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Betsy ShirleyOctober 03, 2016

The Bible was the first book ever printed, but ink and paper are no longer required to share its message with a mass audience. At last count, the world’s most popular Bible app, the YouVersion Bible, had been downloaded more than 228 million times. Its distinctive icon, designed to look like a stubby, square Bible, is found on smartphones in every country in the world, giving users access to 1,305 versions of Holy Writ in 954 languages—and counting.

Conversations about the Bible in the digital age usually turn to questions of access: how technology has changed the number of people who can get their hands on a copy of the Bible and how easily. But in the story of ever-changing technology and the timeless word of God, increased access is not the only development. The Bible is a transcendent text with a very stubborn material presence, but when new technology prompts us to change the material context of Scripture—whether from papyrus scrolls to enormous illuminated manuscripts or from mass-produced soft cover books to a string of computer code—how we interact with it changes as a result. 

When I downloaded the YouVersion app to my phone a few months ago, for example, I paused when I read a pop-up message on the screen: “‘Bible’ would like to send you notifications.” Sure, Christians have always believed that God’s word speaks, but a text message straight from the Good Book takes things to a whole new level.

Brian Russell sees this as a very good thing. From his perspective as director of YouVersion, having the app on our smartphones has not only made it easier to take the Bible everywhere we go, it has also made it possible to see what verses our friends are reading and to read and share verses straight to our social media accounts. “In some ways, it’s bringing back this concept of reading the Bible in community,” he says.

The team at YouVersion is already beginning to explore what other technologies could help people engage with the Bible in new ways. Mr. Russell is especially excited about the possible uses of voice technology and artificial intelligence. “What would it look like if I could talk to the Bible and the Bible could talk to me?” he wonders.

Reading Faithfully

The shelves of Mary Elizabeth Sperry’s office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bear the heavy fruit of the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (1965), which urged “all the Christian faithful” to read the Bible often. Despite having moved into the office only a few weeks before, Ms. Sperry already has what seems to be every conceivable version of the New American Bible, including an anime-style graphic novel that is still in production and a portable audio Bible that is half the size of a business card.

As the director of permissions and Bible utilization at the bishops’ conference, Ms. Sperry has made it her mission to erase the idea that Catholics do not read the Bible. While this stereotype irks her (“We are much more biblical than we think we are,” she says, ticking off passages in the liturgy lifted straight from Scripture), she admits that Catholic engagement with the Bible still has room for improvement.

“Ninety-six percent of Catholic homes have at least one Bible,” says Ms. Sperry, quoting a survey in 2015 commissioned by the American Bible Society. “But I always want the survey people to ask, ‘Do you know where it is, and have you opened it since your first Communion or when you got confirmed?’” (She suspects the fraction of people replying yes would be less than 96 percent.)

Ms. Sperry credits her own enthusiasm for Scripture to a set of dramatized Bible stories on vinyl records that her parents gave her when she was a child. “In 1969 that was up-to-date technology,” she points out. Yet when it comes to increasing Bible engagement, she is careful not to assume that creating new resources—digital or otherwise—will automatically increase engagement. “There are lots of resources available, but that has never been a problem in the church in the United States,” she says. “I mean, look at my office.” She gestures to the Bible-laden shelves around her. “What we need to do is invigorate the desire.”

From Ms. Sperry’s perspective, the best way to increase Bible engagement is to help people see themselves—their emotions, their circumstances, their struggles—in a collection of writings from several millennia ago. And that is tricky.

“The resources will come and go, but how do we invite people to take those resources, transform their lives and become the story?” she asks. “That’s the challenge.”

Faith, Visualized

On the opposite side of the country, the filmmaker Pearry Teo has been asking a similar question. Sort of. He is the producer and director of Bible VR, one of the first companies to turn the stories of the Bible into virtual reality. Through the digital worlds Mr. Teo and his crew have created, placing yourself in the stories of Scripture is easy: Simply pop a smartphone into a $15 Google Cardboard headset and suddenly you are a first-century stable hand in Bethlehem, quietly sweeping in the corner while Joseph and a very pregnant Mary negotiate for a place to sleep.

This is probably not what St. Ignatius had in mind when he instructed would-be contemplatives to use their five senses and “see with the sight of the imagination” when meditating on Scripture. Nevertheless, a similar enthusiasm for the life-changing power of picturing yourself in the gritty reality of Bible stories motivates Mr. Teo’s work.

“I had these Bible stories scripted in such a way that the actors are actually talking to the camera—talking to you,” he explains. “You not only feel like you’re observing it, you feel like you’re part of the Bible story.”

Bible VR also includes virtual prayer spaces and tours of Bible-related historical sites geared toward adults who want to see the Holy Land. But the filmed re-enactments of Bible stories are aimed especially at children. Teo, a father and lifelong Christian, envisions Sunday School teachers and parents using it to introduce their kids to the Bible.

“O.K, you just saw a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus Christ,” says Mr. Teo, imagining how teachers might use Bible VR. “Well, so what? What’s important about it? What did you see in there and what did you feel?”

 As Mr. Teo is the first to admit, he and his crew are still figuring out how to deal with the challenges of telling Bible stories in a new medium, especially a medium that makes users feel like they are part of the story. So far, it has been a bit of trial and error. The first time they tested the crucifixion scene, it was so intense that people started crying and fogging up the screens of their phones. In VR, “everything is 10 times cooler,” he explains. “But in the crucifixion, it’s 10 times more brutal.” (The crew plans to reshoot the whole scene, repositioning the viewer a little farther from the cross and getting rid of the mocking crowd.)

During our conversation, we talk almost exclusively about the Bible, but Mr. Teo never mentions the words book or read. Instead, he talks about the experience.

“How do we utilize this technology to change how people experience the Bible from now on?” he asks. “That is the most important thing.”

