However - I have a confession to make. It may not be popular (we tend to be rather precious about this subject) but it needs to be said. We've so far assumed our current strategy to be correct. There's been very little debate or discussion - maybe in academic contexts but certainly not 'on the ground'. And whilst I don't want to trample on people's preferences, I must admit: I'm not convinced of digital Bibles. I think they're inferior to physical versions and I don't believe fellowships should be dependent on or overly permissive of them. I certainly don't think they should be your first port of call when reading the Bible.
No, not because they're 'of the devil'. Nor because they demonstrate a 'lack of faith' in God to communicate the Word. Neither am I unconvinced because they threaten the old way of doing things. And it's certainly not a generational thing, because, you know... toilet phone times, re: above.
I'm exactly the sort of person who should love digital Bibles.
But I don't.
Read on :)
But First - They're Not 'Bad'.
Over at The Long Defeat twitter page we did a very small and unscientific survey of people's opinions concerning the use of digital bibles. Surprisingly, many seemed to share my scepticism, but one user in particular highlighted something far too easily forgotten:
Whatever criticism we might make of digital Bibles, it must derive from this place of gratitude and thankfulness. The people of God stand to benefit from this common grace - various corporations and individuals and businesses have designed, produced and distributed smartphones, tablets, computers etc. Designers have been blessed with the gift of creativity resulting in the sale of a diverse number of Bible apps and websites. Of course, we shouldn't be blind to the fact that this has sometimes come at an insufferable cost. Indeed, Christians can occasionally be naïve to this reality as they tap tap away. And so we should both be thankful and offended by this gift. It stands to benefit as well as scandalise us. I suppose that's just the nature of this world being subjected to futility.
But They're Also Not Enough.
The situation with digital versions of the Bible is much the same. They're helpful. They can provide us with additional insights. We should be thankful for them. But they're not enough. They're missing something physical texts possess intrinsically and they usually disadvantage those who wish to interpret / meditate on the Scriptures.
We desperately need to have a conservation about this. However, as intimated above, people can get strangely precious about digital Bibles. (Just as some do about the use of technology in Church, the use of humour in preaching, so-called 'seeker sensitive' strategies etc.) Even when discussions are had about the subject there's too often a reliance on base pragmatism: "It works therefore it's good". This is certainly not a Biblical worldview. The pragmatic thing to do would be to avoid topics such as 'sin' or 'repentance', and yet Jesus commanded us to preach exactly this. The pragmatic thing to do would be to say whatever people want us to say so as to maximise our 'relevance', and yet our consciences are bound to the full counsel of God. And so on and so forth. Let's face it: the fact that digital Bibles 'work' is an impoverished and insufficient way of arguing for their continued use.
The problem here is that we're practically sleepwalking into a future of digital dependency. And this is totally unchartered territory folks. We've been using this technology for a maximum of 20 years, broadly defined. We have no idea what being dependent on digital versions of the Scriptures does to Biblical literacy. We're utterly in the dark with respect to the impact on proper intepretation or doctrinal fidelity. And although I think we're beginning to see the real effects of digital dependence, we're still not sure whether we'll ultimately see concentration levels diminish as the younger generation matures and whether the faithful preaching of the Word will thereby take a hit.
There are problems with digital Bibles.
And we need to talk about it.
 Digital Bibles are Distracting.
The same thing is true of digital Bibles, which are very often both intrinsically as well as extrinsically distracting. There's literally nothing stopping you viewing Everything Else In The World (Ever). The sirens of Facebook and Twitter call out to us and it's oh-so-tempting to check those work emails. They are, after all, just a double-tap away. Even worse, the digital Bible too often proves itself to be a distraction. All sorts of concordances and translations and lexicons tempt you from the side-menu, all vying for your attention.
The result? We find ourselves 'kidnapped', mentally. Taken away from the Body. From our kids and our spouse. From a Church family who loves us. From worship, as well as the sermon. (No biggie, just God talking through His word. You know. Totes normal.) Don't get me wrong: physical Bibles can serve this function too. I have in the past used my Bible as a way of 'escaping' from the service. That's definitely something to keep in mind.
 Digital Bibles Are Accidental.
... Anyone? No?
Hm. That's odd.
Ok, let's try this: how many of you bought your smartphone/tablet (etc) and then decided to download & use a digital version of the Bible?
Yes, that's more like it. Digital Bibles are an accident. All of your energy and excitement and investment went into your device. You looked forward to it and played with it, bought a cover for it and insured it. Then one day you thought to yourself: "I should like to get a Bible on this, that'd be handy". Contrast that with your physical Bible. Perhaps it was bought for you. Maybe you purchased it yourself. Either way, your ownership of it is very likely deliberate and as such you actually care about it. It means something to you, so much so that you'd likely be unhappy were you to lose it.
What's my point? Simply this: Psychology Determines Use.
