What Can Be “The Bible?”
A question has come to me and the questioner has asked that I addressed it on my blog. I am happy to try.
Here is the question: Can “the Bible” only be a book, a physical object (parchment or pages with words) or can “the Bible” be truly and authentically “there” in some other form?
This question has arisen recently especially in conservative Protestant churches (fundamentalist and evangelical especially) as a result of the reality of so many people reading the Bible on electronic devices, in digital form.
Surely you’ve seen this—if you ever attend a church or Bible study that includes many young people. The Bible study leader or preacher says “Turn in your Bibles with me to…” and states a book of the Bible, chapter and verse(es). Suddenly almost everyone under thirty (maybe under forty!) pull out a cell phone or tablet and opens up a “Bible app.”
Some well-meaning (mostly older) Christians devoted to physical Bibles have an almost visceral reaction to this phenomenon. Some immediately envision a day when “real Bibles” will disappear and be replaced by “virtual Bibles” that exist somewhere “in the cloud” that can only be read on electronic devices.
*Note: Here I speak only for myself and not for anyone else. Certainly not for any institution. If you choose to respond, please keep your response relatively brief, addressed to me, on topic, and conversational. Do not misuse my blog to preach your own message. Do not misrepresent my or anyone else’s opinions. Be calm.*
Now, I think we have to try to understand this reaction. Many older Christians (perhaps some younger as well) have a heartfelt love of the Bible that is associated primarily with “leather covers and paper pages”—physical books that contain the scriptures. In their own minds and hearts there is a connection between the physicality of the book and scripture itself.
I confess that I grew up with that understanding or visceral feeling about the Bible. I well remember being lightly (verbally) punished for placing a school textbook on top of a Bible in our home. “The Bible” (meaning a physical book) was treated much as an icon might be treated in many Eastern Orthodox homes.
Then came a dawning awareness that blind people could not read the words of physical Bibles and wanted, sometimes, to hear the Word of God written when no one was there to read it to them. Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s (I don’t recall exactly) “Christian book and Bible stores” began to market sets of cassette tapes of the Bible being read for home use. Not only blind people but many others enjoyed listening to the Bible being read and experienced the same inspiration as when reading it or having it read to them from a physical book.
Gradually it began to dawn on “my people” (fundamentalists who revered the Bible in a special way) that “the Bible” was the words, the message, the communication of God that could exist and happen even without a book of leather and paper pages and ink. That didn’t lessen our devotion to “the Bible.” It changed our understanding of what “the Bible” means.
What I would ask a person who objected to people reading the Bible on electronic devices is what they think about a blind person, for example, listening to the Bible being read on a cassette tape, CD or ipod? Is it still “the Bible” he or she is hearing? If the answer is “yes,” then I would go on to suggest that perhaps the person already knows that “the Bible” is not necessarily always a physical object of leather, paper pages, and ink but is sometimes instead sounds recorded and heard on a device of some kind. Why not on a cell phone or tablet?
The Ten Commandments were not written on paper with ink between leather covers! They were written on tablets of stone. The first Bibles were not written as books but as parchments and scrolls. People have often throughout history only heard the Bible quoted from memory by a missionary or witness. Surely it is mistaken, then, to equate “the Bible” with a leather-bound book. “The Bible” is God’s specially inspired message in words. It can take many different shapes, forms, languages, and media.
I suspect, however, that this explanation will not work for many older Christians who grew up, as I did, in a family and church that revered “the old faith and the old book” (a fundamentalist hymn) and equated “the Bible” with a physical book.
Perhaps one way to gain some sympathy for and understanding of that mentality is to use an analogy. Imagine an older math teacher who desperately fears over-dependence on calculators by young students. Some older Christians fear over-dependence on electronic devices in general. But especially they fear the disappearance of Bibles as books. It’s an apocalyptic fear, but you must remember most of these older Christians grew up in apocalyptic fundamentalism!
Let’s gently dissuade them by pointing out, as I have above, that “the Bible” can exist (as it has for a long time now) on wax (records), on cassette tapes, on CDs and in people’s memories. At the same time, let’s recover an evangelical reverence (not worship of) for the Bible and avoid treating it as just “our collection of sacred stories” “inspired insofar as it’s inspiring.”