If computer devices are aspects of our material world that people pray over and for and through, what does that say about the boundaries between the sacred and the profane?
A soft glow has long filled reading rooms during devotional time. Instead of a lamp or candle illuminating manuscripts of yore, however, today often finds the manuscripts illuminating themselves.
The numbers of people reading on screens — on computers, tablets, e-readers, phones — is rising. A 2015 survey conducted for the American Bible Society shows that the number of print readers is still high at 93 percent, but “half of all Bible readers say they used the Internet on a computer to read Bible content …, 40 percent searched their smartphone or cell phone to find Bible content or Bible verses, and 35 percent downloaded or used a Bible app on their smartphone.“
Back in 2013, on the 5th anniversary of the App Store coming into existence, the Bible App by YouVersion reached more than 100 million downloads, according to a release.
While new tools may bring new conveniences and resources to a text, the overall beneficial impact of reading on screens is uncertain. Scholars have noted that regardless of the change, fears that paper will disappear from religious reflection are unfounded, and that in many cases paper is still the most effective or preferred source for discernment while reading.
Even so, for many laity and clergy, having the word of God conveniently present, searchable and bolstered with resources is a boon.
Paper or pixels?
The verdict is still out on whether screens will eventually supplant physical pages. Both sides have their adherents, and not just in the past decade.
A 1992 examination of empirical findings on screen versus paper reading, which found the studies to be inconclusive for any broad judgment, noted how each camp had its proponents.
“A book is a book is a book — a reassuring, feel-the-weight, take-your-own-time kind of thing,” one author is cited as saying.
Another scholar, Ted Nelson, states: “The question is not can we do everything on screens, but when will we, how will we and how can we make it great? This is an article of faith — its simple obviousness defies argument.”
Yet even among a new generation, the most digital yet, paper has its pros.
An article titled, “E-Textbooks Usage by Students at Andrews University: a Study of Attitudes, Perceptions, and Behaviors” states “Only 4 percent of the population studied opted to use an e-textbook. The print version is still greatly preferred by college students.”
Another abstract found: “Previous research has demonstrated that the experience of reading e-books is not equivalent to reading textbooks. This study examines factors influencing preference for e-books as well as reported use of e-book content. Although the present student cohort is the most technologically savvy to ever enter universities, students do not prefer e-books over textbooks regardless of their gender, computer use or comfort with computers.”
A 2005 article published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior states that participants in a study did better on paper than “video display terminals.”
“The results show that performance in the VDT presentation condition [were] inferior to that of the paper presentation condition for both consumption and production of information.”
Such studies led to the headline in Wired’s “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be … Paper.”
Digital reading still has its conveniences, what with hyperlinks, low physical footprint and quickly finding words and phrases. However, even Wired cites scholarly articles that find no real difference in how a text is read on paper, computer or e-readers, and that they may in fact help people with dyslexia.
Some say “it’s horrible … but then other people say, [the difference] is not very meaningful at all,” said Kim Garza, assistant professor of graphic design at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
She also noted that students at her university preferred paper on some occasions and that the printers were in constant use with students retrieving online resources.
She suggested that might be because the digital formats of certain PDFs aren’t conducive to taking notes or resizing text. They are “not presented in a way that is truly interactive.”
There are distractions to be found in on-screen notifications, like email alerts, and even the ballyhooed resources linked within texts can distract students as they are lured down trails of research and move away from the original literature.
Spiritual flow in new mediums
Assuming that more and more people, especially up-and-coming generations, migrate to mobile or virtual pages, we may be able to see patterns in past paradigm shifts in reading.
Emily Stewart, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, laid out a possible course in her master’s thesis.
“The pattern operates with a three-part assumption: readers will initially use a new technology to perform the same functions as the old technology, only more quickly, with more efficiency, or in greater quantity. … The second part is that the old technology becomes sacralized or ritualized in the face of the new technology’s standardization. As this standardization occurs, the new technology develops its own unique and innovative functions, exclusive to that form and shedding some or most of the imitative appearance and functions of the old technology — representing the third part of the pattern.”
She notes how moving from the scroll to the pages of books had a similar transition, and points out the religious significance of scrolls in Jewish faith. (A source in the paper also notes how digital scrolling is almost a throwback to the scrolling of old).
Catherine Bell is cited in the paper as writing “the significance of a religious book lies not only in the message of its content, but also in the form and self-presentation with which it makes itself available to worship and transmission.”
There are problems that Orthodox Jews may face in allowing electricity on the Sabbath in conjunction with digital reading, but there is also a dilemma for holding a special place for the sacredness of Scripture.
“If computing machines are deemed sacred — as aspects of our material world that people pray over and for and through — what does this imply for the boundaries between the sacred and the profane?” Brenda Brasher, an online religious researcher is quoted as saying. “This is an especially perplexing dilemma, if we take into account that the computing machine (on which a child prays for God to bestow a blessing) is technically immediate kin to computing systems that monitor nuclear warheads, manage stock exchanges, and run water processing plants.”
