Is the Smartphone Bible App the Same as the Bible?

By Sergio da Silva on December 11, 2018

Editor's Note: On this blog we feature staff, faculty and students from GRTS, as well as the broader Cornerstone University community. Today's post comes from Dr. Sérgio da Silva, associate professor of psychology, and offers some insightful questions from the lens of psychology about how we engage with Scripture.

“Today we will read from first Corinthians, chapter 13…” As the preacher starts the message, people reach for their phones and start tapping and sliding their fingers through the small, lit screens nested in their palms. Before smartphones became the norm, this ritual would have involved the widespread sound of flipping pages from thick, black books throughout the congregation.

The contemporary church tacitly assumes that there is no difference between the two scenarios. It makes no difference if one reads God's Word from a paper book or from a screen. We assume that what counts is the content, and the medium is irrelevant.

Could this assumption be mistaken?

Human minds are very sensitive to symbols. We communicate our ideas through them, such as by letters and words. We also use symbolic gestures, sounds and movements to convey messages. Therefore, messages are not only objective words. For example, depending on one's facial expression and voice intonation, the words "yea, right" may communicate such opposing responses as agreement or skepticism. Additionally, the context in which words are embedded may communicate very different messages. For example, the slogan "the best of life" will mean one thing in an advertisement for whisky and another on a church sign.

Indeed the content of God's Word can be printed in any surface, without objective changes in meaning. However, the experience of reading is shaped by a combination of textual meaning, linguistic style, the meanings attached to medium, personal dispositions, attention, memory processes and the reader's environment. If these statements are true, then reading God's Word from a paper book is not the same experience as reading it from a smartphone app.

The smartphone is a phenomenal device that revolutionized the world at the turn of the 21st century. It is a handheld computer created to bring the world of the internet and numerous electronic applications to each person individually. The smartphone is useful to exchange small portions of information in a very short period. It offers an unprecedented ability to consult a virtually unlimited well of information instantaneously. In addition, the smartphone may be used as a telephone!

This astonishing and flexible resource, however, comes with a price. Smartphone use is constantly plagued by disruptions, such as drained batteries, signal interruptions, software failures, updates and rapid obsolescence of apps and devices. The permanent availability of our smartphones make them prone to interfere with important life activities, as when phones ring during worship services, students game during lectures and people text while driving. People can be distracted by their phones even by expecting or imagining latent calls and notifications. Additionally, the smartphone requires that we receive our information in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion. Only a small portion of a text appears at a time, and the user can pull up unrelated content on a whim, in rapid succession, all to be viewed on the same little screen.

Perhaps even more serious is the questionable quality and validity of the information obtained from the internet. The unfiltered nature of the internet may open a door to all kinds of incorrect or even malicious content, creating a serious uncertainty about the information obtained through this medium. The bulk of content flashed on smartphone screens is laced with explicit or implicit advertisements, causing disruptions and fueling consumerism. Searches conducted without filters may easily display destructive content, such as racism and pornography. Additionally, the exaggerated use of smartphones can produce or exacerbate a number of psychosocial disorders, such as behavioral addiction, social withdrawal, attention deficits, mood disorders and memory disuse.

None of the problems presented above exist when someone reads a text from an old-fashioned paper book. Unlike smartphones, each physical book is limited to its own content. When reading a sentence from a paper book, the reader is exposed to the immediate contexts that come before and after the sentence. A book offers visual and physical cues about how far into the volume a particular section is located. If desired, the reader may jump instantaneously to any point in the volume or may compare two or more locations with ease. Books do not shut off due to low battery, do not require updates (except newer editions of textbooks, etc.) and do not surprise the reader with popups from advertisers or worse.

Beyond these reasons, however, there may be theological and spiritual considerations that further strengthen this conclusion. The word "Bible" means "books." Christian Bibliology defines the Bible as a canonic collection of divine God-breathed revelations, organized as individual books, which make up a whole, which is the Book, the Word of God. From the "book of generations" (Genesis 5:1) to the "book of this prophecy" (Revelation 22:19), God's Word indwells this collection of books. The embodied experience of reading from a Bible book entails a certain attitude toward this particular Book. Through the centuries, believers have taken the posture of cracking open their Bible scrolls, parchments or paper books to receive God's revelation. This posture has a spiritual significance, communicating an attitude of receptivity, submission, reverence, listening and connected intimacy with God. Therefore, this paper Book is an icon that elicits emotional engagement, informs the mind, captures the imagination and fires the spirit.

Because of these considerations, I suggest that the reading of the Word of God from a paper Bible book is a superior, mental and spiritual experience to reading the same Word from a smartphone app.

However, this calls for two words of caution. First, and most important, respect for the Book should not be confused with bibliolatry. The paper Bible is not God, and is not to be worshiped. In the same way that a patient should not thank a scalpel for a surgery that a surgeon performed, the church should not worship the book that God uses as the vehicle of His special Revelation. The paper Bible book is an instrument of embodied engagement with the divine Message, but it is not itself an object worthy of veneration. Second, recognizing the limitations and dangers associated with the use of smartphones does not call for a necessary, radical repudiation of this technology altogether. It is possible to redeem it. Instead of allowing the programs of the smartphone to control us, we can control them by utilizing them wisely. Indeed, the smartphone and other electronic machines may be useful instruments for tasks such as word searches, consultations, time management and healthy and appropriate communication. The proverbial "throwing away the baby with the bathwater" is hardly the right answer.

Personally, I do use applications on my smart phone for quick and superficial functions. However, for my spiritual reading as well as my Bible study, I choose to use a paper Bible. I believe that this helps me to focus on God's Word more deeply, both in my devotional life, and in the congregational partaking of the Kerygma, the preaching of the Word of God, the Bible.

Categories: Culture, Discipleship