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

Should Pastors (or any of us) Read the Word on an iPad? August 22, 2013

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.

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