Stewart wonders whether a new religion might rise because of the new means of production and dissemination.
“One of the potential uses of these new media is to provide a greater opportunity for the spread of minority or new religions,” she writes. “Looking at Martin Luther’s reformation as an example, it is feasible that technology is often employed by a new religion during a transition. Luther published a myriad of pamphlets in the vernacular language, thereby engendering his anti-hierarchical movement.”
Many Christian denominations embrace most new technologies while keeping to their message, nonetheless.
Even Pope Francis has not only a Twitter account; he has “The Pope App — The Official Pope Francis App,” as it is titled, which is run by the Vatican.
Such apps and resources not only help the faithful, but also advance the Christian message to new arenas and populations. The YouVersion Bible app, for example, is set on a mission to bring the Scriptures to the broadest audience possible.
“This is not a story about an app as much as one about a global mission to share the Bible — from publishers and Bible societies offering 500+ versions of the Bible for free in 300+ languages to the assistance of hundreds of committed volunteers that enable our 20+ staff members to provide world-class customer service for an app at no charge,” Pastor Bobby Gruenewald of LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma and originator of the app, said in a release.
According to the release, a survey of users showed that “Over 77 percent of respondents read the Bible more frequently because they have it on their mobile device that accompanies them virtually everywhere,” and “While the app was most used at home (81 percent) and church (60 percent), it was also used ‘on the go’ (55 percent). Nearly a third used the Bible App at work.”
About 31 million users shared passages using Twitter, Facebook, email and text messaging.
The most shared verses? Isaiah 53:5, Hebrews 4:15 and Matthew 7:7.
Garza noted that the digitization of sacred texts extends to rare manuscripts that would otherwise only be available at certain institutions with a variety of limits.
“It brings access in ways we didn’t have access before,” she said.
Screen reading in practice
“We have a huge digital congregation, faces lit up,” said Russ Tyman, director of ministry for Church Without Walls in Houston. The massive church has six services, and only at one of the three campuses does about half of the congregation use printed Bibles, he said.
Tyman praised the way that certain apps allow for extensive note taking, highlighting Scripture, adding a note and then making the note appear or disappear.
The apps do have the potential for distraction, both for the minister as well as the congregation.
“They look very disengaged because they’re looking at their phones,” Tyman said.
Ministers may not know if members of their flock are following along with the Scripture or refreshing their Instagram feed, and that can dishearten the clergy.
“You hope they’re not just texting,” said Norman Burnes, senior associate pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
Tyman also said that the congregation can get distracted even when they’re trying to be on-point with the message, as in double checking a fact or the attribution of a quote. He said he’ll sometimes remind the congregants to look up the reference later, although it does force him to make sure he is accurate.
On the other hand, the technology in the pews also encourages discussion and engagement on social media.
“It really stimulates discussion,” Tyman said.
Outside the church building, Tyman said he prefers to study with his laptop, with all his commentaries and resources at hand, even though his seminary professor prefers paper.
“For me it’s just a lot easier,” Tyman said. “It’s just a personal preference.”
Burnes said on his own he likes to underline and leave notes in the margin, but out in public it’s easier to carry a phone. And flipping around is harder for sermon prep, he said.
“When reading a book, as you’re reading, you got a feel for where you left off,” said Allen Cumbia, interim director of communications at First Baptist Church of Richmond.
“Sometimes it’s easier to find something thumbing.”
Even so, the conveniences are varied.
“More and more people are using their devices. They’re just handier, easier to carry, easier to find stuff. … It’s convenient, you have multiple translations you can go to quickly. It’s less bulky,” Cumbia said.
Jill Crainshaw, professor of worship and liturgical theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said having myriad resources readily available digitally has been a boon for her as well, and the elderly may even prefer an e-reader to a large Bible just because of the ease of handling the book. The prevalence of projecting liturgy on screens is also helpful in this regard, Crainshaw said.
However, we may be a ways off from having an e-reader sitting on the communion table.
“The Bible itself is a powerful symbol,” she said.
Many people have connections to the physical Bible that they might’ve received during a special occasion like a graduation or a baptism, Crainshaw noted.
“We’re in a hybrid time.”
Connie Lambert, administrative assistant of a small, country church in Sandston, Va., said services average about 65 people on Sunday mornings. She said she uses her phone for Scripture reading, but not everyone does.
“There are people here who aren’t even on the Internet, no email addresses,” Lambert said. “Probably don’t have cellphones. It’s not a widespread thing that is used throughout the congregation. I’m no spring chicken, but I just figured that since I had the dadgum phone, it was easier to carry around than have a book with me.”