In the summer of 1979, just a few years after Jimmy Carter brought the term “born again” into the mainstream American lexicon and Steve Jobs made the home computer a part of everyday life, two engineers at Intel hatched a plan to create a new kind of technology company.
Kent Ochel and Bert Brown’s new endeavor would combine their religious faith and their lifelong desire to build their own company, enabling them to do something unprecedented—they would bring the Bible into the digital age and put it on every personal computer in the world. Early the next year in Austin, Texas, at the crossroads of the American Bible Belt and the burgeoning computer industry, they created Bible Research Systems and set to work merging their technical know-how with their love of Scripture.
In January 1982, they released the first version of The Word Processor for the Apple IIe, making it the first commercial Bible study software on the market. Softalk magazine hailed it for including a complete and searchable text of the King James Bible, promising it would “aid the serious Bible student” and comparing Ochel and Brown’s accomplishments to Gutenberg’s printing press.
As the personal computer industry and Bible software market grew alongside one another in the 1980s, scholars and religious people alike began to wonder if computers might fundamentally change religion and, more specifically, how the shift from printed books to electronic media would transform the practices of Christians, who for centuries had been called “the people of the book.” What would happen to Christians as they became “the people of the screen”?
Before the advent of Bible software, Christianity had undergone two previous shifts in the use of media. The first was the shift from the scroll to the codex in the first century, which some scholars argue became an identity marker for early Christians that distinguished them from Jews and pagans.
Although the codex was not initially considered worthy of something as weighty as Holy Scripture, early Christians appear to have found the codex easier to use: faster for finding passages, capable of holding more information, and better suited for travel. On top of the technology of the codex, Christians added various innovations such as visual flourishes, parallel columns, notes, and other study tools, including divisions that are similar to our modern chapters. But the expense and time it took to produce a full copy of the Bible meant that average Christians could not afford their own Bibles and only clergy had the privilege of reading from them.
The second major technology change came in the shift from the handwritten codex to the printing press in the 15th century. Historian Elizabeth Eisenstein argued that the printing press was instrumental in spurring many of the large-scale cultural changes in Europe, including the scientific revolution and the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, Martin Luther, who wrote his 95 Theses (1517) more than 75 years after the construction of Gutenberg’s first printing press (1440), himself declared the technology to be “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”
As with the codex, printers took advantage of new technology to add new features to the Bible that would go on to shape how the Bible would be read. Perhaps the most powerful was the creation and standardization of the chapter-and-verse numbering system.
Today, these numbers are so common that the average reader might assume they were part of the original biblical writings, but the modern versification scheme we use today was created by French scholar and printer Robert Estienne for his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament. The printing press also drastically reduced the cost of Bibles, enabling the creation of more translations, study features, and other innovations.
The electronic or digital revolution represents a third shift that is just getting underway. Religion professor Bryan Bibb writes that “the current shift from codex to screen will be every bit as decisive as the historic shift from scroll to codex in the Greco-Roman world, or the shift from hand-lettered to printed manuscripts in the Late Middle Ages.”
The digital revolution is too new to truly assess whether it will create a new Reformation, but we are far enough into the digital Bible’s creation and use to begin examining the actors behind the industry. Technological change is sometimes framed in terms of the technology itself, with authors asking questions like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
But instead of attributing personhood and agency to technology itself, we can assess technology more clearly by pulling back the veil and investigating the people who create Bible software—programmers, entrepreneurs, and Christian business leaders—and their role in reshaping how modern readers encounter Scripture. Who are the Gutenbergs of today, we might ask, who are bringing the Bible to us on screen, and what are their motivations and beliefs?
What we will find is that of all Christian traditions, evangelicals stand apart for their involvement in both the production and consumption of digital Bibles. In fact, after the initial wave of Bible programming experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, nearly all the major companies and ministries involved in the creation of digital Bibles—beginning with academic software in the 1970s and continuing through the personal computing era of the 1980s, the launch of the internet in the 1990s, and the mobile era of this century—have roots in evangelicalism.
In addition, the churches and individuals most likely to incorporate digital Bibles in their faith are evangelicals. Muslims, Hindus, and other religious groups create applications for their followers, and nonevangelical Christians have created Bible software, but the most commercially successful desktop applications, the most highly trafficked websites, and the highest-ranked mobile Bible apps were all created by evangelical individuals, companies, or ministry organizations.
These technological entrepreneurs brought to the digital Bible enterprise a distinctly evangelical outlook on the Bible as an object and as a religious text, and their beliefs about how culture, media, and religion interact were mutually shaped by the move into digital media.
In the first full-length book on digital Bibles, Liquid Scripture, theologian Jeffrey Siker notes that YouVersion, in particular, “is clearly evangelical in scope, and proudly so,” and he goes on to argue that the app itself promotes evangelical ways of thinking about Scripture, its purpose, and the ways one should read it.
