High tech opens a heart to the Bible

February 7, 2011
Jeremiah has an epiphany while watching a potter work with clay.

Jeremiah has an epiphany while watching a potter work with clay.

MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Everyone who reads has, at some time or other, been psychologically kidnapped by a book. A great book carries us away. They are populated with friends, allies, enemies, protectors and persecutors. Great books teach us how to fall in love, answer when challenged, hope when hopes are dashed, cry when we are hurt and laugh for the sake of laughter.

Few of us would honestly name the Bible as a psychological surround sound experience. For most, it's hard to immerse ourselves in the world of the Bible.

I recently began a new journey into the Bible's gated and guarded world when I received a Kobo Reader for Christmas.

A Kobo Reader is a simple electronic device that connects to the Internet and lets you download books that can be read on a small screen. There are thousands of books to choose from and I started with the oldest of them all, the Bible.

For many good reasons, the Bible isn't a book that sweeps us away. First, it isn't a book. It's a collection of books assembled 1,700 years ago from literature that dates as far back as 1,200 BC. The books of the Bible were written in either Hebrew or Greek, and some were written about people who spoke other, equally distant languages, including Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Bible reading is difficult. Chances are every Christian who has ever read Scripture has grossly misinterpreted some part of it. But ever since a third-century scholar named Origen began assembling parallel tables of biblical texts — commonly referred to as Origen's Hexapla — Christians have been inventing new ways to read the Bible.

The Kobo is the latest innovation but it will not impact biblical scholarship the way Origen's Hexapla did. In fact, it may do the opposite. And that's not a bad thing.

Since Origen, we've been finding new ways to apply our brains to the Bible in an analytical exercise.

OVER ANALYZE

We are constantly trying to understand what the words really say and really mean. We atomize our Bibles into all of their constituent stories. Then we explore the episodes within those stories, investigate phrases that relate these episodes and parse individual words which build up the phrases. We select bits and pieces, hold them up to the light and try to discover their inner meaning.

The Kobo won't let you do any of that.

Every other electronic innovation over the past 30 years has turned the Bible into a vast, searchable data base. On the Internet or an iPad or a CD-ROM we can compare translations, call up scholarly notes, place events on a map or in a timeline and follow the twists and turns of hundreds of years of preaching based on a given passage.

The Kobo Reader won't let you do that either.

Specific biblical passages cannot be easily found in the Kobo Reader. Two passages can't be compared side-by-side.

Nor can readers look up footnotes or end notes that might explain translation choices, cultural and historical context or scholarly debate. All you can do on a Kobo is read the text, one page after another.

The table of contents does allow jumping to the beginning of any individual book of the Bible. But to read Jeremiah's epiphany while watching a potter work with clay, you already need to know how to find it in Jeremiah 18. Then, starting on Page 1 of the Book of Jeremiah, you'd have to flip through about half of Jeremiah's 259 pages to get there.

EVER SO EASY

On the other hand, to read the entire Book of Jeremiah from front to back is very easy. The text can be adjusted to any size. The font is clear and leads the eye from one word to the next. There's no screen glare and in many ways it's easier to read than paper editions of the Bible that try to cram the words into as tight a space as possible.

The Kobo always saves your place for you. The light, slim reader fits nicely into a winter coat pocket. That means reading on the bus or subway or any other public place is very convenient.

Overall, the Kobo is a good way to read the Bible. Nobody who reads the Gospel of John from start to finish as quickly as possible, without interruption, as if it were an adventure story, will fail to get what the author wanted to tell us about Jesus. That's because the Gospel of John is an adventure story. All our attempts to turn it into a reference book or a philosophical treatise have drained it of its life blood.

READ AS IT SHOULD BE

Another advantage of reading the Bible on the Kobo is that it's not easy to amputate some slim finger of a passage from the body and use that bit to prove our foes wrong. The Bible as a weapon firing holy bullets at ideological, political and religious enemies is perhaps the most tiresome book ever inflicted on us.

Reading complete books of the Bible to experience the stories — the way we read novels and collections of short stories — gives our hearts and imaginations a chance to claim the territory. It won't answer every question, or render study and analysis irrelevant. But it might make the results of our study matter to us.