By Jeff Brumley
It’s hardly news anymore to see someone in church using a smartphone or tablet, instead of a printed Bible, to follow along in Scripture.
Many pastors have embraced the paper-for-digital swap themselves, often using iPads or tablets to preach from. Here and there, worshipers are being encouraged to share sermon excerpts, music sound bites and video clips in real time on social media.
But the use of a portable, digital device in a ritual setting raised a few eyebrows and made international headlines this summer when Suzi LeVine placed her hand on a Kindle Touch, not a Bible, to be sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.
The U.S. Embassy in London, where the ceremony occurred, tweeted “A very 21st century swearing in,” along with a photo of Levine’s hand placed on the Kindle held by another woman.
Some observers balked at the e-reader/Bible switcheroo, contending it sends the wrong message.
Others took exception to the fact that, instead of displaying Scripture, the screen displayed the U.S. Constitution — specifically a portion of the 19th Amendment declaring Americans cannot be banned from voting based on gender, according to the embassy Tweet.
The level of discomfort and uncertainty on the matter, most agree, is just the latest example of the digital age pushing the boundaries of old media and entrenched behaviors around worship, ceremony and manuscript.
Even those who have expressed caution about the use of Kindles and other electronic devices in swearings-in aren’t going so far as to condemn the development.
Their main concern: That a holy book — or electronic device — be considered for the message it sends to the public.
“Because you are choosing what you are sworn in on, there is a symbolism in that,” said Donald Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Whitney told ABPnews/Herald that he has no issues with the inherent value of Scripture in digital versus printed form. In either case they represent God’s inspired word and the movement of the Holy Spirit, he said.
Whitney added that he reads his Bible in digital more than printed form these days.
“But when a person chooses to be sworn in on something, they choose it because it’s a symbolic statement,” Whitney said. “I understand that President Obama chose Lincoln’s Bible — he was making a statement there versus a Gideon Bible he got out of a hotel somewhere.”
Even if the person chooses to have a Bible open on their Kindle or iPad during a swearing in, it doesn’t communicate the same ritual meaning as a printed version. Plus, those watching would have to assume it’s Scripture being displayed on the screen.
“So you lose a sense of direct communication there,” Whitney said. Whereas “if you see a leather book with ‘Holy Bible’ you presume it’s a Bible only — not the Bible and the Wall Street Journal and a number of other possible publications.”
Whitney said there is nothing magical about using a Bible at a swearing in, and also acknowledged that many politicians may rarely touch a Bible otherwise. But he nevertheless prefers that they do so.
“I am supportive of that even if the people aren’t Bible readers — at least they are recognizing some sense of authority … in the Bible.”
Bible no ‘lucky charm’
Other Baptists see it differently, and even question whether those being sworn in actually know the contents of the Bible their hands are resting upon.
“The Bible contains instructions on how to sell your daughter into slavery, prohibitions of tattoos and shellfish, and calls for witches and those who work on the Sabbath to be executed,” Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, told ABPnews/Herald in an email.
“The best way to honor the Bible is not to treat it like a lucky charm, but to read it and take seriously the God to whom the stories point,” Younger said.
Younger also noted that the Bible may send the wrong kind of symbolic message to some observers.
“Some of the meanest people I know carry the biggest Bibles,” he said.
‘People of the book’
Even so, LeVine’s choice of swearing-in device and text is, not surprisingly, a concern for many Christians, and Baptists in particular.
“There is a Baptistic hang up and an historical hang up here,” said Alan Rudnick, pastor of First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, an American Baptist congregation about 30 miles north of Albany, N.Y.
That hang up, Rudnick said, is having a Christian identity so closely linked to Scripture.
“We have always been called ‘the people of the book’ and part of our distinctive identity is that we use the Bible as the final source.”
The flip side of that identity, he added, is a tendency to become idolatrous in attitude toward the Bible. In those cases Scripture becomes more important than mercy, forgiveness and justice.
“Baptists have always flirted with elevating a book over the authority of God,” Rudnick said.
One result: objections to using a Kindle for a swearing in. And there are some who continue to oppose digital Bibles altogether.
“They get a little upset” because “they revere a book so much that they feel a virtual Bible somehow diminishes God’s word.”
LeVine’s swearing in raises yet more questions because it occurred in the realm of civil religion — a setting where conservatives technically should be nervous about seeing the Bible displayed.
“If you want to be fundamentalist about the text, it says ‘let your yes be yes and your no be no — don’t swear by anything,’” Rudnick said. “If you want to be fundamental about it, swearing in with the Bible is incongruent with a fundamental reading of the Bible.”
But such hiccups will likely pass as Christians become more accustomed to seeing electronic devises used in sacred contexts, Rudnick said. He said he’s used such devices while preaching and is doing so now also during weddings and funerals.
“The important thing here as Christians is not to judge one another to say ‘you can’t use a Kindle’ or that [print] is old school,” he said. “God can use any medium to convey his power and his word.”