Have You Considered Turning the Page?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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….

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There are 10 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm convinced there is something to this.

It's complex though. I suspect that what Nicholas Carr describes above is really the result of being more hurried in his routines. But I do think the digital medium tends to invite that more than the paper book.

On the other hand, when I use Scripture on my phone at church I can definitely delve more deeply into the text that is being preached. I can easily look at the original language along w/the English translation, and cross references appear in overlays with just a touch. So it's possible to read related passages and look at Greek in a second or two... and I'd  have to have a couple of separate volumes and do lots of page-turning to match that with a physical book.

Also against Nicholas Carr's hypothesis: I've been studying the Bible in depth for hours at a time on a screen using Logos for close to twenty years. So... achieving the necessary focus, the digital medium can be just as in depth.

But I agree that some things are remembered far better when I know where they are on a page... and I can often correlate different passages on pages with marginal notes far better.

... and for reasons not entirely clear to me, I preach and teach better when I've taken all that digital work and spent an hour or so going through all the notes w/a physical copy of the Scriptures (and usualy a hard copy of the notes as well).

Long term, my guess is that the majority will abandon paper books, but that there will always be a minority who interact with both--and are better off for it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

BOnken's picture

Like many I have spoken with, I'm intrigued by your observation that "for reasons not entirely clear" you find something better when you preach and teach having the Book open before you. That's a not uncommon observation. I wouldn't argue that there is something "magical" about having the printed page in front of you, but I would suggest that there is more and more research that indicates we actually process information differently when we read a printed page than when we read electronic media. You could be intuitively picking up on that. 

You'd have to read Carr's work to understand that the case he is making is less about being hurried and more about the very way we process and understand what we read. Although I, too, do use language-based Bible study software at times and find it to be a helpful tool, I don't know that we are always aware of how the tools we use shape the way we read--how they may actually alter the manner in which we study.

Early in Carr's book he writes about tools shaping tool-users, drawing on the illustration of a hammer. With a hammer in my hand, I can do things I could not do without it; but as long as I have a hammer in my hand I can only do "hammering" things. (Everything starts looking like a nail!) The tool does shape what I do. Now that is a very simplistic illustration (and Carr does a much more thorough job of working through the illustration that I am doing in this short post), but the idea has merit. When we become accustomed to a tool in our hands we might not even be aware of how the tool itself is changing the way we do things, the way we think, etc. 

Without wanting to sound critical, I wonder about your experience in church with your phone and all it's resources open to you. Yes, you can, during the course of the message, look at multiple cross references, turn to the original languages, follow other "leads." But is such multi-tasking really the most productive way to hear, listen to, and engage in a passage being preached? I'm not opposed to being a "Berean" when listening to a message preached, but the perception that multi-tasking in your listening is a "best practice" might not be valid. 

I know when I am listening to a message, just shifting between my Greek New Testament and my English translation (in printed form) requires a subtle but necessary change in thinking. Greek doesn't "work" the way English does. So I have to attend to the Greek text in a different way. That forces me to be just a little bit less attentive to what is being said as I try to process well what I am reading in the Greek text. To then turn to the English, I am faced with the need to mesh, in my mind, how the English translation works with the Greek text (seeing that Greek word order is, at times, markedly different than English). I am not naive or self-deceived; I know that the mental resources being used to read and understand those texts--my multi-tasking as it were--does steal something away from my attentiveness to the message. So, I do try to read just one text when listening to a message preached and that seems to be a better habit.

I do think we end up at virtually the same place--although many may end up abandoning books in print, some will continue to read the Word in printed form and be better off for it. 

TylerR's picture


I have a screen open right now in Bibleworks 10 with the KJV, the NA28, and NASB in parallel columns. Yet, my Bible is still open on the desk in front of me. For some reason, I don't even refer to the KJV on the screen. I just "have" to have my primary text in physical form, open on the desk.

I also would never want to preach from a screen. I print my sermon notes out. The thought of preaching from a screen horrifies me. I'm not sure why. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

TylerR wrote:
I also would never want to preach from a screen. I print my sermon notes out. The thought of preaching from a screen horrifies me. I'm not sure why. 

Maybe it's because the battery might run out half-way through!  That would certainly motivate one to work through their material more quickly!

In my teaching I've moved to using an iPad for my notes.  The main reason was that the room was a bit dark and my eyes were going bad and it was much easier to see the brightly lit words on the iPad than on a piece of paper.  Plus, I could easily zoom in if I needed the font to be larger.I like the format quite a bit now.  Almost all of my SS lessons are now stored on my iPad and it makes for a great ready reference for any of the books/passages/topics that I've worked through in the past.  I just make sure it's fully charged before I begin...:)


Bert Perry's picture

Shouldn't we really go back to scrolls, or better yet to oral recitation?  :^)

Yes, I'm being facetious, but there is a real danger in failing to realize the benefits and risks of a medium.  When reading books on the tablet or PC, the plus is I can get a TON of references I could never afford to have on my shelves for free or a very nominal cost--a lot of the best ones are no longer protected by copyright.  The minus is that it's harder to flip back to the previous page, or back 100 pages, as you can with a physical book.  

