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From the July/August, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Scripture in the Age of Google by Robin Phillips


Scripture in the Age of Google

The Digital Bible & How We Can Read It
by Robin Phillips

We are standing at a critical juncture in history, when the future of the printed word can no longer be taken for granted. It is appropriate therefore to ponder the implications the digital revolution might have for the Church's reception of Scripture. What might be the future of the Bible's role for the Church in a world where our communication technologies are changing so rapidly?

To explore this question, it may be helpful first to consider some of the effects of previous paradigm shifts in communication technologies. In the history of human literacy, the "book" has undergone four key transformations. These can be crudely sketched as follows.

According to the historian Frederick Kilgour, the first phase in the history of the "book" roughly spanned the years 2500 b.c. to a.d. 100, when men used a stylus to inscribe text onto clay tablets. The second phase of book-making technology began about 2000 b.c. and lasted to about a.d. 700, when a brush or pen was used to write on papyrus rolls. The years a.d. 100 to the present are the period of the codex, a term that has become almost synonymous with our term "book."

As these dates indicate, there was considerable overlap between the different phases of book-making technology. The fourth transformation, currently in overlap with the age of the codex, is, of course, the electronic book.

Within the era of the codex, there have been two important developments that helped give the written word the particular primacy it has enjoyed in Western culture. The first of these may seem trivial to us, but was of vital importance not only in affecting our relationship with the written word, but also in bringing reading to a wider audience. I have in mind the practice of putting spaces between words.

Word Separation & Silent Reading

When, in the eighth century b.c., man first began to move from pictorial symbols to an alphabetic text, writing was simply an adjunct of speech. Since we do not pause between each word when we speak, it never occurred to our ancestors to put spaces between their written words. They were simply transcribing what they heard. A corollary to this was that silent reading remained a relative anomaly.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes how he was surprised to stumble upon Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently:

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

This was clearly something that Augustine was not used to seeing. If we think about it, the reason for this should seem obvious. When one reads a text without word separation, it is extremely difficult to get the sense of what is being communicated apart from actually hearing it. While people certainly did read aloud quietly to themselves, texts were normally read out loud to others, and this helped keep reading a public activity. The communal nature of reading, in turn, affected how people wrote. Authors expected their works to be read aloud, normally in a social setting involving discussion, and this expectation of interaction created boundaries to what they were willing to write.

It was monks living in Ireland and Scotland in the seventh century who first came up with the idea of separating written words, in order to make learning Latin easier for those Celts for whom it was not their native tongue. But it was not until the eleventh century that the practice of separating words became widespread on the continent. Once it did, however, it ushered in one of the key landmarks in the history of the codex: the era of silent reading.

Although reading remained a communal affair throughout the Middle Ages and even afterwards, there began to emerge a new class of silent readers. The advent of silent reading allowed literature to take on a more personal and intimate role, while readers and writers alike became more adventurous. (Paul Saenger has chronicled this in his fascinating book Space Between Words.)

The Printing Press Brings Changes

The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century was the next important development in the history of the codex. While word separation may have made it possible to read books silently with ease, it was the printing press that made it feasible for ordinary people to own books, through making them affordable.

This was a gradual process, however. Though the printing press eventually brought about a proliferation of Bibles, the speed at which this happened is often exaggerated. Furthermore, the printing press brought about not only an increase in the quantity of Bibles, but also a subtle qualitative change in how Westerners thought of Scripture.

Prior to Gutenberg, when the biblical books were still being hand-copied, they were rarely contained in a single volume, for the simple reason that no one could write tiny enough script to produce a one-volume Bible. The volumes that contained portions of Scripture were exceedingly valuable and were therefore treated with the type of reverence reserved for precious objects. In the thirteenth century, professional theologians were given the title of magister in sacra pagina (master of the sacred page), because the vehicle that carried the Scriptures—namely, the page—was considered precious, important, and sacred. But as print technology made biblical books more numerous and more readily available, this attitude began to change proportionally.

The printing press brought other, equally significant changes to people's relationship with the sacred texts. For example, printing helped solidify the sense of Scripture as something existing independently of the Church's ongoing conversation and our physical engagement with that conversation. Or again, historians have often noted how printing removed the Church's role as custodian of Scripture, though the speed at which this occurred has also been exaggerated. Even many years after the invention of the printing press, economic realities required the Church to be the custodian of the sacred Scriptures in a very literal sense.

The churches seem to have been aware of the potential dangers of a proliferation of printed materials, particularly the endless innovation that could come in its wake. The Council of Trent advocated a policy of strict censorship for the Roman Catholic Church, noting that "the number of suspected and pernicious books, wherein an impure doctrine is contained, and is disseminated far and wide, has in these days increased beyond measure. . . ." The Reformers, through mechanisms such as confessionalism, a robust affirmation of the creeds, and the deliberate embedding of theological constructs in past traditions of Christian thought, were able to mitigate, at least for a time, what might otherwise have become a theological free-for-all.

