Chris wakes up, turns on his laptop, downloads the e-verse of the day, then hits a Christian website to read a daily devotional. Later, while visiting his grandmother in the hospital, he wants to encourage her but can’t think of the right passage. So he pulls out his Palm Pilot, enters “suffering” and quickly finds relevant Scripture. At home that evening, he begins to study of the book of Daniel. With the click of a mouse, Chris pulls up 10 translations, along with commentaries, a lexicon and concordance.
Few will argue that online Bible study is convenient. Devices such as Palm Bibles and interactive DVDs make Scripture more accessible than ever. But what are the long-term implications? Is the technological revolution as important to Christianity as Guttenberg?
In the same way that the invention of movable type and the printing press radically increased accessibility to the text of God's Word, the latest tools enhance a person's ability to sort and categorize the text, as well as provide easy access to commentary. If the printing press increased accessibility to the text of the Bible, will technology increase accessibility to the meaning of the Bible? If so, will the impact on culture be comparable?
A nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group in April indicates that while 56 percent of adults attend church services in a typical month, a much larger percentage is exposed to religious information and experiences through various forms of media. According to Barna, one out of every six adults now spends some time visiting faith-oriented websites during a typical month.
“In today's information age, is there any information more important than the eternal Word of God?” asks Dan Pritchett, director of marketing for Logos Bible Software. “News feeds, search engines and real-time stock quotes will all fade to ‘digital dust’ — only the Bible will stand forever. There's no higher use of your computer than Bible study.”
Among youth leaders, says Mikal Keefer, senior editor of Youth Ministry Church Resources at Group Publishing, “technology is serving Bible study both well and poorly. It's never been easier for youth leaders to get information and programming—literally thousands of web sites provide material to spice up a lesson or explain a theological concept. Unfortunately, while some sites are great, content on other sites is actually untrue."
Mark Hunt, vice president and publisher of new media at Zondervan, a leading Bible publisher, lists several benefits of the digital revolution. One is the ability to access a text or easily trace particular word usage immediately. Another is the ability to interact with original languages with ease: “We move beyond decoding the Hebrew and Greek to asking what is the importance or significance of this word or grammatical structure.” Hunt says he suspects the future of Biblical studies will be increasingly online.
“The power of Scripture on society is ultimately an issue of reading, understanding, and obeying,” Hunt adds. “We need to be careful that we don't substitute technology for seeping ourselves in God's Word and listening obediently.”
In his role as director of e-business sales and marketing at Broadman & Holman Publishers, Steve NeSmith agrees that technology has made Biblical text and reference material more accessible than ever. “But how society responds to these new tools is a spiritual question. Technology can’t force a person to study Scripture, only a person's heart can do that.”
Rick Killingsworth, vice president of the Salem Web Network, recalls something he heard last week: “It was called the Law of Technology and it states that new technology's effects are almost always over-estimated in the short term, but under-estimated in the long term. The Web certainly fits into this paradigm. Online devotionals and Bible studies are not a fad. They are an important part of an ever-growing trend.”
While technology such as PDA's and e-Bibles continue to affect our choices, Killingsworth believes traditional Bibles offer portability and substance that other versions don't always replicate effectively. “Folks still like writing notes in the margin – on paper. Perhaps it's old habits, or a question of superior format, but the traditional Bible will be around for a long, long time.”
Mark Hatch, the senior vice president of strategy at Gospel Light and co-author with Barna of Boiling Point, is an Internet professional specializing in e-commerce and futures research. He believes that technology indeed enhances our ability to quickly understand the deeper meaning of Scripture. Having greater access and deeper understanding, says Hatch, “does help drive religious revolution and fervor.”
But, he adds, “I suspect we may be seeing a counter revolution as a result. While Guttenburg wrought the Reformation, the Internet may be enabling a counter-reformation or a bringing together of Christendom. Most Christians are not theologians and the practical living out of being Christ like does not depend much on where your theology sits relative to the major church schisms. As the average Christian begins to easily research the nuances of a denomination on their own, they are becoming less likely to embrace the whole theology of the church they happen to attend.” According to Hatch, technology is helping to create communities that span denominations.
“Is the Internet bigger than Guttenberg? Yes, it is even more fundamental and powerful than print,” Hatch concludes. “But the odds are that Jesus will return before the Bible goes out of print.”