Mr. Teo is not alone in asking this question. According to Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, this shift from producing and consuming information to producing and consuming experience will be the most significant change ushered in by virtual reality. “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw, but as something that happened to them,” he writes.

For the bearers of the good news, these may be glad tidings. After all, if the word of God is “living and active” (Heb 4:12), it is not simply a bundle of information to transmit, but a dynamic message that has the power to change lives. If new technology helps people access this transformative quality of Scripture—good fruit, good tree—who is to stop it? Put differently, might the God the Gospel of John describes as “the Word” just as easily, in our age, become present in the image, the MP3 file, the GIF or—bear with me—the emoji?

God’s Word in All Things

According to Geof Morin of the American Bible Society (a sponsor of this issue of America), the answer is an enthusiastic yes. “We want the Scriptures to go where people are being influenced,” he says. And he is not afraid to take this philosophy to its wildest conclusions.

For Mr. Morin, this means helping people interact with the Bible through social media (“We’ve got 11 million people on Facebook interacting around different Bible-engagement pages in different languages”), nationwide advertising (“a ‘Got Milk?’ style campaign for the Bible”), and dot-bible domain names. Thinking futuristically, he speculates about Fitbit-style wearable Bibles that would detect emotions through pulse rates and send appropriate Bible passages to its wearer. He even envisions that one day we will be comfortable embedding sophisticated biometric devices inside our bodies. If this happens, he hopes there will be a way to include the Bible.

Increasing digital platforms for the Bible also means the collection of more data on Bible readers. Through partnerships with YouVersion and other creators of digital Bible products, it is now possible to collect information about which Bible passages are most popular, when people read the Bible and whether this information varies by certain demographics. This data could be used to figure out which passages of Scripture will really speak to someone at a particular moment. For example, which psalms do people find most comforting in times of tragedy?

Mr. Morin knows all this sounds a bit, well, creepy. “This is where you hang up on me and run screaming from the room,” he says after delivering his spiel about big data and biometric Bibles. But from his point of view, in a world where our physical and digital lives are becoming more closely intertwined, it does not make sense to leave our spiritual lives behind. “We’re just trying to contend for a space for the soul in the midst of this technological revolution,” he says.

Hearing God’s Word

Futuristic speculation aside, Mr. Morin does not think print Bibles will disappear anytime soon. In fact, he believes that long after other mediums have gone digital, printed Bibles will remain. “The last paper product that will ever be printed will probably be the Bible,” he predicts.

Which brings us to an important disclaimer: if you are reading these black letters grouped on a white background with your own eyeballs, you are unlikely to be the person whose interaction with Scripture will change most profoundly in the digital age. According to Jonathan Huguenin of Faith Comes by Hearing, which produces audio Bibles, the people whose interactions with the Bible will be most dramatically influenced by new technology will be people you have never heard of. Of the people who are still without a complete translation of the Bible in their native tongue, most are primarily oral communicators and do not have written languages, Mr. Huguenin explains. Even if you invented a written form of the language (a three- to five-year process) and then translated the Bible (another eight to 15 years) and handed printed Bibles in their language to them, they still could not understand it.

Faith Comes by Hearing has been producing audio Bibles for the past 44 years. Though they got their start with English-language Bibles for American Christians they now focus on producing audio Bibles that allow small groups around the world to hear the book in their own language.

Until recently, however, the nonprofit organization could not produce an audio Bible unless they had a written translation of the Bible in that language. But in partnership with Seed Company and Pioneer Bible Translators, Faith Comes by Hearing recently developed Render, a software program that allows the Bible to be translated by an entirely oral process. According to the project manager Robin Green, whose master’s thesis on orality led to the creation of the software, “Render seeks to follow the steps recognized as principles of good translation, including exegesis and checks by peers, community members and a qualified consultant.” Unlike other translation methods, there is no writing involved. “Translators listen to a recording of the Bible in a language they understand, translate it orally and record their translation,” she explained by email. “This means that oral communicators can be active participants in translating the Bible into their mother tongue.”

I spoke with Mr. Huguenin on the third day of a translation project to make the Bible accessible to a nomadic people group in Brazil—the first full-scale translation project to use Render. Though he was excited about Render’s time-saving potential, what most excited him was that it did not require people to change their culture or become literate in order to access the Bible. “We’re going to let you work in your area of strength, which is just talking—orality—and harness that power that you’ve been refining for centuries and let you translate the Bible just as you are,” he says.

Like other digital media enthusiasts, Mr. Huguenin talks about audio Bibles as an experience. “What we see time and again, globally, is when you play audio out loud, it draws a crowd,” he says. He describes the Proclaimer, a shoebox-sized, solar-powered audio Bible player produced by Faith Comes by Hearing and popular in places where electricity is not available. “They can’t be stuffed in a pocket and they’re obnoxiously loud,” he explains. “So inevitably, your neighbors are going to come over, or your family is going to gather.” According to Mr. Huguenin, reading the Bible out loud in a group creates a sense of accountability, because friends and family often remind each other of what they have heard.

But unlike virtual reality or biometrics, helping oral cultures produce their own audio Bibles is not about helping people have an experience that is new; rather, it is about allowing people to experience the Bible in a way that is already deeply familiar.

“That question rarely comes up outside of the U.S.,” says Mr. Huguenin when I ask if he thinks audio Bibles are somehow less authoritative or holy than printed Bibles.”It’s really easy for those in other countries to embrace the audio,” he explains. And even though we in the United States are most used to encountering Scripture as a book, “it’s important to recognize that both are God’s word.”

Correction: Oct. 17, 2016: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that "Faith Comes by Hearing" originally produced English-language Bibles for the blind and visually impaired. The group got their starting making English-language Bibles for American Christians. 

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