Printed Bibles aren’t just nostalgic
As I prepare to begin my tenth year as a seminary teacher, I will begin the Bible synthesis course that I will be teaching by recommending that my students consider making a habit they are probably unfamiliar with: bringing a genuine, printed and bound classroom Bible.
The reason for my recommendation is not just a matter of nostalgia, although I grew up taking a Bible to church every Sunday. The first Bible I can remember as “my Bible” (the possessive pronoun being a piece of Christian language that seems to have made its way into the instinctive vocabulary of the faithful) was the edition of the youth walk of the New International Version, which was given to me by my parents while I was still in college.
I liked the strip of dark purple that stood out on the cover, but I don’t remember reading it much, other than flipping through it to find isolated verses, old favorites that I had already memorized or that I should have memorized.
It wasn’t until I was in high school, when I acquired a leatherette hardcover study edition of the New King James Version, that I started reading larger chunks of scripture, often sitting down. at church when I was bored with the sermon. This is how I learned my way around the Bible, threading the bead verses I already knew on a larger narrative, historical and theological thread.
It was while reading this study edition – which featured these little half-moon indentations at the start of every Bible book, making it easy to switch between books for cross-reference – that I began to understand why Alan Jacobs called the codex – the form of a published Bible that the early church in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries quickly came to prefer to scrolls – “the technology of typology.”
I couldn’t have put it that way at the time, but I was learning from experience what early Bible interpreters seemed to understand and appreciate: having a Bible with pages stacked together bound together on one side, rather than a long wrapped sheet resembling a piece of pipe, made it possible to examine a section of the Old Testament in context across the page and compare it simultaneously with a section of the New, also in its larger frame.
Handling a physical Bible taught me, on a subconscious level, to read the scriptures as a cannon, a library of books whose disparate voices could be heard as if they were speaking together and side by side on the same subject.
So I will not only recommend hard copies of the Bible because I want to relive my youth: I want my students to become better readers of the whole Bible, leaving its words ricochet from each other and lead them, ping by ping contrapuntally, through a scaled canon game (which is why I will also recommend a hardcopy hardcopy with a good cross-reference system in its footnotes or central column, as this NRSV Where the ESV Personal Reference Bible).
There are many wonderful electronic Bibles to choose from these days (I use the beautiful application on a daily basis). But in 2021 I’m still suspicious, like Jacobs noted it was in 2001, “to use an electronic version of the roller cabinets firmly rejected by the early church”. I wouldn’t want to be without my Tuning software and other applications, but it must be recognized that when we use such tools we return in some respects to the scrolls that the early Christian theologians, for properly theological and hermeneutical reasons, moved with the codex.
But there is one more reason I will recommend the hard copy Bible to my students, and that is because I want them to think about the practices they would like to recommend to those in their charge once they have finished. ‘they will have graduated and become pastors and preachers themselves. The choice of a medium for our reading of the Bible does not concern us only; these are the types of attitudes and postures that we would like to encourage in our churches.
The technological critic LM Sacasas (who recently had a stimulating experience conversation with Ezra Klein) assembled a series of questions each of us might be wondering when we consider our relationship with various technologies and devices. The questions are pretty straightforward (How will using this technology affect my relationships with others?)
At least one of the questions seems particularly relevant to our encounter with the Bible: “What practices will the use of this technology supplant?” In other words, what could we lose – and what could we (tacitly) encourage others to lose, forget or marginalize – if we give up the habit of reading hardcopy and bound Bibles? Those of us charged with the care of souls could ponder this question for a long time.
Ten years ago, Episcopal Priest Fleming Rutledge, not thinking primarily of the classroom but of the assembly assembled on Sunday morning, written about his frustration with the fashion in many episcopal churches to print every Sunday’s lectionary readings in the newsletter. Such a practice ensures that the faithful will not feel the need to bring their Bibles or reach for those (sometimes) available in the pews in front of them. (It may also – usefully – discourage them from reaching their smartphones, but that will be for another room.)
“When everyone is reading on a printed sheet,” says Rutledge in his book And God spoke to Abraham, “No one learns where the passage is in the Bible, nor how it relates to what precedes and follows it. She continues for a moment in this vein, with her deliciously characteristic pugnacity:
A whole generation of devotees is being brought up without the sense of actually manipulating the Bible, finding the passage, and reading it in its order. The large Bibles on the lecterns are unused, their pages gathering dust; some have been completely deleted. The marvelous sight of the reader walking up to the lectern and turning the pages to find the place is seldom seen today in episcopal churches; readers find small, flimsy scraps of paper which, for the most part, will be left on the bench or thrown away.
If you go on and read the following sermons, you will find asides such as, “Now notice v. 4… But this is also what we see in the next chapter… ”and so on. The gospel she finds in the textual details of the Bible was appealing enough to this reader, at least, to keep a Bible open in my lap as I read the sermons, my eye swinging between its words and the pages. of Scripture.
I hope what I offer my students in class is the same. And I hope that they will pass it on to Christians reading the Bible, which they in turn will bring up.
Wesley Hill is Associate Professor of the New Testament at Western Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father.
This article originally appeared on LivingChurch.org.