Similarly, Tim Hutchings has argued that evangelical developers who create Bible software have effectively, although unintentionally, employed social scientist B. J. Fogg’s concept of “persuasive computing” to privilege evangelical readings of the Bible in their applications. YouVersion, he argues, prioritizes daily reading and study patterns that lead to evangelical conclusions about the text.
While Ochel and Brown may have viewed their plans to combine faith and ministry with business and media as novel, in fact this impulse has deep roots in the history of the evangelical movement. As historian Timothy Gloege has shown in his analysis of the origins of Moody Bible Institute in the late 19th century, evangelicalism can be understood not only as a set of doctrinal beliefs or spiritual attitudes, but as a flexible outlook capable of adapting to economic and technological shifts and which sees a parallel between successful business outcomes and spiritual development.
As Bruce Shelley wrote in the 1960s, “Evangelical Christianity is not a religious organization. It is not primarily a theological system. It is more of a mood, a perspective, and an experience.” At times, this mood takes the form of a conservative outlook that fears technology and its potentially negative moral influence, but other strands of evangelicalism readily employ technology in service of their greater mission, exemplified by Billy Graham, who embraced and mastered radio and television.
More recently, YouVersion has been so successful in understanding the power of modern technology that it was featured as a case study in behavioral engineer Nir Eyal’s book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. This flexibility and pragmatism regarding doctrine, practices, media, business, and politics are the very things that made evangelicals uniquely suited to be pioneers of the digital Bible industry and the primary early users of Bible software.
The evangelicals I have interviewed for my research, both developers and end users, emphasize the importance of the Bible in their worship and personal spirituality. They also extend this with an expectation that regular Bible engagement will lead to spiritual change and pair it with a flexibility and openness about how they accomplish this goal. For the developers, this can be observed in the way they move fluidly between discussing business and technological success alongside spiritual and missionary success. They do not equate the two, but they are comfortable with their being interrelated and intermingled on a parallel trajectory.
While many Bible software companies have different business models and technological emphases, their outlooks on media, ministry, and business tend to share a set of common characteristics.
First, they have a hopeful outlook, exhibiting a net positive view of technology’s potential for Christian ministry and personal growth. Although they are aware of the potentially negative aspects of modern technology such as distracting notifications and skim reading, they tend to believe it is better to be a part of technology development than to retreat from such a significant aspect of modern life.
Second, they are highly engaged entrepreneurs and savvy business leaders capable of building successful technological and creative systems. Many of the successful Bible software companies were started by people with experience in the technology sector, and the evangelical penchant for integrating not only technology but also cultural trends and business methods served their companies well.
Third, they are pragmatic in approach, making decisions based more on what “works”—in both moral and business senses—than on any systematic beliefs or direction from an authority. The company leaders seamlessly move between markers of spiritual and financial success, and they are willing to try almost anything as long as they can find data demonstrating its effectiveness. They take seriously the call to make disciples of all nations, and they are excited about the potential of technology for helping the church accomplish its mission.
Together, these three traits can be combined into an attitude that I call “hopeful entrepreneurial pragmatism,” a summary of the approach evangelical software companies take toward the digital Bible. It is a useful framework for understanding why evangelical Bible app developers have been so successful and why evangelical readers are so open to embracing these apps.
Evangelical readers, too, bring with them the importance of regularly engaging in devotional and Bible study activities and the belief that they are to read the Bible for its capacity to “transform lives.” The Bible is not just a religious text for evangelicals, but a deep source of spiritual life and connection with God. The digital Bible gives them a variety of new means of accomplishing these goals and deepening this connection. From personalized reading plans to Bluetooth-enabled audio versions, they are open to all the options presented to them if it helps them become more like Christ.
They recognize that some of these are better for accomplishing particular types of Bible engagement (e.g., print for devotional reading, digital media for searches), and yet the churchgoers I studied admitted that their heuristic for choosing a Bible was often very simple. They chose what I like to call the NAB, or the Nearest Available Bible, which, due to the high percentage of smartphone ownership, is often a phone-based Bible app.
This adaptable approach to both technology and the Bible then reinforces evangelical ideas about the nature of Scripture and the goal of faith. And yet, potential problems with screen-based media, such as increased distraction and decreased comprehension rates, at times undercut the perceived gains offered by digital Bible technology.
While basic factual comprehension is important in Bible reading, the spiritual experience one has while encountering the text may be even more central to one’s faith. The data I found and summarized in People of the Screen suggest that Bible readers tend to see a kinder, gentler God when they read about him on a screen, and yet they report feeling more discouraged and confused by the encounter. Conversely, print readers tend to emphasize more of God’s holiness and judgment but report feeling more fulfilled and encouraged by the encounter.
