, is contributing to your biblical literacy—your overall understanding of the shape of the biblical story—and this is a crucial skill in reading and interpreting well.

Of course the canon of Scripture as we have it is in a rather odd order. We would naturally arrange things chronologically, rather than first by kind of writing and second by length, starting with the longest and going down to the shortest. But understanding this grouping also helps our biblical literacy: the psalms are not the only example of ‘the writings’; Isaiah is not the only ‘major prophet’; 1 and 2 Kings are not the only ‘histories’ (or ‘former prophets’ if you are Jewish); there are four gospels; and so on. You might argue that these things are common knowledge or are easily discovered—but the point is that you discover them in the process of reading a print text, which you don’t when reading from a screen.

Even more importantly, print Bibles naturally give you the immediate context of a reading. To read a short extract is to artificially decontextualise a reading. In the church where I grew up, the Bible readings were extracted and printed in the service sheets, which completely eliminated the context—and projecting readings on a screen does the same. If I have my print Bible open, I see as part of my reading the passages preceding and following, and with the turn of the page the wider context still. This is not simply harder with electronic texts; it is not a natural part of the reading process.


Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!


Learning and cognition

The issue of canonical understanding relates to wide questions about effective learning. There is a significant move gathering pace in higher education away from electronic resources and screens, because the research evidence suggest that screens actually inhibit learning for a variety of reasons.

Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18 percent of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers. Through the use of two separate treatment arms, we uncover evidence that this negative effect occurs in classrooms where laptops and tablets are permitted without restriction and in classrooms where students are only permitted to use tablets that must remain flat on the desk surface.

I can still remember very clearly where on the page certain passages come, not least in relation to the Annie Vallotton pictures in the Good News Bible I read as a teenager. Our brains are not abstract processors of communication; we are embedded in the real world, and real world experiences make a difference to how we think. That is why walking through a doorway makes us forget why we went into the room in the first place—and conversely why thinking about physical spaces can actually enhance our ability to remember things. In fact, the brain has no other way of conceptualising what writing is other than as a physical object.

We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.

We are not spirits trapped in physical bodies, waiting to escape to an immaterial spiritual world. We are body-soul unities, and our future hope is physical, in the resurrection of the dead and a new heaven and earth. No wonder the physically of texts matters to us.

Real and lasting

For most of us, electronic texts are ephemeral whilst printed texts are, in some distinct sense, real and lasting. (A curious anecdote: when I first started regularly writing on this blog, my instinct was to capture what I wrote physically, so I was in the habit of printing out all the blog posts and filing them away carefully. I soon realised this was not practical, and this weekend just cleared out the file and through all the printouts away.) That is why we are happy to read the holiday novel on Kindle, but technical and reference books are still almost all bought as physical texts. Which is the Bible closest to?

Justin Hardin, who teaches in a seminary in the States, commented in discussion:

The others senses are deprived when we read electronically. The smell of the paper. The weight of the book in our hands. The rustle of the pages as we flip to new sections. How can we immerse ourselves into the work of reading when we reduce it to a screen? (And this doesn’t address silent reading v. reading aloud.) I have had technology-free classrooms my whole career, and with each crop of students, they find it more and more refreshing.

In this context, I find it fascinating to note that scripture refers to itself less as ‘what was said’ and more as ‘it is written’. The inscription of text in a physical form gives it a permanence and a reality which electronic texts can never have. God made himself known in a physical, personal expression in Jesus, and continues to make himself known in the physical, written expression in scripture.

Public

Books are public; by and large screens are private. If you are studying the Bible in a small group, the dynamic feels quite different when all are reading print Bibles on public display compared with everyone reading on their phones. Try it! scripture is ‘public truth’, public testimony about who God is and the person and work of Jesus, and we need to keep it public.


Now some would object: weren’t what we have as biblical text first heard, and not read or studied? That is true, not least as a reflection (in relation to the New Testament) of the low levels of literacy (perhaps around 14% of the population) in the Roman Empire. But the evidence of the role of letter carriers, the historical development of the codex, and the texts themselves (often very carefully constructed) all demonstrate that the biblical authors expected their writings to be studied in great detail, and that in fact they were.

So here is (electronically!) the bottom line: if you want people to engage well in reading Scripture, to remember what they have read, and to engage in a life-changing immersive experience of Bible reading, don’t put your Bible readings on screen. Buy pew Bibles!


Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!


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48 thoughts on “Why we all need printed Bibles

  1. Ian, a very timely piece as I have raised an issue for Standing Committee tonight about what to do about our increasingly tatty church bibles. All options are on the table and much of what you have said has already come up in conversation. One of the issues with ‘pew’ bibles is versioning / page numbers. Unless we replace them all every time then we end up with several versions which makes the ‘page numbers on the screen’ thing quite hard.

