The Internet is the best and worst thing that could have happened to serious study, I wrote last time in this series. The benefit is in the sheer quantity of information available. The chief problem is distraction. There are other risks, including that of becoming a Google scholar.
Studying the Bible on computer is another issue yet. Maybe this is less of a factor for younger students, brought up as natives in the digital world. Maybe the personal reflections I’m placing on this page won’t make sense to every reader—that’s a risk I’m taking—but I have a suspicion they’ll resonate with at least some. I’ll start with some difficulties I have with electronic Bible study, and end with some discoveries that have made it very worthwhile nevertheless
The Computer and the Printed Page
Computer-based Bible study feels strange to me. It has the wrong set of associations attached to it. I have been taught and trained that Bible study and prayer are two sides of the same coin; that the two together serve as our most intimate personal connection to God. So I have grown up connecting Bible study with prayer and the devotional life. I will always love holding a physical Bible in my hands.
In the 25 or so years I’ve had a personal computer, I’ve never connected computer use with prayer. Not in the same way, at least. Maybe you have, and maybe—since we’ve been instructed to pray continually—I could have and should have. But I haven’t. As a writer, I love what I can do with this Macbook I’m typing on right now, yet I am sure I will never love holding a computer in my hands.
And now, even as I write this I am learning things about myself; or at least, I’m recognizing important questions I need to ask of myself. What is it about the leather binding and the printed page that makes such a difference to me? Isn’t my focus supposed to be on the text? Am I at risk of a form of bibliolatry, making the physical book such an important factor in my devotional life?
And yet God has placed us in physical bodies, to live in a physical rhythm on earth. He instructed the Hebrews to maintain ceremonies and rituals to remind them of his presence and providence. When Christ came, he came in a real human body and participated in the same ceremonies. Before he died he gave us a new physical remembrance of himself, the Communion practice (or sacrament, depending on your tradition). His death was a real physical death. The body in which he was raised from the dead was a glorified one, transcending the physical by containing and surpassing it, not by denying it.
The point is, our physical lives matter to our spiritual lives. Furthermore, the media by which we acquire information are neither transparent nor neutral. If it were only about the text on the page, then it wouldn’t matter one bit how we approached it; but everything we experience is in a context, and context carries freight.
If holding a printed Bible in my hands draws my attention toward God, then that’s a genuine aid for me in focusing upon God. Now, it could also draw my attention toward my feelings about God, which is not the same thing; or perhaps toward some inward state of mind that I mistake for spiritual connectedness, or even to a sense of self-satisfied pride over doing a commendable thing. To live in a physical body is to live with continually confused sensations and motives. But God knows our frame. We do the best we can, we try to grow through it all, and we rely on his grace for all of our failures.
A Treasure Trove of Resources
So then what about using the computer to study the Bible? It’s an environment fraught with distractions, and for me at least it doesn’t have the same helpful associations as a printed Bible. Is it worth it anyway?
The answer is a resounding yes; for although the propositional text on the page is not the only thing that matters, when it comes to Bible study, it certainly is the main thing. If my devotional life is not directly aided by interacting with a keyboard and a screen, still my life as a student may be; and my devotional life is richly fed by my growth as a student.
Everything we experience is in a context, I have already said, and the text itself is in a context. I can’t get enough information from the text alone to grasp all that the text is about; but oh, what a wealth of knowledge there is available in computer-based Bible study resources!
Two software companies, Logos and Accordance, have granted me review copies of their Bible study applications. I have reviews of each forthcoming. I’ve spent several hours with each of them, focusing on just a few verses in Ephesians, and these applications have led me to unearth things from the text I had never suspected were there. I’ll share some of them later, by way of illustrating what the software can do.
Many, though not all, of the resources included in these packages are in the public domain and available on the Internet. There are free (open source) Bible study applications available, too. The Sword Project is the best I’ve encountered, and it’s not bad at all. I can sum up the difference I’ve found in Logos and Accordance this way: working with these commercially developed applications, it’s much less of a fight to find what I’m looking for, and much easier to organize the results. That’s in addition to the fact that much of what they offer, depending on which package you buy, just isn’t available in open source.
Since It’s Black Friday
The rhythms of life have invested today, the day after Thanksgiving, with a new meaning in America: let’s go shopping! Maybe you’re thinking of buying one of these packages as a Christmas gift for your spouse, your child, your pastor—or yourself. Here then is the short preview of my upcoming reviews. If you’re running a Windows-based computer, you have my deepest sympathy for that misfortune, but never mind that; Logos Bible software is rich with resources, and I would certainly consider it a worthwhile investment.
Mac users have a choice: Logos and the Apple-only application Accordance. Either one would be a fine choice, though naturally they each have their pluses and minuses. Personally I lean toward Accordance, mostly because unlike Logos it was designed for the Mac from the beginning, and the difference shows in both the interface and the learning curve. With either package, on either operating system, you have a choice of the size and price of “library” you invest in.
Apparently even an old guy like me can learn something new. As it turns out, with the right resources on board the computer can be a good tool for Bible study after all.