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Are paper Bibles better? How screens shape our reading

March 2021 | by David Mathis

It was a gift from my parents back in 2001. For weeks I had waited, and there it was under the tree on Christmas Eve from Mom and Pop: a first-edition English Standard Version. My first new Bible after leaving home. It would be the first Bible that I would read from cover to cover – and keep reading. In fact, it’s still in daily use today, almost twenty years later. The pages are tattered and torn, for sure. Some old markings are helpful; others distracting. The cover came unattached at some point. My wife had it re-covered for Father’s Day last year, and that has given it new life.

Many times along the way, I thought I was retiring it. With each passing month, the world was becoming more digital, and I suspected at times that sticking with paper might be backward. For seasons, I tried my hand at morning reading on a laptop or an iPad. I had the longest run with a Kindle. The digital media offered quick clicks to study notes and commentaries, as well as the ability to copy and paste for other uses.

But mysteriously, the devices seemed to wear on me over time. Whether it was my eyes or my brain or just the feel of paper, I felt like I was missing something with pixels. My soul didn’t seem quite as settled, quite as calm and at peace, when I looked at a screen. And I was far more easily distracted on those devices. Somehow or other, I kept making my way back to my old paper Bible. Now perhaps I’m beginning to learn why.

Read the Bible differently

I want to invite you to join me in doing something countercultural: get a paper Bible and learn to read it differently from your phone and other screens, and make the words of God your rock in a world of multiplied words of sand. You don’t need an old tattered, torn, marked up, and re-covered Bible like mine. You might consider, though, whether paper might make a difference in your time alone with God. There is some research to consider, not just my experience.

I won’t pretend this invitation is for everyone. If you’re happy with your screen and not falling into the pitfalls of digital distraction and shortened attention span, well and good. This is no new law. Just a missive from the margins of the digital world. No more than a gentle nudge.

Deep reading versus shallow

It’s been ten years now since Nicholas Carr famously sounded the alarm in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. ‘Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.’ With each passing year, more voices raise questions and join the chorus.

Some today talk of our ‘bi-literate’ brains. For now, we have learned to develop two kinds of reading, paired with particular media. One is more linear, slower, deeper, deliberate, logical, coherent, sustained, and on paper. The other: more nonlinear, fast, scattered, disjointed, and shallower, as we browse and scan, eyes jumping or darting around the page, digital.

Precious milliseconds

According to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, increased speed is not a simple net gain.

We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes. For it is within these moments – and these processes in our brains – that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs.

And if we would be naïve to take lightly the loss of these ‘precious milliseconds’ in our other reading, how much more with the words of God? If any of our reading might reward more care, more patience, more diligence, more deliberateness, would it not be the intake of God’s own words in Scripture?

The issue is of particular significance for Christians, for Bible-readers, for ‘the People of the Book’ that the church has been for centuries. Just last year, Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Southeastern Seminary, writing for Christians on how screens are changing the way we read Scripture, noted that ‘reading on digital devices does not create the same kind of brain circuits as deep reading’ and warned of ‘the habit of superficial comprehension developed in digital reading’.

She concludes with a strong claim that may surprise many readers: ‘As a “People of the Book”, Christians have a particular calling to preserve and promote the gift of deep reading from physical Bibles.’

Meditation, not medium

The main reality I want to commend here is meditation, if not medium – how you read, not whether it’s paper or pixels. The Bible, of all books, is the kind of book designed to be read slowly, deeply, thoughtfully, repeatedly.

Ancient texts, especially the biblical text, were not written like so much of our content is today – quickly, for quick publication, and for quick reading. Rather, as Alastair Roberts observes, ‘When books were rare and costly, texts tended to be much more dense with meaning, rewarding forms of attentive reading that are uncommon in our age.’

The Bible is a book like that. Ancient. Slowly written, not rushed off to press. Carefully copied. Meant for slow, thoughtful, careful reading – and multiple readings. And here’s where I want to push against the grain today: I want to enjoy the rewards of ‘forms of attentive reading that are uncommon in our age’. Paper helps me.

I am not making a case for slow paper reading only and no digital. The ship has sailed on digital. We can’t avoid it. We will read digital. And it is a tremendous gift. Almost certainly you are reading these very words digitally. That is all well and good. I don’t know that digital is ruining us. But if we lose the ability to read deeply, that would be a great loss.

And nowhere would that loss be felt more than in the pages of Scripture. In a world awash in digital, where it takes intentionality to keep your reading diversified between paper and plasma and not have it all simply be on screens, there may be wisdom in not going fully paperless, especially when it comes to the words of God.

Slow down, read deep

At the end of the day, of course, the issue isn’t the medium but meditation. Slow reading. Deep reading. Steeping your mind and heart in God’s words, rather than skimming. Slowing down enough to let the text truly speak to you, shape you, read you, wreck you, rather than browsing paragraphs for data to fit preconceived notions.

The Psalms frequently celebrate the kind of life formed and filled by meditating on God’s words day and night (Psalm 1:2; 63:6; 119:97). Such meditation happens by slowing down, fixing our eyes (Psalm 119:15) on God and his wondrous works (Psalm 119:27; 145:5), pondering him (Psalm 77:12; 143:5) in our hearts (Psalm 19:14; 49:3; 77:6).

If you’re honest, is that something you regularly experience when you are reading on a screen? Some do. And some of us seem to get help here from paper. For whatever enigmatic reasons, I have found my old paper Bible helps me slow down and read deeply.

So, again, I invite you to join me. But whether it’s paper or not, learn to read the Bible differently from your phone and other screens. These are the words of God. Slow down. Chew. Give yourself those ‘precious milliseconds’, and ask God to extend them into precious extra minutes of meditation as you pause to enjoy God himself in his Word.

David Mathis is Executive Editor of desiringGod.org and Pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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