I recently attended a lecture by Bible professor Dr. Michael Holmes at Bethel University. He described how the physical form of the Bible has changed over history. He left us with a question–how does the form of scripture impact how we use and understand it? It is a great question highlighted by the attached Youtube video.
Take for example ancient tablets. These things were actual rocks with words carved on the flat surfaces. Needless to say, an entire set of writings would be pretty heavy. As a result, very few communities had access to anything more than part of scripture. The rest was communicated orally because most people couldn’t read anyway. So the question is, how was their faith experience different?
For one thing, scripture reading and teaching was a corporate event. Individuals would have to depend on the priest to do the interpretation. That gave a lot of power to the priest but also emphasized the community over the individual. Could you imagine never having the experience of sitting by yourself in a corner with your Bible and having a nice little quiet time? That contemplation happened in a group and it happened orally. People had to memorize scripture if they wanted access to it ouside of the Sabbath. In a certain sense, when someone memorizes and talks through scripture, it seems to stick. An oral approach to scripture certainly has some great benefits.
Once the printing press came, that oral culture began to change. Individuals suddenly had access to their own Bible. Can you imagine how exciting that would have been to get your very own Bible? The Bible would be a precious thing. Maybe that meant that each word was more precious than it is today, or maybe it meant that the Bible itself became something so precious it wasn’t to be touched and certainly didn’t apply to the trivial and dirty things of everyday life. The biggest change was that scripture reading became an individual event. Individuals could read and interpret things on their own. It is possible that this one piece of technology did more than anything to move Christianity from a corporate to an individual experience.
So where does that leave us today? With the iPhone, we can read the Bible anytime and anywhere. With Google and sites like Biblegateway.com, we have access to information about exegesis, archeology, history, translations, and various interpretations–all at our fingertips. These new technologies certainly help us become more informed consumers of scripture. I wonder, however, if they might not add to the fragmentation that seems to exemplify our culture. I know when I read my daily devotional, I often neglect to read more than a small passage. I rarely put it in context with the overall flow of the entire scripture. It is also possible that when reading scripture takes the same form as Googling good Italian restaurants, the reverance of the Bible is lost. On the other hand, because the Bible travels with us, perhaps it will ultimately become more part of us. We don’t have to stop and have a preplanned daily devotional time, we can have devotional time whenever we have a few minutes. Perhaps, as referenced in the Youtube video, the technology will just get in the way of the message. When it comes down to it, the Bible is an inherently text-based medium. As our culture moves more toward images, I wonder how that will effect the discipline of daily reading and memorizing of words. Perhaps the ideas rather than the actual words will become more important. Perhaps the stories will be more emphasized than the doctrine.
According to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. If that is the case, the form the Bible takes really does make a difference.
So where do you think we are headed?