In the 16th century, Western culture experienced a massive shift in how the general population engaged with the Bible. With the rising literacy rates, developments in print production and the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages, biblical literacy was on the rise—and the medium of engagement was the printed page.
The last several decades have seen the rise of a new medium, and a new form of literacy. For many of us, the initial response will be that reading on-screen often offers little difference to reading on the page, offering simply a representation of paper. However, the web-page and print-page are two fundamentally different mediums and as we do more and more of our reading digitally, it is shaping our reading practices. And since Christians have long-focused on the Word of God, we must be astute as to how our technologies affect our devotional reading practices.
Hyper-reading vs Meditation
What is hyper-reading? It’s a form of reading developed and evolved in the digital sphere, it relies heavily on practices such as filtering and skimming. The practices of hyper-reading have developed precisely because they are hugely helpful to the reader, who is often processing and assessing huge quantities of information, jumping from blog to newspaper to site, filtering advertising banners from articles, seeking relevant menu options, following links and more.
This type of reading is often held up against what is termed close or ‘deep’ reading, reading that involves ‘the slow and meditative possession of a book,’ it’s ‘a way of holding the self apart from the crush of the outer world,’ in effect, the type of reading that we would associate with biblical devotions.
So why do the different modes of reading matter? Because, as Psalm 1 tells us ‘Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on His law day and night.’ Digital reading, often by design, makes meditation difficult, often because hyperlinks outward, continually refreshing newsfeeds and flashing ad banners are constantly encouraging us to move, as opposed to pause. And we are re-wiring our brains to normalise moving swiftly though content.
But what about my Bible app? Is it really that bad?
In many ways, no, it’s not. The most popular Bible app (by YouVersion) has a clean interface, limited number of links, and a good reading mode. In many ways it acts as a simulation of paper Bibles. Not to mention it’s portable, you can access multiple translations and text-to-speech. It’s a uniquely helpful pocket Bible version for quick reference and easy-reading.
However, can we truly embrace a deeper, meditative mode of reading, one which allows us to reflect deeply with God on His word (and interweave that reading with prayer) on a device which is constantly connected and on which we engage in so much fast digital reading? Can we experience ‘depth’ when our practice on our phones is more often to skim in the shallows? Can we resist temptation to switch apps or look up notifications whilst reading the Bible?
Our paradigm for our relationship with God is Jesus, who frequently withdrew from the crowd to be with his Father. Today, the crowd is on our phone. Can we expect intimacy with God when reading via a device whose purpose is mass connectivity?
Let’s not be luddites
Use your paper Bible. Separate deep times of prayer and reflection from more ‘general’ reading or study, for which a Bible app is helpful and convenient. And as we learn to separate different mediums for different practices, we must pay particular attention to the next generation, the ‘digital natives’. If we, as adults, are grappling with issues of attention span, intentionality in Bible reading, meditation and reflection over the noise of contemporary media, then we at least have the memory, experience and training of being ‘unplugged’ readers. Many of them will require wisdom and guidance to inhabit ‘traditional’ devotional practices.
Finally, we must ask, what unexplored possibilities are there in the digital reading? This shift might well allow us to explore creative new ways to experience God. After all, we were not always a print-dependent culture. There were devotions and learning before mass-literacy, often through visual forms and community learning. Perhaps these might be areas in which we can re-learn forgotten practices.
 Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), quoted in: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/reading-digital/0/steps/16832