Should Pastors (or any of us) Read the Word on an iPad?

Image- Brett Jordan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I have a Bible app on my phone and I love it. I usually use it in the morning to listen to my daily readings as I putter around making coffee and becoming human again. I’ve sat down with a number of my students and helped them download that same app in order to show them how easy it is to read a chapter a day instead of spending those 5 minutes checking some inane Reddit thread that, like sugar with teeth, will eventually rot their souls. (I might have to pay for that one later.)

That said, there are some real misgivings about the way the tech format can shape the way we encounter the Word. Over at the Gospel Coalition Matthew Barrett raises some good questions about  pastors using tech in the pulpit in his thoughtful article “Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church.” Barrett argues that pastors bringing their iPads to the pulpit inadvertently communicates a different message about the Word of God than a plain old leather-bound volume does. iPads, and tablets in general, speaks to us about Netflix, internet, Twitter, Facebook, and a dozen other media apps, seemingly placing the Word of God as one among many options to entertain us. It also might contribute to Biblical illiteracy in the pews, as scrolling down a screen doesn’t encourage familiarity with the text the way that flipping pages does. It’s a medium at odds with the concrete, robustly physical elements of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, as well as a lost opportunity for Christian witness and identification.

Now as a group that has tended to swing from fundamentalistic rejection, to uncritical appropriation of cultural platforms, many Evangelicals might balk at Barrett’s reasons, but I don’t think any of them are to be brushed off quickly. I’m grateful for the pause Barrett’s article gives us. I have wondered about using my phone to read the Bible in church simply because of my own tendency to be distracted off towards other pursuits (like tweeting that great quote, and, oh, that’s an interesting update, let me comment…) What message am I sending to my students by reading from my phone instead of a print Bible? Also, being a hard copy man myself, I find myself sympathetic to aesthetic/liturgical difference between preaching from a hard text than from a screen.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Christians have had the choice of embracing a new medium for encountering the Word of God. Christians were the first to adopt the book, so yeah, you could say we’re book people. We were the first to switch from parchments and scrolls to codexes because they were smaller, easily mobile, sturdier, and easier to reproduce. That made them more widely accessible to churches as well as protected from purges. A similar story can be told about the Protestant embrace of the printing press in the Reformation era.

Actually, you could probably make a Protestant argument along the lines of those made against the icons, that focusing on the physical, printed medium of the text is an improper focus on form of the text, rather than the content of the text. Book types like myself might be tempted to attach more significance to the feel and smell of a page than is theologically warranted. There’s also something to be said about using a Bible app that sits alongside a bunch of other apps on your phone or tablet. It says that the Bible is a part of your real life. It’s not just some religious book, on the religious shelf of your life, to be picked up once a week. It is as much a part of your everyday life as your email and your Facebook accounts. In a sense, it’s the app that speaks to the way you use every other app.

In the end I suspect this is one of those issues of conscience, or rather, prudence, on which we should be careful to pronounce too strongly. Each pastor knows his congregations and their needs. In some places it might be a significant pastoral move to emphasize unplugging and focusing in on a simple printed page. In others, that might not be the issue but integrating the Word within the whole of life. I suspect that the way the Word is preached will have a greater impact on whether their people value and submit to the Word of God written than the print medium it’s being preached off.

About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.

  • James Coder

    Thanks for this post, Derek. It is surprising to me how little Christians in America think of symbolic functions … as in the end, that is how our minds work. It’s plain as day to me why using an iphone to read Scripture during a service is a rather bad idea … but people here do it all the time. Comfy convenience rules.

    I am particularly intrigued by your statement: “Now as a group that has tended to swing from fundamentalistic rejection, to uncritical appropriation of cultural platforms”

    This is resoundingly true. I have been trying to track the history of Evangelical Christians on various fronts, and this is one which is very important. Do you have any insights as to marker points in Evangelical history, showing us symptoms or signs that things are changing? Of what the influence might have been?

    Many blessings,
    James

  • FrMichael J G Pahls

    The whole idea of having a personal copy of the Scriptures translated in the vernacular language at a reasonable cost is only a couple generations old here in the modern West. While Wycliffe translators and others have brought us a long way in making Scripture translations available in the languages of developing countries, the whole personal study Bible thing is still a long ways off globally-speaking. So getting all wound up about the medium is largely a rich white people’s problem.

    This is one of those places where a healthy liturgical footing covers a multitude of Cartesian sins. In the Anglican tradition we have either a pulpit Bible or a book of the Gospels that is set apart for liturgical use. We process it into the service at the beginning and process out into the nave of the church to elevate and read it at the time appointed for the reading of the Gospel. On many occasions we will also venerate the book with incense. In this way we communicate both the importance of God’s Word written and the notion that it is a book of the Church, addressed to the Church.