It is also important to recognize that these changes in the habits and hermeneutics of today’s readers are not entirely comparable to the previous media shift to print. Where the print Bible entirely replaced the handwritten codex, today’s Bible readers often use screen-based Bibles alongside a print Bible, and they add audio Bibles to the mix, creating a multimedia experience. This suggests a rich new environment for exploring the relationship between culture, Scripture, and technology.
Bible software development has taken place in four waves. In the first wave, the preconsumer academic era (1950s–1970s), the only people using computers to interact with the Bible were scholars doing linguistic analysis. This shifted in the second wave, the desktop era (1980s), when the first consumer applications were released. These applications, such as ThePerfectWord, Logos Bible Software, Accordance, and PC Study Bible, were designed primarily for study and exegesis and used by pastors, seminarians, and scholars.
In the internet era (1995 onward), websites like Bible Gateway and new translations like the NET Bible began appearing online, and their presence expanded digital Bible usage beyond the offices of pastors and linguists into the homes of regular Bible readers.
Finally, in the mobile era (2007 onward), marked by the release of the iPhone and YouVersion’s Bible app, discussions about the digital Bible entered the mainstream as bloggers debated whether preaching with an iPad “sends an entirely different message to the congregation” than using a printed Bible or simply represents a natural transition in the digital age.
In the decade since its first release, YouVersion went from a small web-based experiment in user-generated content to being a staple in Apple’s list of the top 50 free iOS apps, making it the most popular Bible app and a fixed part of the religious technological landscape.
But this landscape also extends beyond smartphone apps to include desktop Bible study software, Bible websites and tools, and social media where users share Scripture with one another. The trends indicate that in the 40 years since 1982, when Ochel and Brown released the first commercial Bible software, digital Bible usage has gone from zero percent of all Americans to over 35 percent.
The American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible research includes several trends that indicate that the number of Christians who use digital media to access the Bible has been steadily increasing over time, and they are doing so using many different forms of media. In 2021, 59 percent of respondents said they preferred print overall, but in the eight years between 2011 and 2019, the amount of American Bible readers who used a smartphone to access the Bible grew from less than a fifth (18%) to more than half (56%).
After asking about different forms of media, surveyors ask about the user’s overall preference: “All things considered, in what format do you prefer to use the Bible—print, digital, or audio?” The data show that during the period of increased digital media usages, the percentage of participants who reported a preference for reading the Bible in print has consistently hovered around 75 percent.
As one might expect, this varies by generation, with Gen Z being the first age group to rate print at under 50 percent. The fact that three-quarters of Bible readers use digital media at least some of the time, but two-thirds still prefer print, indicates that there is room to explore the interplay between media and the settings in which one is preferred over the other.
Print and digital should be understood less as a strict dichotomy and more as a broad spectrum of Bible engagement experiences.
In the early 2010s, some State of the Bible survey respondents attributed their recent increase in Bible reading frequency to downloading a Bible app, suggesting that the novelty of Bible apps may have played a significant role in their behavior. This is an indicator that evangelical Bible software developers have, just by creating apps, influenced the way Americans engage with the Bible.
Just as developers need to be aware of the power they and their tools have over our reading habits and hermeneutics horizons, readers need to be aware of the ways in which medium and message are inseparable. The new patterns of Bible engagement available to us—reading Scripture on a screen, sharing Scripture on social media, searching in a language we do not speak, hearing Scripture in the car—are no more neutral than the advent of the printed Bible several centuries ago.
In this digital era, I would encourage you to mix old and new, memorize not just search, meditate not just share, listen not just read, do not just hear. As you use different forms of media to encounter Scripture, reflect on them with others in your faith community and work together to make choices out of conviction rather than convenience alone.
One of the first questions I asked the participants in my study was how they felt their engagement with the Bible had changed since they first started using Bible apps. Many of them shared stories of their excitement and frustration with digital Bibles, but a few surprised me when they said they regularly used digital Bibles but it had not brought any change. This initially puzzled me, until I read one responder’s explanation: “I became a Christian after the advent of the smartphone.”
These words remind us that, as a new generation encounters the Bible for the first time, they will not experience it exclusively orally as in the days before the printing press, or primarily in print as was the case for the past several centuries. Instead, for them, “the Bible” will always be a multimedia category, and they will have more complex decisions to make about which combination of Bible media they want to use.
If the evangelicals in this study are any indication, the next generation will continue to find ways to faithfully navigate whatever comes, embracing new technology while holding on to what they believe is essential. As the prophet Isaiah might say, technology will advance and media will change, but the Scriptures will remain forever.
John Dyer is vice president for enrollment and educational technology and assistant professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Text from People of the Screen: How Evangelicals Created the Digital Bible and How It Shapes Their Reading of Scripture by John Dyer. Copyright © 2023 by John Dyer and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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