Scroll Down for Devotion: Speculating on Digital Scripture

The rise of eBooks is changing the face of publishing, but what are the effects on how we read sacred texts? A few speculations about ways of reading, translations, and Bible apps.

According to the Pew Internet Research Forum, three in ten adults read an eBook in 2013. For adults under 30, that number rises to 50%. Tablets and e-readers are owned by half of the population. Reactions to eBooks have ranged from gleeful embrace to cynical rejection. On one hand, the ease and portability of texts brings a sense of wonder – a vast library in a single device, available to all at a single click! – and a feeling of open-access freedom. On the other, there are concerns that digital reading technology fundamentally changes our ability to concentrate, reduces our attention span, and makes us less capable of sustained, deep thought.

As a late-night reader of eBooks, I’ve noticed some of these changes in how I read. The Boston Public Library’s eBook app has meant that I’ve checked out Terry Pratchett at three in the morning and started the last Amelia Peabody mystery from an airport in Florida. I don’t browse the shelves or the “New Arrivals” sections as I would in person; I search for old favorites and popular series, and devour them click-by-click in the middle of the night. And I do find myself retaining far less of the plot, skimming more often, and treating the writing as transparent rather than literary.

In terms of sacred texts, new reading technologies exist in a symbiotic relationship to them, mutually reinforcing each other in the process. The shift from scroll to codex, for example, led to a new form of text that was more portable, more unified, and more amenable to quickly cross-referencing between passages. It’s easier to flip back twenty pages than it is to pull out the scroll and unroll it to the relevant part, after all. ((Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 14.)) Making connections between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels became easier with a codex format, and traveling with a single large codex was easier than a series of scroll cases. Early Christianity and the rise of the codex supported each other. The rise of the printing press is tied to the success of the Protestant Reformation, as printed texts allowed for greater distribution of reform ideas, greater access to scripture, and a new sense that the household should be the locus for spiritual guidance. ((See Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, “Western Christendom Disrupted: Resetting the Stage for the Reformation,” in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1983).)) If reading itself is changing, then religious traditions that place great value on sacred texts are also going to change.

The thing to remember is that we’re not looking at simply a transition from book to eBook or from codex to Kindle. That would be a bit like saying the scroll-codex transition was all about papyrus to parchment: certainly that had an important effect, but it’s far from the only change that resulted. Instead, the move to digital versions of scriptures is a more complex transition. This isn’t a direct port from one file format to another, with some minor stylistic errors, nor is it moving between different languages, with all the risks of meaning shifts through translation.

In fact, it might make more sense to say that the transition is from book to “app.” Accessing the text is fundamentally different for a reader opening a book and a reader clicking on YouVersion’s Holy Bible app, or using the Verse Chooser in Olive Tree Bible+. The first reader sees the whole text, even if she only pays attention to one verse; she carries the physical weight of a pocket Gideon or a heavy NIV Study Bible. The second reader goes straight to a verse without necessarily seeing any of the surrounding chapters in an app that’s “shelved” next to social media tools, personal organizers, and Flappy Bird.

It’s not that the second reader experiences scripture free of context, but that the context changes. Instead of the surrounding chapter, the isolated verse now exists in a context of pictures, maps, commentaries, and alternate translations. What religious practices and perspectives will find a home in these new reading styles – and which ones will struggle? I’d like to offer a few speculations about possible changes in the way we relate to sacred texts.

Speculation 1: Less sense of the unity of the text.

In a way, this speculation is based on an already common reading style: breaking the text apart into small fragments and seeking relevance from a single section or verse. Devotionals and daily verses contribute to this by isolating a small portion of the text. On one hand, this leads to incredible creativity, as a single verse can be plumbed for rich meaning and depth. But it is harder to perceive the “whole story” of texts such as the Bible, for example, as a unified, coherent narrative.

Speculation 2: Increased source-awareness or “citation needed.”

Many readers devote great care to choosing their translations. Discussion about whether something is “biblically accurate” can involve lots of claims and counterclaims that rely on the integrity of the translation, and naming your translation of choice can serve as a statement of politics. YouVersion offers up to forty translations; Glo and Olive Tree start with a basic two and offer more through their in-app stores. Readers can take a rigorous approach to their Bible selections.

Speculation 3: Abandoning source-awareness.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether one likely response to the concern over translation legitimacy will be a radical refusal of source-awareness. The string of possible translations offered by YouVersion can be dizzying, and it’s easy to stop comparing translations and simply go with the “verse of the day.” If anything, these are closer to the informal Buddha Quotes app, which offers a string of unsourced, unattributed sayings of the Buddha.

This isn’t an embrace of reader-centered meaning, in which a text becomes open to infinite interpretations. The multiple translations available aren’t dissolving the text into a bundle of readers’ whims. Instead, they are giving a sense that despite the vagaries of human translations, despite the lack of a single authoritative version, the meaning of the text remains clear.

The text becomes (or remains, depending on your perspective) transcendent, freed from the details of who translated what and how. This is a peculiarly Protestant approach, in which the entire network of human activity around the text (translation, design, coding, packaging, marketing) effectively disappears into the background, leaving only the illusion of a pristine Word.

Changes, Not Replacements

Just as the scroll did not disappear with the rise of the codex, the book isn’t going to disappear either. The number of eBook-only readers in 2013 was very small, around 4%. Despite my late-night binges of eBook mysteries, I’m still doing the vast majority of my research work and pleasure reading in paper form. Most readers will do likewise, shifting between different reading technologies as each suits their needs.

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein asserted that printing technology, through its widespread distribution of sacred texts, contributed to the rise of both higher criticism and dogmatic literalism. Bible apps and new ways of encountering sacred texts provide different pressures on readers, but their effects may be just as strong given time.

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