Your digital Bible is not that important to you. At best, its existence is incidental. Circumstantial. Accidental. You like it, but you don't care for it. It's just 'there'.
Your physical Bible - on the other hand - is incredibly important to you. You own it entirely deliberately and with purpose. You cherish it.
Because it's an accident: you don't feast on your digital Bible, and you never will.
Because it's purposeful: you're far more likely to feast on a physical Bible, and that will always be the case.
 Digital Bibles Are Slippery.
For the rest of us, however, I'd argue that physical Bibles are far superior for memorisation and meditation.
When using a digital Bible you have a very small selection in front of you. If, like most people, you're using a smartphone, then you might enjoy a presentation of 6-8 lines. This will marginally increase with a tablet and a little bit more if you happen to use a desktop computer. With a physical Bible, however, you literally have the entire Bible before you in one glance. You can straddle numerous pages or passages at once. "Aha!" - you might protest - "you can zip back + forth in a digital version too". Yes, but not as quickly. And what's more, even if you could navigate a digital Bible with lightning agility, it'd still be inferior.
Why? Because memorisation & meditation is primarily facilitated by a sense of place - or 'scriptural geography', if you prefer.
With a physical Bible you can physically gauge the distance between books. You can literally see (and therefore later envision) chapter progression. (Which itself helps one to comprehend the argument or narrative.) When I was younger my mum taught me how to find the Psalms super-quick, by placing my thumb roughly in the middle of a Bible. This is obviously impossible with digital versions. They're lacking that tactile-visual quality that so helps you get to grips with the 'flow' and geography of the Scriptures.
[Update: please see the addendum at the bottom of this post for reports of two studies that would ostensibly support the points made here.]
 Digital Bibles Are Trippy.
The younger generations are typically described as 'digital natives' - that is to say, we've been raised with all this fancy technology. We understand it almost instinctively. We just know how it all works. This renders us tremendously capable when it comes to technology, but also sometimes oblivious as to etiquette and courtesy. For what it's worth, it took a public argument with a pensioner for me to see this properly... It was during an inaugural lecture by Richard Bauckham. For the vast majority of people my age it's reasonably acceptable to leave your phone on silent-vibrate. The older man next to me, however, did not agree. When my phone eventually rang he saw this as incredibly rude, resulting in a bit of a barney. It all got sorted out, thankfully - but it demonstrated, very clearly, that digital natives are not always cognisant of the problems caused by their innate digital familiarity.
Now imagine you're in Church. You're on your smartphone, perusing the Bible of your choice. For you - and all those of a similar age - there's nothing objectionable about this situation. For those of an older age, however, there's a very real possibility of offence - perhaps because they interpret what you're doing as inappropriate, or because they regard it as frivolous and disrespectful, or simply because they find it distracting.
You might be thinking: "So what? I'm not doing anything wrong, they should just get over it!" And in an ideal world you might be right. But we're not living in an ideal world. Whilst it would be wonderful to hold a public disputation about the use of technology in Church, we all know that's not going to happen, and we're therefore left with this gulf of understanding. What's more, the Scriptures are remarkably clear about this kind of situation. We're told to give up + give way for the sake of our weaker brothers & sisters, so that they don't trip over or stumble. Why? Because we love them. Because we don't think of ourselves but instead long to serve one another, just like Jesus.
If there's even a chance that this kind of situation exists, we - the younger - might wish to consider exchanging our digital Bibles for physical copies, even if just for a time.
 Digital Bibles Are Untested.
Sure, we've seen plenty of Biblical translations before. We've seen Bibles published in all sorts of strange ways. But a Bible stored and displayed digitally? That's entirely novel. Does this make digital versions bad? Not really. Physical Bibles are also relatively anomalous, after all. Broadly speaking the ordinary Christian has only had a private copy of the Scriptures in their possession for a handful of centuries. Before then the Biblical message was largely spoken - but, from a physical copy. And that's the point. Digital Bibles are new territory - neither oral nor physical. They possess a transience heretofore unseen.
This isn't a reason to abandon digital versions of the Bible, of course. But it is a reason to be cautious, and to consider, if just for a moment, how digitalising the Scriptures might possibly affect our understanding of them. For example...
 Digital Bibles Are A Symptom.
But Nathan! - you'll say - digital Bibles are everywhere now and it's easier than ever to get your hands on the Scriptures!
True. But possession's not enough. Digital Bibles literally - physically - force you to flip. Your finger slides up and down along the screen of your device. You're constantly skimming; that's fundamental to a digital Bible's design.
In that regard, digital versions of the Bible inhibit sound exegesis of the Scriptures. They prevent you from seeing the whole page. They make it difficult to consider the wider context, and it's practically impossible to visualise the argument / narrative in question. Instead, you're constantly flipping and skimming your way through the Scriptures. Again, this is the non-negotiable reality of using a digital Bible. I'm not saying that it's impossible to soundly exegete a digitally presented passage of Scripture. And I'm also not concerned with one using digital versions to supplement one's study.
