Have you ever heard a preacher discourage people from reading their Bible on their phones? If you haven’t, no doubt the very idea sounds silly. Why does it matter what format we use to read the Bible, just as long as we make sure we are reading it? Especially as culture shifts more and more away from print, is there good reason to stand up for an antiquated form of reading? These are fair questions. As I wrote in my last article, it’s easy to allow initial discomfort with new forms of technology to turn into quasi-religious objections. We should avoid this kind of ill-informed phobia. But we should also be slow to assume that new technology comes only with advantages. When it comes to reading our Bibles electronically, there are definite pluses and minuses. I think we should consider both.
Let’s start with the advantages. Now that we can share content digitally, we have far greater reach. In countries that restrict access to the Bible, it’s now much easier for common people to find the Scriptures in their own language. It’s also cost-effective: there’s not a cost incurred to make each copy. For the missionary, this is a prized gift.
Studying is also easier. Instead of lugging around impossibly heavy concordances, dictionaries, and commentaries, we can access everything at the click of a button. It’s also easy to compare translations. I use my iPad for most of my writing and if I ever want to check a reference or definition, it’s quite handy. As in many areas of life, technology increases our efficiency substantially. These are definite advantages, not easy to skirt around.
How might reading our Bibles on our phones be unhelpful? One of technology’s strongest points is its ability to rapidly disseminate information. But this is also one of its biggest downfalls, especially for someone wanting to read deeply. So much information is available, which is great, but it can also be distracting. When it comes to reading, sometimes efficiency isn’t helpful. “I can read my Bible while catching up with my friend and keeping up with the game,” someone might say. Instinctively we know this isn’t something to celebrate, though. Why? While more tasks are being performed simultaneously, complete immersion in any of them is lost. Divided attention has its downfalls at large, but nowhere is this more harmful than in our personal communication with Christ.
We need time to reflect
The Psalms are full of deep reflection, as the Psalmists wrestle with haunting questions about their lives, suffering, and the problem of evil. But most importantly, they focus on God and his promises, as a beacon of light to give hope in otherwise chaotic situations. This process is anything but halfhearted. Consider the opening of Psalm 77:
I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Then my spirit made a diligent search: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah.Psalm 77:1-9 ESV
These words are beautiful, not because they avoid the harsher realities of life, but because they acknowledge them with penetrating honesty. We’re drawn to this kind of communion with God because it’s real, connecting with doubts we’ve all faced. But this kind of intimacy is only possible when our attention is focused. It won’t do to wrestle with life’s deeper questions distractedly. Too often, that’s why we face life halfheartedly: we’re scared to face the reality of our existence that forces itself upon us when our attention is undivided.
How often do we find ourselves in the position of the Psalmist, crying aloud, moaning as we remember God, meditating in our heart, making diligent search? If this never describes us, it’s not because we’ve somehow managed to stay out of trouble. It just means we’re blind. There are far too many difficulties we—and our loved ones—encounter to ever justify glibly pretending our lives are just a steady stream of uninterrupted bliss. When we ask God these painfully vulnerable questions, we aren’t doubting his goodness. We’re honoring him by recognizing that he alone can provide solace in the darkest hours. If instead we continue our hazed existence—content to identify as a Christian while preferring not to be disrupted by the deeper things of life—can we honestly say that we truly believe?
We’re so easily distracted. Sometimes we distance ourselves from close communion deliberately, but more often than not, we simply forget. Distraction is nothing new, but it’s probably never been worse. And this is why I hesitate to celebrate the new ease of technology, especially when it comes to our personal connection with Christ. In the midst of our modern, already hectic lives, do we want to provide more opportunities for perpetual distraction?
How does a pursuit of meditation affect our digital reading?
To be clear, I’m not saying close communion with Christ can’t happen when we’re reading the Word on our phones. That would be a foolish claim. But it’s something we need to consider. Let’s imagine you’ve just gotten up and showered, and now you’re ready for your quiet time. You generally read on your phone, just because it’s convenient and you don’t have to remember where you put your Bible. You’re in the middle of a difficult situation and you’ve been texting a friend about it. Before pulling up your Bible app, you check the weather, glance over the news headlines, and quickly respond to a text. That last text from your friend seemed insensitive and now you’re stressed. You try to read, but it’s hard for you to focus. Then your friend sends another text. You’ll go back and forth several times, with bits of reading in between. Is there anything wrong with this? No, not if your goal is merely to eventually finish your assigned reading for the day. But is this kind of sporadic reading likely to inspire anything new or deep? Will you even be able to remember what you read when you’re finished? I think the answer speaks for itself.
This example might seem extreme, although I doubt it’s entirely foreign. Some variant of this scenario has certainly happened to me—and more than once. Again, this isn’t to say that any time we read digitally we’ll be distracted. But certainly the potential for distraction is much higher. Consider the following from Alan Noble:
If you are reading this on a digital device, your brain is quite aware of how easy it would be to shift over to your email or text messages. And if you have your notifications turned on, you may be fighting a losing battle. An effect of your multitasking may be that the information you take in ends up in the wrong place, a kind of seed falling on rocky cognitive soil.Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness, 22, 23
Nor is our struggle for comprehension limited to constant temptation to jump over to another app. The very process of reading digitally could change our comprehension. And no, this isn’t coming from an overly protective bishop. It’s coming from scientific studies. Consider Nicholas Carr:
A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual. “All reading,” writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, is “multi-sensory.” There’s a “crucial link” between the “sensory-motor experience of the materiality” of a written work and the “cognitive processing of the text content.” The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, 90
In short, there doesn’t seem to be any way around the fact that immersive reading—precisely the kind we should treasure most in our Bibles—is more difficult to accomplish digitally. It’s theoretically possible that you could do all of your Bible reading on your phone while still drinking deeply. But are you? It’s not that there’s some elusive evil to using technology. It’s simply that we should be jealous of our most intimate moments with Christ. It’s because we love him that we seek for regular times of undistracted communion. If our technology keeps us from this, wisdom would pull away, instead of extolling the hypothetical possibility of mastering the distraction.
I’m not opposed to reading the Bible digitally, though. I used my Bible app to look up verses while writing this post. And no, I don’t think that’s as ironic as it sounds. When I’m writing a post, I’m not intending for my work to count as my personal time with Christ. I simply make sure there are times that I’m reading, meditating, and praying without my phone within reach. For my morning quiet time, I read a physical Bible. I go for prayer walks without my phone. And I try to make sure there are significant stretches of the day where my phone is out of sight—and out of mind. The point isn’t that something undesirable happens when we use our phones—even if that can be the case. It’s that there are sacred moments of reading, prayer, and reflection that can only happen when we’re not distracted. When this is appropriately in view, I think we’ll find we use our phones less.
Should you read your Bible on your phone? Sure, sometimes. But sometimes not. The moments requiring our undivided attention are too precious to sacrifice.