How do you read the Bible?
Once upon a time, there was only one answer to this straightforward question: You picked up a Bible—as in, the printed book—and read it. Simple.
In the internet age, however, more and more people are using various online Bible-reading tools for their personal engagement with Scripture. And a new study indicates some surprising benefits and potential pitfalls of doing so—especially for men.
John Dyer, a Christian coder by trade, is currently doing PhD research on how Scripture’s online availability influences our interaction with it. In his article “The Habits and Hermeneutics of Digital Bible Readers: Comparing Print and Screen Engagement, Comprehension, and Behavior,” published in the Sept. 3, 2019, edition of the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, Dyer relates some of his findings.
Perhaps most interesting is his discovery that men using apps are more likely than women to finish Bible reading plans. Good news, right? The downside is that their retention of what they’ve read is lower than if they’d been reading the printed-on-paper version. One female respondent in the study (as reported upon by Christianity Today) put her finger on some of the shortcomings of reading Scripture online: “When reading on the phone I feel like I was less engaged than when reading a paper Bible. It felt a little more like skimming an email to get it done rather than really studying God’s word. I do like the electronic reminder.”
Dyer’s in-depth study of how we interact with Scripture finds that migration toward online Bible reading is sometimes an issue of practicality more than preference. Most of the respondents in his study (both male and female) preferred a printed Bible for reading lengthy sections (66%) and for study (65%). That said, Dyer also found that many people use online apps for Bible engagement in contexts where having a physical Bible might be more difficult, such as at work or school.
Overall, Dyer found that many of those in his research used both forms of Bible engagement.
Print and digital Bibles are usually framed in opposition to one another … but the data suggests the relationship is much more complex. Bible reading today is more of a multimedia experience, with readers using a combination of print, screen, and audio depending on form of Bible engagement they are doing.
Dyer’s findings are consistent with what other experts have found about the relationship between digital screens and retention of what we read there (whether the Bible or any other text), namely that the high-speed, non-linear way that we interact with screens means we may not comprehend what we’re reading as clearly.
Writing for Christianity Today in her article “Screens Are Changing the Way We Read Scripture,” Karen Swallow Prior addresses this issue:
As our reading becomes more immersed in a digital rather than a print culture, the more we return to some qualities of the pre-literate world. We are reading more, but the way we read replicates the effects of the discrete images of stained glass windows more than the sustained, logical, and coherent linearity of a whole book. … In a Word-centered faith, the ability to read well is central. As a “People of the Book,” Christians have a particular calling to preserve and promote the gift of deep reading from physical Bibles.
Using a Bible app, then, can be an effective catalyst for getting into Scripture more frequently, especially in on-the-go situations where it may not be practical to carry a Bible with you. But studies like these remind us that to be shaped deeply by God’s truth, we must also carve out time to dig meaningfully into His Word—and probably the printed variety of it.