3 Stages of Biblical Technology

A few years ago, I noticed that the way I think about and interact with the Bible changed. It started when, as a youth pastor, I purchased a Pocket PC with Bible software on it so I could always search and find verses if students asked me a question.

It turns out junior highers don’t really ask seminary question, but later I found that there have been three major stages of Bible technologies, and I was swimming in the third.

1. The Oral Bible: Context

Public Reading of Scripture From the time Moses starting writing Scripture in 1500 B.C., Scripture was most often heard, not read. Every Sabbath, the Scriptures would be read aloud in the gathering of faith.

There were no chapter or verse divisions, believers simply memorized what they heard and referred to Scripture by author (e.g., Acts 2:16-17; Acts 2:25). When a short passages was quoted, the minds of the hearers would think of the surrounding context since they had heard it read many times.

Today, we have the same experience when we refer to famous speeches we’ve heard. When we say, “Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘I have a dream,’” we don’t have a chapter or verse number, but we all know the context of the words in history and their significance.

2. The Print Bible: Precision

bible-verses The advent of the printed Bible allowed much greater access to the Scriptures for individual believers. However, it also changed the way people interacted with the Bible because print enables totally new uses of language.

First, a person can have a “quiet time” of personal Bible study apart from a community, and second a reader can skip around and find passages rather than waiting for it to be read. To facilitate this skipping around, chapter and verse divisions were added so that readers could quickly and precisely find passages.

One of the results of this precision was that many believers only know and memorize individual verses instead of passages in context, occasionally missing the actual meaning of the passage. Consider Habakkuk 1:5 -  it sounds wonderful in isolation, but horrific in context. The modern equivalent of isolating verses would be if we said something like, “People have important dreams (King, Jr. 5:12)”.

3. The Digital Bible: Search

Bible Search, funny, eh?The digitized Bible now brings another new way of looking at the Bible. We can find read multiple versions in parallel, look up Greek and Hebrew definitions, cross references, and commentaries with great ease.

But again, as with print there are some downsides to this kind of “searching the Scriptures.” For example, I know that Abraham grew up in a pagan family, but I can’t seem to remember the reference for this. What I do remember is that I can search for “Abraham and father” to find that Abraham’s dad’s name was “Terah” (Gen 11:27), then search for “Terah” to find Joshua 24:2. My mind won’t seem to let me memorize it, probably because I always have a computer around, and I already know what to search for to find it.

Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. again, we might find ourselves saying silly things like, “I wanted to find out about dreams, so I searched and found all these great quotes like King, Jr. 5:12 which says, ‘I have a dream.’”

Some Recommendations

The printed Bible and the digital Bible are amazing testaments to human ingenuity, and I am 100% glad we have them. However, we would still do well to recognize that these technologies influence us, and sometimes we need to work against their influence to be better Christians. Here are two simple suggestions:

  • Rather than always reading our printed Bible in isolation, we should read the Scripture aloud in context and in groups.
  • If we notice ourselves searching for the same passages multiple times, we should engage in the ancient discipline of memorization.

Blogs vs. Classics: The New Experience of Language

In order to get a handle on just how many words I see every day, I analyzed two of my favorite tech blogs and compared them to a few classics.

The Statistics

Awesome Blogs Words per Year
TechCrunch* 1,881,152
Engadget* 1,218,609

Classic Books Total Words
Homer – Iliad 168,599
Plato – Apology 11,472
Aristotle – Ethics 85,103
Old Testament 593,493
New Testament 181,253
Augustine – Confessions 137,505
Shakespeare – Hamlet 30,066
Melville – Moby Dick 210,997
Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov 349,272
Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury 96,709
Total 1,864,469

* These stats are estimates based on number of posts per week reported by Google Reader and an average number of words from the last 10 posts.

Dropping TechCrunch = Literary Scholar?

These numbers suggest that if I dropped just one blog, TechCrunch (I love you Mike!), I could conceivably use the leftover time to read all of the above classics in just one year. At 250 words/minute, it would take only 20 minutes a day.

And people say they don’t have time to read the classics.

What It Really Means about Our Experience of Language

In reality, this comparison isn’t apples to apples. I don’t read TechCrunch, I just scan it. I look at the titles and pictures, and only read the posts that relate to my field. But because I do this hundreds of times per day on several blogs and news sites, it says more about my experience of language than my chances of becoming an epic scholar. Here are some observations:

  1. We are exposed to an staggering number of words every day. Just scanning these two blogs adds up to 3 million words in a year. That’s not counting comments, advertisements, or the links out to other sites.
  2. We are see numerous fragments, but few complete thoughts – TechCrunch uses it’s 1.8 million words for 6,000 short, decontextualized posts. Compare that to 1.8 million words in 10 classic works each comprising major themes.
  3. We consume facts, but few ideasTechCrunch is a must read for the web startup world, but it is mostly just data. It doesn’t develop a person morally or discuss what ought to be, it only tells us what is.

This doesn’t mean TechCrunch is bad or even useless, but it does mean that our most common experience of words is a form of empty consumption rather than deep soul formation. It’s rather like choosing to eat a dozen 99 cent McDonald’s burgers instead of a slowly marinated, costly steak.

If you looked at your word consumption, what would you find?