The Word Became App

The Word Became App July 27, 2013

Evangelicalism has never, ever been about just “the Bible alone.” Sure, the slogan has been used in Protestantism. But the Reformers knew that the Bible is never alone, and provided commentary on it.

And often times the provision of commentary – one thinks of the infamous Schofield Reference Bible – has influenced an incredibly large segment of Christianity in a direction that is problematic from the perspective of the very texts being commented upon.

And so should we be worried that it is conservative Evangelical devotional commentary that is, in most cases, being included along with popular Bible apps, and rarely if ever mainstream scholarly commentary?

What would it take to get a Bible app out there with a mainstream translation and mainstream scholarly commentary? I wonder whether any of the major publishers or an organization like the Society of Biblical Literature would be interested in doing something like that and having it available for free? (For publishers, it sould have to have the potential to lead to sales of additional add-in content.) Or could we crowdsource something like this? There are some sites either already in existence or in the works which make scholarly content available for free. But we need there to be a designated app, too.

UPDATE: It bears highlighting that the phrase in the title of this post (and the article in the NY Times I linked to) is from the Gospel of  John, where it refers to Jesus and not the Bible.

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  • Evan Hershman

    I’ve often thought the same thing. The main reason I have avoided buying Bible software, in spite of the fact that it would be useful for my scholarly work, is that the major programs as far as I know come loaded down with conservative evangelical commentaries and “reference” works which I neither need nor want.

    • spinkham

      Accordance’s “Original Languages Collection” is almost entirely free of such bloatware, and highly recommended if you have a Mac. A Windows version is coming soon, but not sure how it will stack up to the OS X version.

      • I have the Accordance app for iPad and I don’t see any such content that is free. Am I missing something, or are you talking about paid content?

        The SBL Greek text is available for free and has been integrated into other apps, but not the Accordance one to my knowledge.

        • spinkham

          Sorry, I was replying to a comment about why they didn’t purchase Bible software and it’s entirely tangental to your larger point.

  • Dan

    I have an RSV app on my Android phone. No commentary, no references, just the text ma’am.

    I wished that it came with the Apocrypha / Deutero-canonicals, though.

    • Norm Englund

      I have Basil Hartman’s NRSV with Apocrypha on my Android. Also just the text.

  • “What would it take to get a Bible app out there with a mainstream translation and mainstream scholarly commentary?” Apparently the answer is money, and lots of it! Did you see how much they’ve spent and are spending on the YouVersion app?

    • Ian

      That was my initial reaction. They bought this influence from insane amounts of donations. And now they have 100m users, they are using this unprecedented channel to distribute conservative evangelical propaganda under the guise of biblical ‘resources’.

      • I wonder whether the same thing could be accomplished through effort and donated time, rather than relying on extensive donations of money.

        • I just picked up the Youversion Bible App to see what it was like. I noticed that there is a large selection of reading “plans” you can use for daily bible readings, many with commentary embedded. I wonder if a plan could be offered to the makers of the app that includes mainstream scholarship?

          • I suspect that the makers of some existing apps may not want to include materials which either are at odds with their own ideological stance, or would lessen the need for people to buy add-ons. But having said that, some apps might be sufficiently customizable that a scholarly commentary could be created which one could download and genuinely and effectively integrate into the app’s functionality, which would be one way of going about it.

  • GRobinson

    A good conversation point, to be sure.

    From my perspective, as an evangelical, I do try to read broadly but haven’t found mainline (or mainstream) devotionals and commentary as helpful to the broad pursuit of a growing spirituality as evangelical ones. Ultimately we have to ask what the goal of the devotional content would be and how it would edify those engaging with it. If the pursuit is a lofty, critical engagement which obscures the text rather than engaging with its principal meaning, well evangelicals aren’t going to fool around with that kind of approach.

    However, if mainstream scholars want to create devotional and commentary tools that edify, equip, and engage with a text in a meaningful way, then this is a good thing. I’m just curious who the leading mainstream scholars would be to produce this kind of material.

