The Book That Isn’t Really There: Digital Texts and Declining Discipleship

John J. Bombaro
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

Status symbols have changed. Where once a warmly paneled room with wainscoting, high leatherback chairs, and a library replete with vast numbers of books may have been the central feature of a dream home’s architectural plans, now it is sterile geometric spaces sparsely punctuated with technological fixtures: wall-mounted flat screen, multipurpose remote, and an iPad situated on a simple table, and there it is. There’s the library. It’s digital. It’s so now. It’s also somehow lifeless.

By lifeless, I mean there’s no “there” there’no sense of a collection of books as material, physical objects, no “being” to their existence. Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the logic, nature, and relations of being. But do digital texts really “exist” in the same sense as physical books? Whether it is a Libronix or Kindle or an iBooks digital cache, none of these is out here in reality where we as physical humans live and move and have our being. Nevertheless, digital texts are rapidly becoming the preferred mode for textual resources, beginning with millions of Bible app downloads to devotional materials and scholarly publications. We want it at our fingertips, but it has to be as light as 1s and 0s adrift in cyberspace or, synonymously, no place. Our inability to place digital texts in spatiotemporality means they have a fundamentally different physical status from printed material with paper, binding, and cover. Digital texts are ephemeral; they are ontologically diminished. This loss has implications and may be symptomatic of a changing worldview, even within the church, even for Christian discipleship.

Before I go on, let it be known that I have a Libronix library glutted with texts. Daily I use an iPad and conduct work from my Galaxy S III. I’m no Luddite. At the same time, my understanding of the incarnation and the Reformation perspective on the Bible leaves me with a pragmatic approach to the aforementioned devices. The fact of the coming of Christ in the flesh and the fact that the Holy Spirit works through material objects like the Word and Sacraments leave me in a posture of respect to the physicality of the Scriptures. My Bible is not a book among other books, an app among other apps. I have no mastery over it. Call it old-fashioned if you like, but it can hardly be denied that there’s something fitting about outward deference to and reverence for the material pages of Scripture that are related in some way to the fact of Christ’s incarnation. What I am getting at is the loss of relationship to the biblical text as such and, by extension, its author and object when the “there-ness” and hold-in-your-hand nature of the book is surrendered.

The Disappearing Book

The displacement of printed books for techno-texts is a phenomenon observed in three places: private homes, university classrooms, and church sanctuaries. In parishioner homes, especially those people under 40, bookshelves are a rare commodity. When I do find a shelf, it’s usually lined with DVDs or CDs; but even these seem antiquated with “on-demand” and iTunes options. The family Bible remains at Grandma’s house. To be sure, parishioners have Bibles on their phones or computers, but not on their coffee tables. Consequently, more times than not, there is no Bible present, no Bible presence. Out of sight, out of mind. The same can be said for other literature, be it classical, theological, or whimsical.

Likewise within classrooms, students read less’much less’notwithstanding the “omni-availability” of information. Twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate, I was expected to read upwards of a dozen books per course. Universities poured the foundation for the building of personal libraries. Now, I am hard-pressed to get students to read four books written at the ninth-grade level. Students are shocked when I tell them they are expected to read the whole book. That’s not how reading is done these days, they tell me. It’s unnecessary, and for those who have been trained to read and research on the Internet, a synopsis suffices and perusing is the practice. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has explored “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” and Mark Bauerlein laments in The Dumbest Generation “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” Both conclude that a truncated approach to texts, with no peripheral vision of what the next page holds or orientation to the linear progression of the entire text, trains the mind’s learning plasticity to think in pragmatic, detached, fragmented ways. In contrast, a printed book provides (spatially speaking) linear progression to the total story. In other words, digital texts militate against a big-picture perspective and comprehension of the whole story of the Bible.

Printed material has an eBay existence among university students: endlessly recycled for reuse through repurchase at the campus bookstore. Students generally do not want a library nor do they feel the need to build one. A personal library, one student told me, is environmentally irresponsible. To him, all those books signaled not a mine of knowledge but a waste of trees. Printed matter, he said, was ecologically unfriendly. Owning a Kindle Fire was not merely a consumer choice for him; it was an ethical decision. This same student, however, confessed with the majority of his classmates that though he possessed the required reading for his courses on a Kindle, he did not and would not comprehensively read them. That’s not how digital texts are consumed. My parishioners admitted the same thing about Bible reading and devotional materials. There are reasons for this.

The Reasons Why

First, unlike reading printed matter, which requires the discipline of body, mind, and environment, digital texts have undisciplined built-in competitors: e-mail, texting, Internet, and scores of titillating apps. There are alerts, jingles, tones, and vibrations signaling the reader to multitask, thereby exploding the farce of “quiet time” or “devotion.”