I'm just pointing out that digital Bibles - in the very manner in which you use them - are a symptom of a wider problem. We're so rarely interested in considered, patient exegesis. We're so rushed off our feet (or at least we think we are) that we can't sit down for a prolonged period of time with the Scriptures. So instead we whip out our iPhone, and we just... skim. We flick. And then we're finished.
Proper study is forgotten in favour of the fleeting flick of one's finger.
And why not? That's what digital Bibles encourage.
What Has Corinth To do With California?
I'm merely trying to start a conversation that so few of us seem willing to have.
I'm trying to point out that there are problems with digitalising our approach to the Scriptures, and no, it's got nothing to do with being stuck in the stone-age.
I'm trying to highlight the fact that digital Bibles are, in their very design, unhelpful when compared with their physical counterparts.
In that regard, I'm suggesting that digital Bibles are indeed inferior to physical Bibles.
We cannot afford to depend on them. As pastors and preachers and leaders, we should 'example' to the flock that the Scriptures are important, and we should do so - partly - by demonstrating proper use. The Bible is not an app to flick around with and then forget. Nor is it like a Wi-Fi connection, dropping in and out of our range of interest. It is the Word of Life - worth feasting on and savouring.
And I say all that as a 28 year old man who loves his gadgets.
[UPDATE] - Some Time later, Has Anything Changed?
A little bit of time has passed since this article was originally published and I have just a few observations to make, if you're interested.
- I apparently need to make this even more abundantly clear: I do not think digital Bibles are bad. If I could I'd put this in giant red pulsating letters I would. Oh wait, I can. (Cheers Cool Text.) Forgive me for the facetiousness but in this case it's necessary. Despite making it as clear as I can - going so far as dedicating an entire section of the article to this point - it still appears some are tempted to dismiss this as an old man's fiery denunciation of new tech. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, this is about what we might term a 'spectrum of utility' - digital Bibles are helpful, but they also have significant flaws, such that physical copies remain the superior format.
- Whilst we're on the subject: no, physical mediums are not perfect. Indeed I say as much in points #1+5. There are valid criticisms to be made of physical Bibles, not least the fact they too were historically anomalous at one point. As others have pointed out, many of the criticisms aimed here at digital bibles might also be pointed out physical formats. To which I'd say: yes. Not the majority of them, and not to the same degree, but yes.
- Others have argued that it's unreasonable (one person even used the word 'ungodly'!?) to assert my own personal preferences as fact, to declare one format literally superior over another. Well, first, again, my preference (as I make clear above) is to employ both formats (albeit with priority given to physical versions). And second, one must really protest to a form of absurdism that would see pros + cons go completely out the window. We can, and indeed we must insist on 'better and worse'. For sure, there will inevitably be a minority for whom digital formats are just going to be better, for whom all the disadvantages outlined above aren't applicable. Great for them. But the rest of us are still required to identify when dependency on one format might be superior or inferior.
- Many have gotten in touch to report that they have enjoyed a hugely positive experience with digital Bibles. This is genuinely fantastic news. I mean that most sincerely; praise God for His kindness in revealing the Word to us. However, one individual's experience can't undo the broadly accurate generalisations proffered above, just as these accurate generalisations should never undermine an individual's experience.
- I would also implore a minority of readers to please be charitable and diligent in one's reading of this post. Some, for example, have suggested counterpoints that are clearly addressed in the original piece, whereas others have (for example) argued that I'm arguing against digital Bibles on the basis of blind traditionalism. The former is just mildly irritating and occasionally exasperating, whereas the latter is practically dishonest. One might not agree with what I have to say here but it won't do to dismiss it out of hand on the basis of an obvious falsehood. One might even believe that despite these protestations, my points are in fact based on tradition (for whatever reason). That's fine - but one must actually make the case.
- Some objected to the fact that I supplied no supporting evidence for my being suspicious of digital Bibles. I'd hope you can understand that in writing a post like this brevity is a priority. However, it's worth highlighting here two studies - one reported in The Scientific American, the other in The Guardian - that would seem to buttress the points made in this post.
- Finally, some have taken exception to the following line: "I don't believe fellowships should be dependent on or overly permissive of them". It has been said that I'm here advocating some "authoritarian nonsense". Please observe that there's a difference between the word 'permissive', and 'permitted'. I was not suggesting that Churches permit one version but prohibit another. I was clearly discussing the notion of dependency. If a congregation is overly-dependent (i.e. permissive) on digital Bibles then this would indeed give me cause for concern. Banning the medium outright, however, was not in my purview.
Apologies if this addendum feels excessively lengthy - but it's good to give further attention to this issue, seeing as it's so clearly important to many. All the very best readers! :)