    I agree that having a printed version helps you understand context etc and teaches folk the ‘lay of the land’, so if we stick with paper (and have multiple versions) I wondered about using a graphic on screen to show the relative position of the book in question – with maybe some of the ‘bigger’ books shown as ‘way points’.

    I’m sure this will be a lively PC debate

    Whilst I think I’m in favour of paper for church, you missed a key ‘church warden’ benefit of electronic – we wouldn’t have to go round collecting dozens of discarded bibles from the floor at the end of the service!

    • Thanks Jonathan. How could I have missed out the Churchwarden perspective! (How about asking people to take them back just as they picked them up…?!)

      Pointing out the relative position would be great, and it is exactly what SU Bible notes used to do, with a little diagram on the bottom of the page.

      But we could easily have two versions, and two page numbers. That also might raise awareness of the notion of different Bible translations. More than two would be a problem…

      • We encourage people to use the paper bibles every week and explain why. With that said when I introduced the verses being on the screen the most favourable comments I had were from older congregants who struggled with physically holding a paper bible. I wonder whether there is a place for (big, public) screens alongside the positive encouragement of paper to enable multigenerational engagement with the text.

      • It’s not quite as simple as ‘two versions, and two page numbers.’ I used to sell pew bibles, and often the issue was a new edition of, say, the NIV pew bible, where the publisher helpfully failed to use the same pagination as the previous edition. I’m sure this would have also happened, unavoidably, when the 2011 NIV came out, which left churches with the problem of having to replace their entire stock rather than simply replace worn-out or missing ones.

  2. This is interesting. I reverted back to paper bibles for devotional reading a while back. Although in general I read most other books on screens. I find the ability to cut and paste for future reference invaluable for future sermons. However I do find it harder to remember what I’ve read due to not being able to visualize it on the page.

    I’m currently gently pushing for “pew” bibles and to not have the verses on screen.

    In my previous context we had bibles and didn’t have the readings on screen and it was really good to help new Christians learn to navigate the bible.

    • This works for me the 2% of my time I am in church listening to a sermon.

      It doesn’t work for me in my academic work doing research on texts in the original language and writing papers about it. But then again, that is not what most Christians spend their time doing.

      And my 2%/98% is built on a foundation of a couple of decades of reading print Bibles. The serious question for us here is what foundation will the next generation have without those two decades?

  3. On ‘projecting’ in church. It’s usually a few verses (at most) at a time and then it’s the next screen of text. There’s no ability to see the flow of the text as it goes and there is no ability to see the whole passage during the preaching.

    It can be useful but I don’t think it’s anywhere near a replacement for the written text in hand…a poor handing of discipleship. Bibles in ‘pews’ every time whatever other things might be considered helpful.

    If I use my phone it’s either because no bible is provided (which I condaoder a poor show) or I’m looking at the Greek of the NT…. 😉 . The amount we spend on buildings without much thought yet hold back on the buying of bibles. It’s odd at best.

  4. We have older folk in our church that appreciate being able to see the text on a screen as they find it hard to read the print in the Bibles -even the large print ones!

      • Thank you for the rebuke. Perhaps if we talked and you heard my voice you would know that I certainly did not intend to be that way.

        • William – To this observer your brief comment appeared to be more than a contribution to the thread but as if you were telling Ian what he should have read and included in what he’d written. That’s how I read your comment and it appeared disrespectful. But I accept your point about ‘voice’ and it not being intended as such, and I withdraw my comment and apologise. pax

  5. When I am in a group I can almost always find a reference quicker with an electronic bible, that the others can in a paper one.

    I also find the print much easier to read. I think the typeface used in most printed Bibles is not the easiest to read.

    Agree about context though.

  6. “When a reading is announced … ”

    I have taken to encouraging people not to ‘read along’ with the Bible readings in church. To be sure, I encourage them to have their Bibles open during the sermon, but not for the reading. Why? Because ‘reading along’ is a really weird thing to do! It’s like putting the subtitles on the TV while watching a film that is in your own primary language. It’s actually quite distracting to do this — and when we listen and read at the same time, we inevitiably get out of synch.

    Ultimately, I believe that if you do try to read and listen at the same time, most likely you are actually only doing one of the two anyway. So, now I encourage people to focus on just _listening_ while the Bible is read, and then to open up their own text during the exposition.

      • Ab-so-lute-ly! In my experience, we far too often settle for terribly substandard public readings of Scripture. We need to set a far higher bar for public Bible reading and then invest far more in training our public Bible readers.

        And we need to especially do this given that the public reading of the Scriputres might be a more biblically required practice for the gathered people of God than a pulpit-based sermon!

