It’s OK to use the Bible on your iPad when you preach

My attention was drawn today to an article by Matthew Barrett (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, and executive editor of Credo magazine) on the Gospel Coalition’s website. It’s titled ‘Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church’. Barrett argues that it’s unwise, perhaps even wrong, for pastors and preachers to use an iPad in the pulpit instead of a classic hardcopy Bible. You can read his article HERE.

I found myself disagreeing with Barrett’s arguments almost at every point. The digital revolution is huge. The change it is bringing about in the world of books is similar to the great shifts that occurred in the past. Just as we moved from the stone or clay tablet to the scroll, and then from the scroll to the codex, so we are now moving from the codex to the e-book on digital tablet or phone. Like the previous shifts, this is just a change of medium. The word of God is not the medium on which it is printed. The word of God is the words that convey the Word, whether they are inscribed by a chisel, written with a quill, printed by a laser printer, beamed by a projector light, or present in an app. That’s why the title of Barrett’s article is perhaps unfair and misleading. If a pastor brings an iPad into the pulpit, he is still bringing the Bible to church. The Bible on iPad is no less the Bible than a printed hardcopy. Barrett’s article should probably have been titled ‘Dear Pastor, I want you to bring a Bible codex to church’.

In any case, with the Bible on your tablet, you’ve still got something physical in your hands (something Barrett demands), and you usually glimpse the various books of the Bible in making your text selection (something Barrett says promotes biblical literacy). If we want a seriously authentic experience when preaching, why don’t we just go back to having a repository of biblical scrolls in our church buildings, and the pastor can go pick the relevant scroll and unfurl it at the pulpit. This is what happens when the Torah is read in the synagogue. In fact, you could even argue that the iPad offers a more ‘original’ experience than a codex because you can actually ‘scroll through’ the Bible. I suspect Barrett just needs to get used to the new medium, as do the rest of us. It is quite a revolution after all, but we are also reading more than ever. Why, we could even think about using the Bible on our iPads as a means of ‘redeeming’ the new medium!

If the person in the pew has an issue with a pastor using the Bible on iPad in the pulpit, then perhaps the pastor should think twice. After all, a pastor needs to care for the flock. But in and of itself I see no problem whatsoever in the use of the Bible on iPad. I’m happy to hear other people’s views on this and open to being convinced otherwise, but I really can’t see what the fuss is about.

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29 thoughts on “It’s OK to use the Bible on your iPad when you preach

  1. It was a bit of an odd article (the original, not yours!).

    My guess, though, is that it was onto something. But something slightly, and significantly, different from what he said.

    Particularly, a new medium will have effects – both intended and unpredictable. He mentions that fewer of his students know the order of Bible books, for example.

    Where the piece goes wrong, I think, is in crediting moral implications to the effects. I reckon we do well to ask, ‘I wonder what change this might bring?’ And even, ‘What are the risks, and what are the opportunities?’

    But to suggest change is inherently wrong … well, in that case Christians might still insist on verbal gospels only – way before those pesky evangelists committed the message to writing!

    • You don’t need to know the order of the books on a device, and I’m not sure why it’s a loss therefore to never learn. If the world is thrust back into the dark ages and we *have* to use codices, I’m sure we’ll find the contents page and begin to familiarise ourselves with the order of books again. It’ll be an inconvenient learning curve for about a week.

      • Well, the one very useful thing in knowing book orders is that the OT is in three distinct collection, two of which have a logical order (Law and Prophets). The third (Writings) doesn’t have a particular ordering. It’s more of an anthology. The NT has a kind of ordering, but it’s not really as necessary as the OT ordering. But the irony in all of this is that our English Bibles don’t follow the Hebrew canonical order anyway (at least not all of it). But yes, I see your point. Biblical literacy is more than knowing a contents page.

  2. I am keen to hear some responses about how would an unbeliever know ‘we are a people of the book’ if reading of the Scriptures is done directly from the device.

    • Hi Sipho!

      Interesting question. I don’t think we need a physical printed Bible to be known as the people of the book. Because an e-book is still a book. And as time wears on, and e-books become more of a standard part of life, then it will be natural to be called people of the book by still reading it from a device. The Bible is the word of God. The Bible is not a printed book necessarily. What governs the people of God is the word of God, not a codex.

      However, I can see how some people would be reticent to adopt the technology immediately. Every change we make has a consequence. Nonetheless Christians need to be identified by their commitment to Christ, faithfulness to the Scriptures, and love. Whatever form the Bible takes, as long as those things are in place I think it’s okay. And in fact, to be more precise, Christians are people of the books, because Scripture is a collection of many books. In any case, the term itself is not a biblical term, so I wonder how imperative it is to be known specifically by that term.