    This is not to discount the importance of personal Bible reading, of course, but it is to subordinate our personal use of the Bible to the public reading and proclamation of the Scriptures in the Liturgy.

  • John Turner

    I still like my paper-page, massive study Bible, but I also like my computer access to Bible Gateway, Bible Hub, my online study Bible, etc. With the right tablet, I might cross into the portable electronic Bible library realm.

    I do think that the typical smart-phone, while fine for looking up an individual verse or two, has too small a screen for studious reading of a substantive text. But I don’t think that the inspiration of the text is dependent on whether it appears on a parchment scroll, a paper page, an ample touch screen, or a giant wall screen. I am willing to allow different strokes for different folks, including liturgical folks who want to see the Bible carried in as part of the worship service. I never oppose anything that promotes respectful reading/hearing of the inspired text.

    I have a Bible study client who makes excellent use of her tablet to connect to various translations, an exhaustive concordance, and a Hebrew and Greek dictionary. She introduces valuable rapid-fire discoveries into class discussion, such as, “Did you know that the NASB translates the opening of Psalm 46:10 as, “Cease striving, and know that I am God….” rather than, “Be still, and know that I am God….” Since her preferred personal print Bible was an NLT, we would not have received that important discussion-stimulating insight in that session without her tablet.

  • Jason Wall

    i think an over emphasis on the “symbolic” nature of paper would be taking the idea of the “word” to a focus too narrow and not defined in scripture itself. the medium, in this case, is immaterial.

  • Chris Todd

    All of my personal study and preparation is done with electronic media. Many times, though, I will carry a Bible to the pulpit so that people have a visual reinforcement of the authority of the scriptures. In theory this should not be necessary, of course. But let’s not forget that Jesus stood up, opened a scroll, and read from it a passage that he surely knew by heart.

  • James Coder

    I’ve seen the day’s lectionary readings done off an iphone in an ACNA church in a eucharistic service. So much for our presuppositions about Anglicans!

  • FrMichael J G Pahls

    Well I did specify “healthy” liturgical footing.

    I know of a sushi restaurant that advertises the eating of sashimi off naked dudes. One can, of course, do all manner of things that better angels would caution us against. ;-)

    That said, far be it from me to condemn first and inquire later. There’s plenty enough ill-health to go around in the worldwide Anglican communion, but I’m not one to aspire to a purple shirt and mitre, so “vive et vivat”.

  • James Coder

    Well we never eat stuff off of naked dudes in a eucharistic service, I think we deserve some credit for that.

  • FrMichael J G Pahls

    I toiled over that analogy for a few minutes, experimenting with all sorts of bizarre aberrations. Hopefully you caught the good humor. For the record, I wouldn’t commend the Gospel lection from the iPhone as a “best liturgical practices” nominee, but I’m the guy who wore a chasuble when our church plant met in a living room.

  • Rachel Monger

    Most people here in villages of Tanzania don’t have a Bible, but many do have a mobile phone. But by using technology and the availability of Bibles and resources online with phones, we can get the Word of God out … see the work of STEP as explained here http://themongers.blogspot.com

  • James Coder

    oooh … IRONY! You snarky Anglo-Catholic you!

  • Michael Stephens

    I have been preaching from my iPad for almost two years. I generally believe that the church over-values the Bible and misleads people to think that knowing the Bible is the same as or better than knowing God. Two of my pet peeves: 1) Calling the Bible the Word of God when Jesus is clearly God’s Word/Logos. 2) Arguing that “the Bible says…” – The Bible is not an entity that speaks one voice or perspective. It is made up of many voices (probably all male) and perspectives (many misguided) stretched over many generations. For me the purpose of the writings in the Bible (and Jesus for that matter) is to engage us with God’s living Spirit to…

  • DannyEastVillage

    It was bad enough when we abandoned hand-lettered, illuminated manuscripts in favor of the printing press…now THIS!

  • Robert Stutes

    If someone makes this case in terms of what is a good strategy, I find this a potentially interesting discussion.

    If someone makes this case by claiming that we are forfeiting core elements of the gospel by reading from a different physical format, my eyes start to roll back in my head.

    For me, it is much more about strategies. I would be inclined to read from the printed page not because one physical format is “better,” but because I really would not want people going away thinking about the format, which might be more apt to happen by reading off of a pad or phone. PLUS it is a very contextual decision.

    That’s really about it.

  • Barry Bordenkircher

    Interesting, but still going to use my tablet for preaching, esp outside worship; it’s not the medium that matters, but the message


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