preacher and writer in Chicago

On Bringing a "Real" Bible to Church

On Bringing a "Real" Bible to Church

I’m told the joke is now overdone. And so—in light of submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ—I have done my best since to refrain. A simple reminder before I began preaching had become commonplace for a number of months. Something like … open your real Bibles to [the preaching passage] with me. Or if you brought a fake Bible, you can of course just type in the reference. Quick. Harmless. Played out.

Though I no longer tell the joke—okay, I’m trying—the value remains. Aside from the vague and emotive idea that there’s just something about holding a physical Bible in your hands, in my relatively short time as a student and preacher of God’s Word I have found benefits from opening pages of Scripture within the tactile context of the bound sixty-six books. This doesn’t mean that pixilated or audible delivery methods somehow undo inspiration. Rather it means that something different goes on within us while we consider the Bible, printed, bound and held. 

God is not impressed with what kind of Bible I have. I fully admit he is not honored one way or the other simply by the form of my spiritual disciples. As always, he knows the heart. However our hearts are tuned and minds molded in different ways with respect to form. This is what led Marshall McLuhan to famously say, the medium is the message. Therefore if our desire is to be as deeply shaped by God’s character and love and word as possible, then all such opportunities are noteworthy for the disciple of Jesus. 

Contemplation over notification

Our phones tempt us every second to move to the next thing. Author Nicholas Carr warns of the affect this has on our brains in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, when he writes, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” In other words, the type of “learning” to which our minds grow accustom through our devices is the exact opposite of the thoughtful contemplation which is required of us when we open the Bible—in a church service or for personal reading.

Like children who walk by a vending machine, our brains recognize the screen of a tablet or phone as the source of digital sugar rushes of notifications and the deception of learning. “Deep reading” on the other hand, “activates regions of the brain related to touch, motion, and feeling, and helps develop the background knowledge that we bring to further reading and living,” writes professor Karen Swallow in her recent article People of the eBook. Considering God’s Word requires contemplation. When we read we are considering God’s character, the context of a passage, the truths exposed in the word and in us all while desiring to learn obedience and worship. A posture of contemplation is demanded by the printed and bound word while a digital form of reading never ceases to tempt us with the next hit of new. 

Family over individual

All our technology is fully customized to the individual. We can choose the brand, color and case for our phones. All meaningful content and applications can be deleted and added as we please. Each application—even a favorite Bible app—has settings and preferences set to our exact specifications and welcomes us into environments curated to our pleasure. This is so ubiquitous we don’t even recognize customization as customization anymore, it’s the way things should be. We expect to be central to tech design because we assume we are central. Professor Alan Noble speaks to this in his recent book, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, “Together secularism and the technology of distraction work to place the telos of belief in the individual person. That is, the end purpose of beliefs, the future goal we devote ourselves to achieving, is the fulfillment of self.” Is this the best window to peer through during personal and corporate worship?

When we mediate a Sunday gathering through our phones we maintain a vision of the world tailored to self, unaware we may miss the intended beauty of the gathering which is necessarily enjoyed through the mediation of Jesus, by the power of the Spirit and as the family of God. When we turn off our phone and open a physical Bible there is a sameness we share with our brothers and sisters. To be sure there are various translations and perhaps study notes, but we quiet the curse of customization by submitting to a bound collection of sixty-six historic and inspired books just like our neighbor to the left and right of us. We look at the Bible, together. 

Presence over omnipresence

Digital devices like tablets and phones give us the feeling of omnipresence. Though we sit in a worship gathering with our brothers and sisters, in an instant we can check in on our cousin’s destination wedding pictures from the night before. We can make reservations for brunch from the pew and review our nieces' spring break playlist she compiled while in Prague last week and plan to listen to it while walking to said brunch. In moments we are lifted from incarnation worship and taken wherever we want—albeit digitally. You see we aren’t divine and can’t deny our incarnate form. But I get it. It’s challenging to just sit in church. The tension only increases when we are bound by the information held within sixty-six books of inspiration … let alone a mere set of verses on a page from which the preacher is preaching. We have our Bibles, each other and the very presence of God. That’s it. We have to be fully present.

This cuts across the grain of our cultural delusion of omnipresent. Professor Noble considers this tension, “I would venture to say that if you are attending a healthy church that uses liturgical elements and you spend any meaningful amount of time in wider culture, you will discover some aspect of the service that makes you … uncomfortable.” Among those aspects I’d suggest holding a real Bible can have one of the most powerful affects upon us. It staves off the constant drip of believing we are digitally divine and makes us face our mortality—certainly within its content but also through its form.

Literacy over expediency

One of the many critiques of print media in general and carrying around a Bible in particular is convenience. It’s just easy to use our phones. I have a dear friend who gave away hundreds (hundreds!) of books when they got an iPad because they decided to digitalize their library. To be sure there is no mortal sin in that decision but much is lost. This is emblematic of an unavoidable irony that has taken root within the contemporary church; one that the early church could not have conceived. YouVersion is far and away the most popular Bible app at over 300 million downloads, boasting over 1,700 versions in over 1,200 languages. What a gift! However what I find over and over again in my own life and ministry is that the organization of the Bible as well as the specific of Scripture’s teachings seem less and less understood to modern readers. The Barna Group reported in January a similar observation after one of their many recent surveys: only 37% of church goers could identify the Great Commission in their Bibles (hint: Matthew 28:18-20). So, the Church has never had more instant access to the words of Jesus yet we seem further from them than ever before. Searching for a text helps us find it, but it also subtly causes us to believe we know it. That is until we have to look for it again.

Expediency falls short of God’s desire for us to hide his Word in our hearts. After all, the purpose of understanding God’s Word—not just having it—is to know him and obey him. That kind of knowledge requires thoughtful comprehension. One way to increase our familiarity and introduce more opportunities for learning is to take away the search bar. Yes, it will be uncomforted and challenging. But it will be rewarding as well. Let’s think about this … when you open up the pages of a Bible and look for Matthew 28:18-20 you have to flip through the Old Testament. Instinctively you get a sense for its size and scope as you turn from Genesis to Judges to Malachi. Then as you move into the gospel account itself you scan through Jesus’ birth, life and death. Perhaps you turn passed Matthew on accident and quickly see a page of Mark, Luke or John and remind yourself they fall in succession as the other accounts of Jesus. By the time you land on Matthew 28:18-20 you have been reminded of where Jesus’ words to his disciple fall within the larger story of the Bible. A romanticized view? Sure. Nevertheless this is a much more likely experience when opening real pages instead of simply typing words and numbers and pressing “go”. There is a natural learning of context, location and situation that happens when opening up a physical Bible which in turn leads to richer knowledge of the Word of God.

There is no morality in the types of Bibles we bring. All righteousness comes from the one revealed in the Scriptures, Jesus Christ. However I wonder if there is yet again something to learn from the Father’s initiative to send his Son in the flesh, for him to show up physically in a time when broadcasting him digitally was not an option. To interact with Jesus was to be in his presence. To learn from him was to sit at his feet. To worship him was to silence all other distractions. May it still be so.


Image from Upsplash with permission @sixteenmilesout

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