  3. I revel in technology. And I use 3 programs regularly for preaching preparation and devotional reading across 3 platforms.

    However, I reckon George you’ve misread Barrett. His title I think is not lamenting pastors are not bringing a ‘real’ Bible to church, but it’s that carrying a physical Bible communicates a message. That’s his main point, and it’s true isn’t it? Just like the way you arrange seats in church or the way you conduct the Lord’s Supper can communicate a powerful message (good or bad!) – it’s not just about what is actually said.

    I don’t agree with Barrett at every point, but I’m going to keep carrying my physical Bible to the pulpit and to Bible studies and on public transport. It does communicate, and the preacher’s job is to communicate well, yes?

    • Thanks for your thoughts. If I misunderstood Barrett, then I think we both have, because I understood him the way that you described. Everything we do sends a particular message. And in church we need to think about the symbolic message of things that we say and do. And I think it’s absolutely right for Barrett to ask questions of the use of iPads in church. However, the title of his article was I think misleading, because it suggests that a Bible must only be a printed copy. I honestly don’t think that this is specifically what Barrett was intending to say, but it is the impression that the title of the article gives. And I wanted to put forth the view that I think it’s perfectly fine to use an iPad in preaching in the pulpit. I’m yet to be convinced that it’s unwise to do so. Pastors must always be thinking ahead of their congregations for their care. If for some reason an iPad is going to put a stumbling block before them, then it is unwise to continue using it. But as time passes, and this technology becomes a default part of everyone’s life, then I don’t think this will be a stumbling block at all. And so I don’t think the points in Barrett’s article actually apply, certainly not in the long run.

      • That’s a fair argument.
        I did take issue with the title at first, then I realised he meant (I think), ‘Dear Pastor, Bring Your [Physical] Bible to Church’ – but stated in a catchier, slightly more provocative way at the risk of being a little ambiguous. And yes, I think the tone of Barrett’s article may – unhelpfully I think – give the impression it’s a moral issue at points, but the strongest statement he gives is in the intro: “I’m concerned about replacing the physical Bible with a tablet in the pulpit.” He never says it’s wrong, though he does give the impression it could be unwise.

        Anyway, a good issue to consider no matter where we end up sitting on the issue. How we ministers communicate non-verbally is important. Thanks for your article!

  4. On a related issue, many evangelical churches ask people to bring their Bibles and to open them when the Bible is read. But, if it’s done well, they would be much better to close their Bibles, and listen intently to the reader. Trying to follow along will inhibit, not enhance understanding.

  5. Interesting discussion, thanks for presenting the other side. I do have one issue with your argument though. Namely, it’s based on the assumption that this change of medium (book to tablet) is no different to previous changes of medium (scroll to codex or codex to book). But I think the change is fundamentally different to those of the past. Reason is, because a tablet is NOT JUST the Bible. It’s something that merely CONTAINS the Bible, as one of its pantheon of apps. Previous media were all purely the Bible, whether in scroll, codex or book. Therefore the change of medium didn’t change the fundamental nature of the object you held as you preached. Change to a tablet does. Now you’re preaching from something that’s not just a Bible. It’s like preaching from a Bible as well as an issue of Cosmopolitan and The Economist at the same time. And in our postmodern society, where we’re fighting hard to uphold the uniqueness and authority of scripture, I wonder if the message sent by preaching from a multifunctional device is not more harmful than helpful.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nick. You’re right in that the shift to a digital tablet is more of a change than, say, the move from the scroll to the codex. Yes, a tablet can contain many apps, not just a Bible. But I still don’t see how that necessarily means an iPad should not be used, or that it’s fundamentally different to the previous media shifts in history. When the preacher is preaching, I doubt that the news app is open, or that he’s conducting a search on Safari, or composing an email, or booking tickets to the movie tomorrow night. He’s got his Bible app open. He’s preaching. When a preacher takes a printed Bible into the pulpit, does that mean he never reads the news, never answers email, never looks up Wikipedia, or never goes to the movies at other times? No. But he does things at other times. It’s the same with a preacher using an iPad, as far I can see. Yes, there are apps on there by which a preacher can do other activities, but he’s going to do those at other times. To say that because there other apps on there he shouldn’t use it is to imply either that the preacher must do no other activities when he’s not preaching, or that those other activities must be unwise or even wrong and sinful. To describe the use of an iPad in the pulpit as the equivalent of preaching from the Bible, Cosmopolitan, and The Economist all at the same time is a caricature. I understand the point being made, but I think it’s a misunderstanding actually. (It also makes me wonder how many preachers do indeed read Cosmopolitan, but that’s another issue).