From Gutenberg to Google

While the printing press made books accessible to a wider range of people, it was not until the late eighteenth century that most families could afford to own more than a few books. This fact alone had a marked effect on how people read. In his essay "First Steps Toward a History of Reading," Robert Darnton points out that,

From the Middle Ages until sometime after 1750 . . . men read "intensively." They had only a few books—the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two—and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.

Darnton contrasts this with the direction reading took in the nineteenth century, when literature, including newspapers and periodicals, became more affordable and widespread. "By 1800," he writes, "men were reading 'extensively.' They read all kinds of material, especially periodicals and newspapers, and read it only once, and then raced on to the next item."

This same shift is, of course, occurring again with respect to reading on the web. On one level, the introduction of the internet into our reading experience has had effects similar to those of any other book-making technology that increased the availability of texts: people read more, they read faster, and they sacrifice qualitative depth for quantitative scope. As Sven Birkerts writes in The Gutenberg Elegies:

What is most conspicuous as we survey the general trajectory of reading across the centuries is what I think of as the gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal—the sacrifice of depth to lateral range, or . . . a shift from intensive to extensive reading. When books are rare, hard to obtain, and expensive, the reader must compensate through intensified focus. . . .

A Panoply of Stimuli

It is this "intensified focus" that has been the chief casualty of the web. The type of reading that C. S. Lewis talked about in An Experiment in Criticism as "fully attending both to sound and sense . . . hold[ing] ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us" is almost an anomaly when it comes to reading on the internet. This is largely because we come to online texts with a set of expectations different from those we bring to a book. We read books cover to cover, and even when we scan them, our reading retains a sequential quality. But research has shown that most people do not read a webpage from left to right and top to bottom. Instead, they tend to skip around, scanning for relevant information.

Because our brains have a natural predisposition to continually shift their attention from one object to the next, book reading, especially silent reading, requires a special effort of concentration. Online reading, however, does the opposite: rather than countering the brain's propensity for distraction, it feeds it. From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an "ecosystem of interruption technologies." Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information. In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed "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."

If our online reading habits are considerably different from those we apply when reading a book, or even a printed newspaper or magazine, what happens when we read a digital book? As everything from the King James Bible to the latest bestseller gets put in digital format, will book-reading begin to take on what Carr has argued are the permanent features of the online environment, namely, "cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning"? If so, what are the implications for the Church's use of Scripture?

To state the question like this is to treat digitized literature as something monolithic and undifferentiated. In reality, the way we approach any digitized text, including the Scriptures, will likely vary depending on the mechanism we use to display the digital content. Most of us can probably say from personal experience that there is a great difference between reading Scripture on a web page that has pictures, advertisements, and animations on it and reading Scripture in a plain text format on one's computer, iPad, or Kindle.

The Kindle is an interesting case because, more than any other digital technology, it has managed to successfully simulate the experience of reading a codex. Moreover, the Kindle's slow refresh rate has, at least up to now, kept it from becoming just one more adjunct to the internet. But we should not be too quick to assume that the Kindle is immune from being absorbed into the "ecosystem of interruption technologies" that has become the hallmark of the internet, nor that it is a continuation of what Sven Birkerts has termed "the stable hierarchies of the printed page." Already publishers are experimenting with ways of embedding hyperlinks, social networking, and optional extras into the Kindle. Given the premium put on convergence, that is, the amalgamation of different technologies into a single device, it is by no means certain that the Kindle can avoid going the way of the phone in becoming simply one more adjunct of the worldwide web.

Disengagement of Vehicle from Content

In his book Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong gives numerous examples from the history of human literacy to suggest that changes in book-making technology exercise a subliminal influence on our concept of a book's ontology. We have already seen how handwritten manuscripts oriented one to a certain posture towards Scripture, a posture that changed with the advent of the printing press. If the "sacred pages" of medieval manuscripts carried with them the notion that the Scriptures have an intrinsic value, worthy of years of loving work and skillful beautifying, does the digitization of the same Scriptures convey the idea that the value of Scripture is extrinsic, waiting to be appropriated through the engagement of the reader?

While it is probably premature to attempt to answer this question with certainty, we can make some cautious projections by considering the direction the electronic book has already taken during its brief lifetime. What seems to be emerging is an increasing tendency to disengage form from content. The computer is merely a vehicle, we say, thereby solidifying our sense of the text as a thing detached from matter, perhaps the textual equivalent of Cartesian dualism. The new orientation birthed by electronic media is often retroactively applied to pre-electronic vehicles, as when Ted Nelson boldly declared that "paper is just an object that [some] information has been sprayed onto in the past. . . ." The assumption is that a text exists as a pure essence that can be abstracted from its incarnation in a material form.

In the case of the codex, the only way to destroy the content was to destroy the book, the vehicle that transmitted that content. This is precisely why book-burning has often been considered a sign of flagrant anti-intellectualism. But it is hard to see how there can ever be an equivalent to book-burning in the digital age. The functional irrelevance of the vehicle creates a situation unprecedented in the history of human literacy. The vehicle simply doesn't matter any more.

