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. Since the pandemic, people have become even more nervous about picking up a printed Bible in church—despite the lack of evidence of any risk, this is a hangover from the first regulations in March 2020, when it was thought that Covid-19 could be transmitted via surfaces.
When I was in a session at New Wine a couple of years ago, 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.
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.
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.
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 threw 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.
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! And as you encourage people to return to worship God in a shared physical space, encourage them to read a real, physical Bible—for just the same reasons. (A version of this previously published in 2018.)