    Right now the explosion of app based commentary and devotional tools favors more evangelical voices because, honestly, they are better voices in the pursuit of a an appreciable (and edifying) engagement with the text of Scripture. While I don’t stay away from mainstream scholarship in my study and preparation, I’ve still found more helpful content from evangelical voices than mainstream ones. (And it’s not because I want my presuppositions reinforced, that criticism cuts both ways.)

    Anyways, this is a good post and I think worth some consideration. Thanks for putting it out there. (Apologies for any typos, Patheos doesn’t like my iPad.)

    • Apart from some voices on both theological extremes who could be accused of allowing their theology to distort the text, I don’t find that mainstream scholars, including Evangelicals engaging in mainstream scholarship, differ radically very often about what the texts meant in its original context. If one reads a commentary by Ben Witherington or Gordon Wenham, it is not radically different than something by C. K. Barrett, or Raymond Brown, or Gerhard von Rad. The conclusions do differ, but that is because scholars draw different conclusions, and not something specific to Evangelicals over against others.

      And so I have to ask: who did you have in mind that you think obscures the text in the way you describe? I have seen what I consider to be an obscuring of the text as frequently driven by conservative concerns as by liberal ones, but I know that in my more conservative days as a student, I used to make sweeping generalizations about “liberal scholars” which bore little resemblance to the reality, and thus said little about them but a lot about me. Can you give me an example of the sort of thing you had in mind?

      • GRobinson

        There are certainly theological extremes that should be avoided. Some aspects of fundamentalist (which is different than evangelical) interpretations have not been engaged in these commentary offerings.

        You do bring up a fine point and I would add that voices like Brueggeman, Wright, Enns, McKnight, etc provide some terrific insights for commentary and devotional aids. One challenge with these kinds of voices is their publishers seem (at least as I’ve seen) to having their content out there on a less than paid basis.

        However, it is hard to see how the broader pool of believers would benefit from a critical commentary by a Bultmann or Tillich. For the later the demythologization stands against the basic interpretive matrix that aids the non-technical lay person in their growth and development with the biblical text. Likewise, how would one integrate a critical appraisal by some like Crossan or Borg. Perhaps, of course, these are examples of extremes.

        Your idea certainly has merit. As it provides edifying application often ends up being the mark that many evangelicals use for its use in their lives.

        • Well, I’m not sure why Tillich would be involved in a Biblical commentary, or why we’d be focusing on scholarship from the middle of the 20th century as in the case of Bultmann. Perhaps you’re not clear that I’m proposing something that reflects the current state of scholarship, and not merely making older works accessible when they eventually get into the public domain?

          Anyone working on the same aspects of the Biblical text as Bultmann did and Crossan and Borg do will probably interact with them. But any good mainstream academic commentary, whether written by someone who has no religious affiliation, or by someone who is a liberal or a conservative religious believer, should present the range of scholarly viewpoints and make the case for their own conclusion, in a manner that allows the reader to draw their own conclusion if a matter is genuinely open to more than one interpretation.

          Edifying application is really a separate step in the process. Most but not all devotional commentaries skip or skimp on the historical, linguistic, cultural, and other contextual concerns. I’d like to see something that focuses on those points which have to do with the mainstream scholarly enterprise, since using the text for the edification of others is, on the one hand, something that it is perilous to do prior to ensuring that the text has been understood well, and on the other hand, can be done in a variety of ways on the basis of the same texts and is far more subjective and so perhaps best kept separate.

  • I would love to have my Oxford Annotated NRSV on my Android. What is a good example of a scholarly commentary that you would use. As a layman most of my resources are the sort of off-the-top-of-their-head pastorly commentaries (the NIV Study Bible and the like). Maybe I should be upfront. What’s the least expensive scholarly respectable commentary?

    • Something like the New Oxford Annotated or the Access Bible, including the notes and text boxes, available as an app, would be great. There are one-volume commentaries that may save money, but obviously have to skimp on detail to get everything within one volume. I wonder whether having detailed commentary, something brief, or both would best meet the needs that people have.

      The least expensive respectable scholarly commentary is the one that you can check out of your public library for free! 🙂