    • Yes! We are told to ‘hear’ the gospel, not read along. But I don’t tend to go to churches with screens or expository sermons.

    • Absolutely agree! It strikes me as odd that whenever a reading is announced, there is a somewhat Pavlovian scurry to find the pages, and more so, that when a cross-reference is made, even to a single verse, there is a rustling of paper which probably distracts the rustlers from the point being made.
      For myself, I like to have a Bible open, not to follow along but to be able to refer back to something that didn’t quite reach my brain or to look at the context after the passage has been read. This of course is a point in favour of printed Bibles (and, for referring back, to printed hymn books too!), but reading along on the screen is probably less distracting than reading along on the page.

  7. Point of order: the reader needs to give the page number clearly and early in the announcement – and then LOOK at the people to make sure most have got there before launching. Too many readers are terrified of silence and/or eager to get the ordeal over with (respect though for bravery in doing it anyway!)
    We don’t yet have everything on screens: our age profile and the shape of the building would make it both unreasonable and unkind even if we provided opera glasses! Not sure a series of repeaters down the aisles would contribute to the sense of unity. Nor am I the only one for whom a screen above and/or obscuring the altar would be a deal-breaker.
    Pew bibles appear to be a success, and it’s no fault of the Vicar that the page numbers given in the notice sheet aren’t turned up in good time before the start by the worshippers. And we who can’t tell which copy will be nearest in advance (the choir procession takes us where it will) have to either spend half the reading frantically flipping pages or – as I do – look up what it is and read it online in advance.
    So basically yes pew bibles – but thought put into making them work well rather than be treated like another hymn book.

  8. So now I understand why I feel less than satisfied when I’m reading from my iPad.
    The overall and immediate context is usually missing and so I feel I have a pair of blinkers on. As for scrolling/two dimensionally, yes to a extent, but the Bible Youversion app and also the NLT study Bible app (as egs) turn distinct pages as opposed to scrolling.
    Very helpful.

  9. I old-fashionedly feel like Ian. Some of these points are also the reason why I personally prefer to use a hymn book rather than have song words on a screen, but I think this battle is already lost. My ebook friend would point out that you can easily make notes on an electronic book.
    For my comic take on the relative advantages of ebook and paper book (not particularly Scriptural) see here: http://www.penelopewallace.com/the-book-and-the-book/

  10. Thanks, Ian, a really helpful post. We have both ‘pew’ Bibles and the words projected, with the page numbers announced by the reader and in the weekly notice sheet. The mixed mode appears to work well, especially now we finally have the same version of the NIV on screen and in print! I’ve been reflecting on this from a different direction recently as I’ve been collecting and restoring old typewriters. I was really surprised how much more permanent and significant a few sentences typed onto paper felt than the same words input to a tablet or PC. Even though they were fairly random thoughts just to test that the machine was working properly, I was reluctant to discard them afterwards; I had no problem with deleting the words on the computer. I think this underlines the point that we are physical beings, and we react very differently to physical text versus electronic. I’m just off to re-read Pilgrim’s Progress – the pages smell wonderful!

  11. Interesting blog and debate – thank you.
    An aside … whether pew copies or on a screen my observation (as a roaming diocesan training/vocations officer) is that if I want to hear the bible publicly, faithfully read in church – Old and New Testament and Psalms – in some thorough systematic form, week by week, it will not usually be in an evangelical church. It will be in churches of more catholic or liberal tradition. The majority of evangelical churches I visit have one short reading, often linked to a sermon series which may or may not read the passage in its original sequential context. This concerns me. So I set this discussion in a wider context.

    • Thanks David. I think I want to say ‘yes and no’. When I have the chance, I always highlight the bizarre paradox in this practice–and to my knowledge the largest evangelical church in Nottingham has no Bible readings at all.

      But there are two caveats. First, many evangelical churches I know offer sermon series, and these are frequently systematical, in depth studies of books of the Bible. Secondly, the converse paradox for churches in the catholic or liberal tradition is: if you give so much time to Scripture reading, why are your sermons not more scriptural, and why do your congregations not know their Bibles better?

  12. We made a decision a few years ago to stop putting the readings on teh screen and instead invest in fresh ‘pew’ (chair!?) Bibles. The primary reason was my observation that people were no-longer opening the Bible. Bizarrely, by projecting the words so that everyone could see them, we were inadvertently disconnecting people from the very book that we want them to engage with.

    So now we display a screen showing the reference and also the page number (for the benefit of those less familiar with the logical-but-peculiar sequencing within the Bible). The reader are instructed to announce both the reference and the page number, and wait until people seem to be ready to read. And when preaching I/we will often invite people to look and see the verses/phrases for themselves, and sometimes even read some parts out loud corporately.