Second, the mere possession of digital tomes, like the instant availability of a Google search engine, conditions complacency and laziness in learning. Reading practices formed by Internet scanning do not lend themselves to deep consideration, let alone memorization of information in context. One may have the text, and therefore the story or information available (after all, it’s just a click or tap away), but this potentiality is not reality. “I downloaded that book” cannot mean the same thing as “I own a copy of that book,” much less that I have marked it up with marginal notes and made it my own.

Third, texts suffer from atomization. Search engines within these devices make it easy to locate particular words, phrases, or verses when researching, but that does not equal familiarity with the text. For example, it is one thing to do a word search on “justification.” It is another thing to understand justification within the context of the overarching storyline of the Bible. Careful biblical interpretation considers individual verses in relation to the whole story of the Bible; but electronic Bible readers tend to let particular search results govern the understanding of the whole. Increasingly, I am finding that Christians cannot locate chapters or even books in a printed Bible because their only familiarity with the text is via the app search tool.

Fourth, printed copies can be shared’replete with margin notes, underlining, and highlighting’in a gift-giving, self-giving way that digital texts cannot.

Fifth, and along similar lines, real books have a variety of distinguishing features, including size, shape, texture, color, thickness, and even smell. Even without a photographic memory, there is some recall as to the location of information on a page or in the beginning, middle, or end of a book. This is a “sameness” factor that is surrendered with the modifiable font, size, and presentation of electronic books. In other words, the physical book brings with it a sense of encounter. Digital texts do not, or at least not really.

When we accommodate our Bible reading practices to the age of digital texts and the Internet, we may only be contributing to the biblical illiteracy, doctrinal ignorance, and sacramental neglect of the contemporary church.

Implications for the Church

When the gospel met the Greek world, there was a clash. God the good Creator of the material world has always spoken and acted through creaturely means. Then the eternal Word became flesh. Early on, the apostolic church struggled to defend the humanity of Christ against the heresy of Docetism: namely, that he only appeared to be fully human. To the extent that we are drawn to a God who is only known in the inner realm of spirit and not through his external means, we won’t find the dematerialization of Scripture disconcerting.

The disappearing Bible may be the result of the dominant understanding of Christian “community” in our day, where Christian worship is increasingly ephemeral, where there are no hymnals, no printed liturgies, no pew Bibles, no permanent pulpits; but only transitory PowerPoint slides, overhead projections, and portable podiums. In Scripture, this age is passing away; in our culture, even material objects like books are passing away. So much in contemporary church life is fleeting and impermanent; the texts and songs of the church are there one moment and gone the next, disappearing into cyberspace. It is no wonder contemporary Christianity is so “docetic”‘that is, material-denying. From a Reformation perspective, the rule of worship and catechesis begets the rule of belief and discipleship. We don’t worship a disembodied Christ, nor should we imagine our earthly or resurrection existence to be a disembodied one. When there’s no “there” in real space and time’not even the Bible’then it’s no wonder that ephemeral worship and catechesis yield such fruitlessness in discipleship.

Our Lutheran parish has fought against this phenomenon by purchasing hard copies and using them during the public service, Bible study, and catechesis. We process with an illuminated Gospel Book. The lectern Bible is massive and emanates a massive presence. We are consciously reinforcing the point that relationships are formed with the material text we encounter in the forum of salvation and, consequently, relationships are formed and reformed with the Author’the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When theology takes the incarnation seriously, it steers disciples to the Bible and to sacraments that have real “existence” in the here and now. Incarnational theology steers discipleship through texts and sacraments that “be” in the here and now. The Word is incarnate; the Word was also inscripturated; and physical sacraments are given as signs and seals’the self-giving of God in Christ Jesus who is also given to us through concrete instruments of grace.

C. S. Lewis once ruminated on the death of a friend, commenting on how a part of himself had died with this friend. Lewis explained that he had shared with this friend conversation, laughter, and company, such that his own personality and sense of well-being had been enlarged. In other words, this relationship rendered Lewis more substantial, more expanded as an individual. Consequently, when the friend died, Lewis felt that he himself was diminished.

A relationship with a book’the vehicle that brings us into a relationship with the author’can be much like that. After spending months in the Beineke Library at Yale University’handling, smelling, and reading hundreds of Jonathan Edwards’s books, notebooks, and sermon manuscripts’there came a point in which I thought of Edwards almost as a family friend (although, Edwards, along with other theologians I’ve read, such as Luther and Augustine, always takes a backseat to other more esteemed friends named Matthew, Luke, and Paul).

When we see and hold the physical text of Scripture, it speaks to us and occupies the reality in which we live as a living testimony, an abiding witness. It has an enduring quality. A conversation and an encounter continue through the ontological presence of books. Their very presence is sometimes iconic, sometimes instigating, always familiar, occasionally troubling. That is just the way the Lord intended the Bible to be’iconic, instigating, familiar, and troubling’just like the incarnation itself.

Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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