We met, as we had often done. But this time it was different. He brought his Bible. I asked him what had changed. He explained.
I realized something as we’ve been meeting over the past months. You would share a passage of Scripture, turn to it, we’d read it, and discuss it. I found myself wanting to share some idea that I thought was found in Scripture. But rather than recalling the passage, I found myself pulling out my laptop, opening up my Bible app, and searching for something I vaguely recalled. And I realized I hadn’t been reading Scripture.
I know—that’s just anecdotal. No serious qualitative analysis; just an exchange between two brothers. But what my friend shared has come up in other conversations. Christians are “reading” the Bible in ways other than in a printed book, and it seems that it might be changing how we read.
Now before these thoughts get dismissed without a hearing, this isn’t a rant against all electronic media. There is a place for Bible apps and Scripture search software; electronic books can serve a purpose. But it’s worth asking whether ready access to the Bible in other-than-printed form might be having an impact on how we read Scripture.
How the media we read might change the way we read was addressed by Ferris Jabr in the April 2013 issue of “Scientific American.”
How does the technology we use to read change the way we read?… As digital texts become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? 1
Citing various studies and literacy experts, Jabr suggests that everything from comprehension to retention and memory of what we read might be hindered—even if to just a small degree—by abandoning printed texts for electronic alternatives.
Nicholas Carr has written on the subtle changes he became aware of in his reading. He reflected on the impact of his use of electronic media.
My mind is changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turn of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through those long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift… . The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle… . Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.2
Beyond the struggle to read well and deeply that Carr mentioned, I have noticed something else. Friends who read the printed text appear to have a heightened sense of comprehension of what they have read and a better recall of where they read what they did read.
A study on readers’ comprehension3 indicated that recall of the substance of what is read is linked to a recollection of where, on the page, something is found. The implications for e-reading are clear. Even with a scroll bar on the screen, an e-reader cannot provide the same spatial helps found in a book; the tactical and tangible markers for where an idea is encountered while reading (on a certain page, in a particular portion of the page, so far into the book).
For me, there are other benefits of having the Bible open before me as I read. First, there is the sense of permanence that comes with the text in my hand. Although one might think this is not much different than with an e-book, “updates” can’t happen to my print copy—the words are locked into the pages. Each time I open the book the same words will be on the same page in the same place.
Also, when I am seeking to read well, to read deeply, I read with a pencil in hand. I underline; I write questions in the margins. I circle words and draw connections on the page. In that way, I get more involved, more personal, with the text. Again, although one might find ways to do similar things with an e-book, the facility and transparency of doing it with a printed book and a pencil in hand (yes, I write in my Bible!) enhances the reading.
There are times when I am just reading Scripture in a “glancing way,” trying to find a familiar passage or hoping to find something to pass on to a friend. But my heart’s desire is to read God’s Word in a deep, reflective, engaged way. And I find that I do that kind of reading best when I have the Book in hand.
I agree with Naomi Barron: “Portable digital devices coax us to skim rather than read in depth, search rather than traverse continuous prose … . Digital reading is fine for many short pieces or light content we don’t intend to analyze or reread.”4
So, have you considered turning the page? If you do most of your Bible reading on an e-reader, try going back to “old school” and pick up a good translation. And, with that copy in hand:
- Take your Bible with you to church. Become familiar with how the Book “works”—where particular books of the Bible come in the Bible. (Another downside to an e-reader that takes you to the selected book without helping you feel where it is in the Bible.) Learn the landscape of the Bible as you are reading and as you listen to the preaching; your understanding of the bigger story of the Bible will be enhanced.
- Keep your Bible close at hand so when you do want to read you can readily pick it up. Live with the Book; live in the pages. Underline, highlight, circle and connect; interact with the words on the page in whatever way helps you.
- Reserve your e-reading for a simple search for a passage or word you can’t recall (but don’t be afraid of then turning to the printed book to read well that passage in context) or when you are out-and-about and have a few minutes that you’d like to spend in the Word of God and don’t have your print Bible with you.
Michael Dirda, book critic for the Washington Post, commented on the difference between e-readers and printed books:
E-books resemble motel rooms—bland and efficient. Books are home—real, physical things you can love and cherish and make your own, till death do you part. Or till you run out of shelf space.5
So, as lovers of God and lovers of His Word, let’s find ourselves at home in the Bible!
1 Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Scientific American, 4/11/2013; www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens.
2 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 6–7.
3 Ernst Rothkopf, “Incidental Memory for Location of Information in Text,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 10:6 (1971), 608–613.
4 Naomi Barron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 13, 12.
5 Todd Kilman, ”Washington is a Terrific Place if You’re a Serious Reader: An Interview with Book Reviewer Michael Dirda;” The Washingtonian, 1/12/2012; www.washintonian.com/articles/people/washington-is-a-terrific-place-if-y….
Brian Onken serves as the Executive Director and an instructor for The River. He as an MA in Biblical Studies from Talbot Seminary and MA in Theology from Regent University. He has pastored in both large and small churches and has served in leadership roles in two church plants, as well as a lead researcher/teacher for the Christian Research Institute and for Walk Thru the Bible. Married for over thirty years, Brian has two grown kids.