The Bible was the first book ever printed, but ink and paper are no longer required to share its message with a mass audience. At last count, the world’s most popular Bible app, the YouVersion Bible, had been downloaded more than 228 million times. Its distinctive icon, designed to look like a stubby, square Bible, is found on smartphones in every country in the world, giving users access to 1,305 versions of Holy Writ in 954 languages—and counting.
Conversations about the Bible in the digital age usually turn to questions of access: how technology has changed the number of people who can get their hands on a copy of the Bible and how easily. But in the story of ever-changing technology and the timeless word of God, increased access is not the only development. The Bible is a transcendent text with a very stubborn material presence, but when new technology prompts us to change the material context of Scripture—whether from papyrus scrolls to enormous illuminated manuscripts or from mass-produced soft cover books to a string of computer code—how we interact with it changes as a result.
When I downloaded the YouVersion app to my phone a few months ago, for example, I paused when I read a pop-up message on the screen: “‘Bible’ would like to send you notifications.” Sure, Christians have always believed that God’s word speaks, but a text message straight from the Good Book takes things to a whole new level.
Brian Russell sees this as a very good thing. From his perspective as director of YouVersion, having the app on our smartphones has not only made it easier to take the Bible everywhere we go, it has also made it possible to see what verses our friends are reading and to read and share verses straight to our social media accounts. “In some ways, it’s bringing back this concept of reading the Bible in community,” he says.
The team at YouVersion is already beginning to explore what other technologies could help people engage with the Bible in new ways. Mr. Russell is especially excited about the possible uses of voice technology and artificial intelligence. “What would it look like if I could talk to the Bible and the Bible could talk to me?” he wonders.
The shelves of Mary Elizabeth Sperry’s office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bear the heavy fruit of the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (1965), which urged “all the Christian faithful” to read the Bible often. Despite having moved into the office only a few weeks before, Ms. Sperry already has what seems to be every conceivable version of the New American Bible, including an anime-style graphic novel that is still in production and a portable audio Bible that is half the size of a business card.
As the director of permissions and Bible utilization at the bishops’ conference, Ms. Sperry has made it her mission to erase the idea that Catholics do not read the Bible. While this stereotype irks her (“We are much more biblical than we think we are,” she says, ticking off passages in the liturgy lifted straight from Scripture), she admits that Catholic engagement with the Bible still has room for improvement.
“Ninety-six percent of Catholic homes have at least one Bible,” says Ms. Sperry, quoting a survey in 2015 commissioned by the American Bible Society. “But I always want the survey people to ask, ‘Do you know where it is, and have you opened it since your first Communion or when you got confirmed?’” (She suspects the fraction of people replying yes would be less than 96 percent.)
Ms. Sperry credits her own enthusiasm for Scripture to a set of dramatized Bible stories on vinyl records that her parents gave her when she was a child. “In 1969 that was up-to-date technology,” she points out. Yet when it comes to increasing Bible engagement, she is careful not to assume that creating new resources—digital or otherwise—will automatically increase engagement. “There are lots of resources available, but that has never been a problem in the church in the United States,” she says. “I mean, look at my office.” She gestures to the Bible-laden shelves around her. “What we need to do is invigorate the desire.”
From Ms. Sperry’s perspective, the best way to increase Bible engagement is to help people see themselves—their emotions, their circumstances, their struggles—in a collection of writings from several millennia ago. And that is tricky.
“The resources will come and go, but how do we invite people to take those resources, transform their lives and become the story?” she asks. “That’s the challenge.”
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