I’ve recently read a number of posts and blogs decrying Google (as a symbol of the internet) for how this new information medium is affecting us. In one of those, Mark Ward asked about the relationship between that concern and Bible software. Here is an [extremely] expanded version of a comment I posted on his site. In fact, it’s mostly a new article. I’ll put my initial comment into a blockquote later on…
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is the title of Nicholas Carr’s recent article on theAtlantic.com. Because of its eye-catching title and mind-catching content, this article quickly spread across the blogosphere. (Out of the 40 RSS feeds I read, at least 4 posts referenced the article; at least that many also wrote about Andrew Sullivan’s related post on TimesOnline.) I personally found this quite ironic – an article is written warning us of the dangers of blog-cruising, hyperlink-flung web-skipping and the reaction: let’s all blog about it!
Carr and Sullivan raise valid concerns – namely, that the way we read and learn from the internet (and other electronic media) is affecting the way we think. Their basic thesis is that that medium (the means) by which we obtain information affects the way we process that information (in other words, it changes how we think). Carr offers both anecdotal evidence and research supporting this claim. I’m inclined to agree and, frankly, it’s disconcerting. I’ve seen this change in my mind to a degree. On the one hand, I can read/skim through blog posts with ease but, on the other hand, I’m finding that I need to apply extra discipline when I sit down with a non-fiction book.
Carr lists (in balance of his warning) some other advances that met with similar resistance (like writing and the printing press). While this concession is valid, Carr doesn’t give up on his main argument. Rightly so.
And even more rightly so for the Christian. I want to bring this warning out of the “internet culture” context and relate it to Christianity. How do Christians respond to this apparent shift?
Why should we be concerned about this shift from print to electronic information (and its resultant thought change)? God gave us the words he wanted us to have in a book. Not a website, a blog or even a PDF. A book. From the commands to Moses (Ex. 17.14; 34.27) to John’s commission (Rev. 21.5), Scripture is written. In fact, the word “scripture” refers to things that are written (both the English and the Greek – graphe). The objection could be raised that Gutenberg’s press was a departure from “writing” in a rigid definition. That’s true, but consider the history of the Bible. In a fly-over pass, Scripture proper began with written scrolls (OT). [Excursus: forgive another oral tradition clarification, but even when oral transmission may have played a part in the recording of God’s words, it is the “Scripture” (written word) that is inspired (II Tim. 3.16), not the word-of-mouth account.] NT books were written on parchments. These were copied by hand as needed. Eventually, large groups of pages were bound (hand-written books). With the coming of the press, duplication was greatly aided (both quality and quantity). Chapter and verse numbers were added shortly thereafter. Within a few centuries, print concordances were available. And now, we have electronic copies of our Bibles (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and dozens of other languages) that we can read and search and sort and analyze.
So what? Of all these changes, I see two that have significantly affected how we read the Bible.
First, the introduction of chapter/verse numbers made it easier to find a passage (especially in longer books!), but over time, I believe that this innovation has led to a change in the way Christians read their Bibles. Simply put, we let artificial divisions control our interpretation. A verse is a verse, so all I need to do is find one with the words I want and I can prove my point. Unfortunately, we’ve allowed a helpful thing make it easier to misread (or not read) context. I’m thankful for a recent trend toward verse-number-less Bible layout as in The Books of the Bible (Disclaimer – I appreciate the layout very much, but I am not endorsing the TNIV as a preferred translation).
Second, the advent of Bible software is altering the way that many approach their Bible. In BibleWorks, I can pull up every use of the word “love” (Hebrew, Greek or English) in a matter of seconds and graph how the word is spread over individual books and chapters. I can instantly find that passage that is escaping my recollection – simply by recalling one or two key words. I can run analytical tools that examine contexts, thoroughly cull desired words and phrases and display the results in an easy-to-grasp way. I have access to raw data that would have taken hours upon hours to acquire 250 years ago. But am I reading my Bible better for it?
I would submit that there are some dangers to avoid in the use of Bible software.
One is the danger of subconsciously equating Google searches with word searches. We google a phrase and assume that we now have all the available information on the topic. Word studies of that depth are only part of the theological study – much more can be gained from concept studies. As much as I love BibleWorks7, nothing it offers comes close to reading and re-reading the passages under consideration for detail.
Another danger is the easy searchability that comes from electronic library materials (yes, that can be a danger!). A heavy reliance on “search function” research puts the reader in jeopardy of basing conclusions on snippets of others’ conclusions – without reading or understanding the work that went into their writing. It’s the danger of laziness – letting someone else do the analysis & synthesis and grabbing bits of their conclusions without bothering to check their data or process. (Plus, you learn a lot more when you are forced to read the other pages around the “necessary” portion of your commentary!)
Is there value in electronic Bible study materials? Absolutely! I rely heavily on BibleWorks7 and am eagerly anticipating a Logos purchase in the near future. But the cautions are valid and necessary. Software data gathering is never a substitute for reading the Bible. Commentary-skimming is lazy and precarious. If God wanted us to read Scripture as a collection of word searches, he wouldn’t have given us a book full of narratives and sermons and letters and songs! Further, we’ll never google our way out of theological tension – God allows that to keep us humble (among other reasons). Note Carr’s warning: “In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed” (from “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“).
We must not glorify technological advances and research tools and search functions and portable libraries while “what we may be losing is quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives” (from “Google is giving us pond-skater minds” by Andrew Sullivan).
I’m going to go read a book now.