    I don’t even put the content onto PowerPoint slides – I’ll show the verse reference, or maybe a keyword, but not the whole verse or section. The screen is a prompt, not a min-manuscript!

    All this is intended to help people see how what is preached arises from what is written; to become more familiar with holding open Bibles in their hands; and to have a better sense of context. And the joy comes on those occasions when I don’t actually urge people to look at it for themselves mid-sermon, but notice that they are doing so anyway. Little by little fresh habits are being formed, for which I am grateful.

    • Well done Paul!

      That fits with my own increasing concerns and observations. Some congregations have become disconnected from any significant involvement with the the Bible. When Bibles are provided it’s the few who actually open them. The benefit is missed and appetite has diminished. Perhaps that’s merely cause and effect.

      What started with good generous mission thinking may well have been mistaken . (Mea culpa) Making things ‘easy’ can be a fundamental misunderstanding with unwelcome outcomes. It is a brave church that calls a halt to this in the face of being ‘modern’.

      A notice sheet put into your hand as ‘essential reading’ on arrival seems fundamental to many churches…. a bible in the hand or in the ‘pew’. Amazingly , some churches don’t actually have many bibles and certainly not enough fo ‘one each’.

  13. When it comes to reading, I’m unashamedly old school — don’t even own an e-reader; only have an app on my phone under sufferance for the occasional out-of-print book — but recognize this as a personal quirk like preferring a rotary phone, or ignoring current convention and stubbornly using the female personal pronoun for places and planes (its use for ships appears to be surviving, just).

    I’m heartened that the research backs up my outdated views, but fear that attempting to resist this trend makes Cnut look like he had decent odds. Smartphones have, sadly, taken over. Maybe having a palmtop (remember those!) back in the ’90s immunized me from the craze, but for digital natives, it’s a whole new game.

    Or maybe we just need to hold all study groups in a crypt. 😉

  14. Ian, thank you for making such a positive case for reading from the paper version: we hardly appreciate the power of hearing and reading the words simultaneously, vide Lectio Divina.

    I am sorry that you are not that keen on having the readings printed in the pew sheets. A couple of years ago I was asked to help out during a long interregnum and the Warden asked me to provide the readings for him. A copy went to the lesson readers and also appeared on the pew sheet. The difference was apparent and whilst I appreciate everything you say about context, place in the book et al, there are many occasions when the pew sheet route represents the least worst option: its not how I would want it but it is what we have.

    Rural ministry can be a tough place in this respect where in many places there are just a couple of bibles available, where screens don’t really feature either in the hand on hanging from the roof. In some, bibles are kept in a box, neatly and out of the way. Try giving them out with the hymns book/service sheet/pew sheet and as likely as not the bible will be given back with a polite, No thank you.

    But such obstacles present a preaching opportunity, so all is not lost!

    • Thanks-but I don’t quite see how, in this context, printing the reading in the pew sheet is the ‘least worst option’, as it allows people to say ‘no thank you’. Depriving them of the text unless they pick up a Bible seems infinitely preferable…!

      • Ian, there was a suggestion that just having the text in a pew sheet and not the context (the book in your hand) was not optimal. The least worst option relates to a sadly frequent position where there is little or no pew bible provision and in that event people are reluctant to open a bible. The worst option is that the bible is not read and becomes remote. At least the majority take a pew sheet, otherwise they would not know what was going on during the service. The choice of looking at the readings becomes their own, but at least it is made easy.

  15. At St. Margaret’s Edmonton (Canada) we use pew Bibles (NRSV) and hymn books. Very few people are pushing for screen use (which wd be difficult in our building), and I rarely see a phone. Mind you, most people just like to the readings, and they seem to retain them well.

  16. Ian,

    Another enjoyable article, earlier this year I felt God tell me to carry a Bible round with me. I was like I have my phone, but when I am out and about it’s easier to show people Bible verses from a book than a phone plus a book doesn’t need batteries.

  17. Ian, thank you for a stimulating post. I have summarised it and interacted with a few points over at the BigBible blog, which I help CODEC manage. Digital Bibles are a research topic of mine (more generally, I’m looking at the ‘hermeneutics of technology’ as a NT scholar who became intrigued by the impact of digital technology on Bible reading and the field of NT studies). In the BigBible post, I reference a recent article that deals with similar questions around a mobile Book of Common Prayer which you might be interested in.

  18. Joining late – sorry! But I can’t believe I am the only one who takes sermon notes in my bible. I used to write notes in the margin of my own bible but a) ran out of room b) despaired when my bible fell to pieces. Now I have my own mini-commentary in my bible app and it is always with me with notes from all the sermons I have listened to over the years as well as my own relections. And it is synced so I’m not going to lose it either. I get the points about the feel of a paper book and knowing your way around, but I am hanging onto my ipad!

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