And it strikes me, also on the facetious side,but being serious too, that given our culture's high rates of illiteracy (absolute or functional), we probably could do worse than to have significant times in church services where the Scripture is read to the congregation.  It might be pretty beneficial for the literate among us to hear longer passages read and get out of the habit of simply "prooftexting" everything.  There's a place for proof texts, but there is a lot that we're interested in that needs deeper analysis.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture


In large part, I think any controversy over this position will result from what works for each one of us.

I have found for reading (like reading a typical non-fiction or fiction book), e-format works as well for me as does a paper book, better in most respects.  Like Andy, my eyes aren't what they used to be, both for focus and for light.  I just borrowed a copy of Bauder's "Baptist Distinctives" to check out, since it's not available in e-format.  Even under normal room light it was hard to get a good angle for reading without constantly shifting the book around.  In addition, it's cheaply paperback bound, so getting it flat enough to have a good angle to read is not that easy when holding with one hand, and you can't set it on the table without it closing up.  None of those issues apply to my phone or tablet, and they have the additional advantage of being able to adjust the brightness, color, and size of text to suit my eyes.

As far as study goes, paper format is not nearly as easily searchable.  You rightly note that maybe we won't retain the information as well if we don't have to tediously search by scanning pages, but I still give the advantage to the ability to look things up quickly.  Plus, while multitasking always takes away from the primary task, I strongly disagree that using Strong's or reference material or maps on an electronic device while listening is any more distracting than trying to write down notes.  My wife takes copious notes on each sermon, but often has to ask me about a point or scripture reference she missed.  And consulting other translations, especially German in my case, gives me a better overall sense of the what the verse means, not just the English, which can often vary greatly between the ESV and the KJV, which is what I generally use in church.  Seeing how the Bible was translated in other languages, which also read quite different from English, gives me additional insight.

In photography, they often say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and I think that's true for the Bible as well.  My phone is always with with me, and a large Bible usually isn't.  I could take a small one, but that would be much more illegible given the small text that is used on one of those, and I would still not have the ability to search for something I know is there but can't find quickly.

Finally, as to your point about something you possess, like many readers, my bookshelves are already overflowing, stacked and overstacked with books.  Frankly, I don't really have any room for more.  Being able to buy hundreds of volumes and to carry them with me for reading or reference is much more useful than just having something physical  I can hold in my hands.  I make an exception for certain old books (I have a really old and ornate pulpit Bible) and books with autographs, and I even purchased one of the 400-year anniversary reprints of the 1st-edition KJV, but outside of those types of books, I have no intention of getting more books in paper format.

My younger daughter, however, is like you.  She likes holding a book, and she thinks she retains more of it.  I think that's great if it works well for her.

Dave Barnhart

Greg Linscott's picture

...have similar pieces been unearthed that lamented the onset of printed media and sang the praises of the handwritten page? Biggrin

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

BOnken's picture

It is clear from these responses that there are preferences. No denying that. I would not disparage any attempt by anyone in using any media available to dig into the text of Scripture. My post was an attempt to raise the question of whether we are cognizant of the changes that are happening in our reading because of the tools we use in reading. I have seen little that addresses this from a "Bible readers'" perspective, while I continue to see books and studies that suggest there is a difference in broader literature related to reading. 

To explore this matter I would recommend Carr's book as a start. My brief citation did not do justice to the weight of his thought. Although he does not directly address Bible reading, his observations (backed by research studies) suggest that readers may not even be aware of how their reading is changed by the tools they use. Naomi Barron's work (also cited), Words Onscreen, is no ludite diatribe, merely dismissive of all texts electronic. But Barron does argue cogently for the need to recognize the loss of what she calls "deep reading" through adoption of new media for reading. 

I'm glad for the conversation that points us all to the value of reading Scripture! 

M. Osborne's picture

Plato's myth re: Thamus has thoughts on what happens when writing replaces orality. (See the first few paragraphs here: https://modernplatonist.wordpress.com/tag/thoth/.)

Neil Postman relates the story near the beginning of Technopoly. Postman probably would have been very interested in Ferris Jabr's article.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture


Brian, I'm just catching up but thanks so much for your thoughtful response up here... as well as others.

The hammer illustration is helpful. And I'm quite convinced that the tools we use change what we actually do. Add to that the limits of time and energy and you realize that the tools not only expand what we can and will do, but they also result in our not doing other things.

So in this age of rapid tech/tool changes, we probably can't emphasize enough the need to be alert to how our tools are changing what we do--and the importance of being willing to set aside a cool tool because we really need to spend more time doing something not cool.


Michael, nice link. Very interesting perspective.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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