Is the debate between a paper or digital Bible merely a preference? Is there a proper way to honor a paper Bible? Does the format matter?
People of the Book
To honor their Christian brothers and sisters, Muslims call followers of Jesus “people of the book.” This is a respectful title for those who follow God as interpreted through the Scriptures. But many Christians turn the Bible into an idol. I have known Christians to so honor the physical book that its meaning takes second place.
Bibles for Display
As a young pastor, it made me smile whenever I visited families within my congregation who had Bibles as coffee table display pieces. You could tell by the arrangement (and by the layer of dust) that nobody opened them. Ginormous family Bibles served a purpose in the olden days when there was only one Bible in the household. They had to be large, with big print so that Grandma could read them. Family Bibles needed pictures so the children could understand. They needed pages for recording, births, deaths, weddings, and other family events. But those days are past. Bibles are so accessible that I estimate I have a dozen of them in my home.
Honoring the Bible
Once, because they were rare, folks had to handle Bibles with care and treated them with special devotion. For example, people considered it a sacrilege to sit another book on top of the Bible—as if you were giving that other book priority over the Good Book. Some people believe it dishonors the Bible to underline, highlight, and put notes in the margin. Others believe it shows devotion to do so. For many, the book itself with its pages and ink is sacred.
When the Word Gets Waterlogged
Back in the day when I used to carry a Gideon Bible in my pocket, I took my youth group to an amusement park. After getting off a water ride, my New Testament was completely soaked. In my mind, the damage was irreparable. So, I chucked it in the nearest trashcan. Aghast, one of the teenagers fished the Bible out, took it home, gave it the blow dryer treatment, and returned it to me the next Sunday. Sure, the well-meaning teen got the pages completely dry, but they also turned out so wrinkled and stuck together that the book was no longer functional. “Never throw away a Bible,” he scolded. I simply thanked him and took it back. It went in my trashcan as soon as I got home.
Digital vs. Paper Bibles
For many people, the book itself has a special meaning. I’m not talking about the contents, but the binding, paper, and ink. In seminary, Dr. Dan Bagby cautioned us against the use Of digital Bibles when making hospital visits or preaching. People need to see the physical Bible, he said. There’s nothing inherently more spiritual about the physical Bible, but it just doesn’t seem right to use a digital Bible at solemn occasions. When people’s lives are in upheaval, the last thing they want to see is the way technology has changed people’s access to scripture. What they want is constancy. In addition, especially for clergy who don’t wear vestments, carrying a physical Bible is a symbol of your office. For this reason, it can be helpful to carry a nice leatherbound tome with you.
Of course, not everyone feels so strongly about the physical Bible – but there’s no reason to upset those who do. I took his words to heart. While I used a digital bible for my sermon prep, with its scores of translations and assortment of commentaries, by the time I got to the pulpit I had only my goatskin Bible to read from. That made people happy—mostly.
At one church, it wasn’t enough to simply read from the paper Bible. I got multiple complaints that my sermons were “unbiblical.”
“What do you mean, they’re not biblical?” I asked. “Everything I preach on is from the Bible. I take great care, researching the scriptures and making sure that my messages are faithful to the text. How can you say they’re not biblical?
“What we mean,” they explained, “is that when you finish reading the Bible passage, you close the book. You set it aside to preach from your notes, without ever picking the Bible up again.”
For them, what made the sermon biblical was not the content. It was the physical act of having the paper Bible opened on the pulpit. Of course, the open Bible took up so much space and there wasn’t room for notes on the small pulpit. That’s the reason I closed it and set it aside. Yet, while I disagreed with their point, I saw no reason to make this a hill to die on. So, I got a wide-margin Bible with plenty of room for notes. In my preparation time, I wrote my sermons out word-for-word. Then, I took my manuscript and reduced it to handwritten bullet points in the margins of the Bible. By the time I got up to preach, all I carried with me to the pulpit was that leatherbound Bible. Far as anyone could see, I was preaching without notes. My church members smiled, reassured that their pastor had become more spiritual, and was now preaching biblical sermons.
Which is Better—A Paper Bible or Digital?
Which is Better—A Paper Bible or Digital? It depends entirely on the context, and on your priorities. Is it more about aesthetics or convenience?
If you’re the type of person who learns best by underlining, highlighting, and making notes in the margins, then a paper Bible is for you. If you are someone who feels attached to the aesthetics of ink, the smell of paper, and the texture of a leather, bound book, then you should use a physical Bible. But if you’re aware that you check your phone almost a hundred times a day and want to unplug your devotion time so you’re not distracted by all the bells and whistles, then a paper Bible might be the best choice.
But if you want convenience then a digital Bible is the right choice. You’re already carrying your phone with you everywhere you go—you might as well redeem those phone checks by reading scripture. Nearly thirty years have passed since my seminary professor gave his advice about avoiding digital Bibles. Perhaps it’s a little outdated now, as a whole new generation has grown to adulthood and reproduced since that time. Digital natives aren’t hung up on the physical Bible like many older people are. And honestly, lots of the older people who insisted on their paper Bibles a generation ago have died out by now. So, use what you like.
People of the Scriptures
Perhaps we aren’t people of the book so much as we are people of the Scriptures, which can take various formats. I’m sure that when folks quit using scrolls and started using the codex, people freaked out that the Bible was getting too new-fangled. Eventually, they learned that it wasn’t so much about the format as much as it was about the content.
People of the Word
To go a step further, I’ll say that Christians shouldn’t be People of the Book, so much as People of the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” When we call the Bible “The word of God” we do a disservice to Jesus, who is the living Word of God. Christians should remember that the Bible is the word about God, and not God, Godself. It’s not a terrible thing to honor the scriptures for what they are—but let’s not replace the Word with words. By elevating the Bible to an object of devotion and reverence, we risk the pitfall of bibliolatry. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you read the words—either digitally or on paper. What matters is how you connect with Jesus, the living Word.