Since the same digital readers (whether a computer or an iPad) can display both sacred content and profane, even indecent material, like pornography, we legitimately separate the vehicle from the content in our minds. Paradoxically, however, this very disengagement between vehicle and content highlights the digital revolution's greatest influence over content.

After the advent of word separation, reading ceased to be tethered to the community in the way it previously had been. With the digitization of text, however, it is not merely the hermeneutics that become subjectivized, but the ontology of the book itself. After all, the visibility or invisibility of an electronic book—and hence, its ontological status within localized space and time—is entirely at the whim of a thumb or index finger.

While it is uncertain what effects this new mastery over the book will ultimately bring, it would be naïve to assume that the consequences will not be at least as great as those experienced in previous eras of the book's evolution. It is entirely possible, for example, that the indifference to the transformations of vehicles that digital media seem to foster will be analogous to the type of historical amnesia that ignores the Church's role in the transmission of the Scriptures, giving rise to certain crude doctrines of inerrancy that fail to take into account human instrumentality.

Or perhaps by unconsciously approaching the scriptural texts as a "pure essence" ontologically distinct from the process of transmission, we may witness the final flowering of the tendency to absorb Scripture into the subjective and the individual. If the development of word separation followed by the invention of printing made it possible for an individual to assert hermeneutical primacy over Scripture, then perhaps the digitization of the word in our day may extend this possibility even farther.

Temporal Disjunction

But even if our society never experiences what Birkerts refers to as "the displacement of the page by the screen," and even if the Bible continues to be read indefinitely in the form of the codex, there is another sense in which our experience of reading Scripture may undergo a transformation as significant as that effected by word separation or the printing press. To the degree that frequent internet use trains large numbers of people to take for granted the distractibility and disconnection that have become hallmarks of web surfing, it is possible that the internet's influence over our minds will not be limited merely to the time we spend online, just as the quiet reflectiveness of "typographic man" was not limited to the time he spent reading a book. How we read affects how we think, concentrate, and remember information during those periods when we are not actually reading.

Thus, if the codex follows the typewriter in becoming obsolete, this may be less the direct result of the proliferation of electronic media than the natural result of a certain mindset wrought by the internet—a state of mind incompatible with the cognitive demands that the codex places on us. What I have in mind here is a (perhaps unconscious) expectation that texts must give us what we need quickly, together with an inability or unwillingness to connect diverse segments of information into unified schemas of understanding. It is a state of mind in a perpetual condition of distraction, quickly flitting from one thing to the next. Jean-Francois Lyotard's description of the "postmodern condition" can also be applied to the cognitive orientation bequeathed by the internet: "the status of knowledge is altered . . . the general situation is one of temporal disjunction."

When this cognitive orientation is applied to the reading of Scripture, it is easy to anticipate the resulting failure of the reader to grasp the larger theological narratives, either because their context is irrelevant to him or because it imposes too much of a cognitive burden on his mind. For such a person, the idea of reading Scripture within a contemplative life of prayer becomes anomalous. Indeed, Aquinas's picture of Scripture leading one into beatific union with its Author as teachers mediate aloud the divine allure is almost inconceivable in the Google-dominated world we now inhabit.

The Church & the Future of Reading

I am intentionally being both polemical and highly speculative in projecting these extreme scenarios. Quite possibly these concerns about the effects of the digitization of words may turn out to have no more basis than Plato's warnings about the ill-effects of writing words. However, if history is anything to go by, we can be certain that changes in how we construct books will produce changes in how we read, and that changes in how we read will produce changes in how we interact with the content we are reading and, hence, with what we expect books to give us.

There is, of course, no reason to assume that all such changes will be negative. As with the printing press, the benefits of the new technologies may prove to be as great as the drawbacks. For example, as the internet makes audio Bibles available online for free, it will be easier to again become hearers of the Word rather than merely readers of it. And the unprecedented availability of the biblical texts made possible by the internet will have an enormous impact on the work of missions, especially in nations that are generally hostile to Christianity. In the years ahead, this may prove to be one of the most significant developments ever to arise in support of the promulgation of Christianity.

Yet, given the historical fact that technological transformations in book-making have brought both benefits and drawbacks, it would be remiss of the Church to fail to consider the ramifications of the widespread shift wrought by the digitization of text. What these changes will mean in the ongoing life of the Church is difficult to predict, but the shift is bound to be every bit as significant as the introduction of word separation, or the invention of the codex and the printing press. Only time will reveal the full scope of that significance.

There seem to be both positive and negative ways to respond to the new technologies. If the Church were to respond to digitization as the Reformers did to print—by attempting to channel the new developments in constructive ways while putting mechanisms in place that would blunt the negative effects—it would be following the approach recommended by cultural critic Alan Jacobs, who has called for "a strategic engagement with emerging technologies of the book rather than condemning those technologies as irredeemable. . . ." What such engagement should specifically involve in practice, however, is a question the Church will have to explore in the years to come. •

Robin Phillips is the author of the book Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press) and is currently working on a Ph.D. in historical theology through King's College, London. He is a contributing editor for Salvo magazine and operates a blog at

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary.


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