      I want to encourage iPad users (or whatever tablet they have) to put Bible software on their device and to use it. I don’t want to segregate the Bible into a secluded corner of life. Personally, I think that having and using a Bible app on an iPad is a way of saying that the Bible is still relevant in today’s postmodern society. The Word of God is just as authoritative today as it was when it was written on scrolls, and having the Bible on your multifunctional device is a way of saying that. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and now I can carry his Word around wherever I go and read it even more than before. Having the Bible there in the midst of all those other apps is not necessarily sending a message that the Bible has to compete with other things. It just as easily, or more forcefully I would have thought, says that all of life is under God and the Word is relevant to all of life.

      While I can certainly understand that some would be uncomfortable with the use of an iPad in the pulpit, I’m yet to see that this is because of a fundamental problem with the nature of the medium. I still think it’s primarily about us not yet being used to a new medium. As I wrote, though, a pastor should be sensitive to this issue and if it’s going to cause trouble, he should think twice about using an iPad. But in and of itself, I am still not convinced that it’s fundamentally bad to use a Bible app in the pulpit.

      • George I think you’re one of the devil tool to destroy the earth. Why are you supporting rubbish , I think you should seat down and think well and reason to yourself

      • The discussion by Prof Barrett is not whether we can use our iPad as a resource and have a Bible app, it is about preaching from the pulpit with an iPad. The answer lies in the reverence one associates with the Word of God. If we revere it, see it as we are to be in Christ, set apart, then the answer is quite clear. To hold your electronic device in from of the congregation gives message that the world has entered the room.

        • My discussion is precisely about the discussion you mention: preaching. I beg to differ with your conclusion. I do not see how an iPad brings the world into the room any more than a book (codex) or a scroll. It is simply another medium on which the Word is “transcribed.” I do not attach any kind of holiness to a codex. What if I preached from a scroll?

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  8. I love the new technology and I find many uses for it, but at the same time some things just need to be written, read and maintained in the printed word. Indulge me and allow me to don my tin-foil for a moment. If I have printed bible it will be very hard for someone to take and replace words or scripture in it without my knowledge, but with a digital bible or any book in digital form that matter the options to change at will without my knowledge or consent are almost limitless. Just my thoughts on the issue.

    • Interesting thought, Rich. If the Bible were originally written in a digital age, then perhaps there could be a danger of that. But given its age, the manuscripts, and its careful preservation, I doubt such change is a credible danger. If anything, it would be easier to preserve, since it can be copied in toto with a few deft touches of a keyboard. Furthermore, the transmission of biblical manuscripts through the ages has shown that error can much more easily creep in during transmission when copies have to be handwritten. Even given this, however, the Bible has been remarkably well preserved. In any case, Bible Apps, which can be used in preaching, don’t really allow you to change the text. I really believe that this is simply a new medium we have moved to as a civilisation. We’ve gone from walls, to clay tablets and ostraca, to papyrus scrolls, to parchment, to paper and the printing press, and now to digital media. In all of this, the Word is still the same.

      • Great response and I cannot argue that the digital copy is not a new medium that needs to be embraced and I agree currently society is maintaining the Word as written. I also agree the Bible is one book that has been preserved quite well for many ages. I think we “as it current custodians” need to keep that preservation current and also in a format that can be passed along at the simplest level without the need of technology.

        I must admit I have a little apprehension bias towards it’s use and on a personal level. My thought is it really that hard to keep a little tradition.

        Just a thought but along the same lines of embracing the newest medium. Why don’t we all stay home and watch a sermon online or via a Skype/ video chat? Now I know that is getting off topic and there are many arguments that can be made for against, but if are talking strictly from embracing the newest mediums that is a valid point. IMHO. Thanks for allowing me to ramble

        • There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a tradition, so long as it’s recognised as such and isn’t detrimental to anyone. I have no qualms against people feeling more comfortable with using a printed Bible, but I don’t think there are valid reasons to prevent the use of Bible on iPad in the pulpit.

          Skype is great for catching up with family and friends. But the church’s primary activity is gathering—not just catching up. Skype has its positive use, but the church gathers around the Word, proclaims it, hears it, prays, and edifies. Just like Skype can’t replace family get-togethers, it can’t replace church either.

  9. I use my iPad for a bible I have a hard time finding the scriptures and I love the fact I can make the font bigger. Now yes older people in church do not approve, but with respect to all it is the same word that’s wrote in the big book! If they are so concerned I’d be more than happy to show them!

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