There’s a very striking story about a man who never learned to read but who had a well-worn Bible. Someone asked him why the pages were so worn and his answer was that since he couldn’t read it, over the years he thought he might as well count the words. It’s a fantastic sermon illustration and a great way to motivate people to do their Bible reading. But I’ll admit that I’m actually rather uncomfortable with it. I’m glad that the man loved the object so much and it probably does indicate a robust love for God. But I’m going to argue that for the rest of us, this could point to a view of Scripture that’s a bit superstitious; even misleading.
In fact, I’m going to argue that there’s a human tendency to hold onto physical objects and miss the most important reality of all. The point of the Bible is the words.
One expression of this happened in the transition from physical paper to digital. My primary consumption of Scripture switched to a screen a long time ago. Recently I’ve gotten into the habit of buying cheap award Bibles, marking them like crazy and then replacing them every year with a new copy. But am I missing out on something? Would I not be better to invest in a really nice physical copy that I use my entire life?
And the answer is yes and no. I’ve walked into museums and looked at the heavily annotated pages of famous believers. Many of my friends can find passages because they remember the layout of a specific page. Calfskin leather smells nice; beautiful pages add a tactile component to reading. I don’t have any of that. On a given day I might be using any of three different devices, reading in multiple formats or using multiple languages. It’s almost never the same.
But I’ve come to terms with all of that because of an idea that I believe very passionately and it’s this: what makes the Bible powerful is not calfskin leather, gold-edged pages, a certain layout or even one specific edition that I’ve personally used and marked for 30 years. The power of the Bible is one thing and one thing alone—the words.
In fact, without minimizing the real advantages above, I actually think I benefit from not becoming too attached to one particular format of my Bible. Changing translations, medium and format keeps my approach fresh and focused on what actually makes the Bible powerful. I do have highly annotated personal copies and personal notes that I highly value. I do care very much about formatting, interface, medium and most of all translation. But when I think of “my Bible” there isn’t any single object that comes to my mind. Because I read it in so many different forms I find myself attached to nothing else but the words.
I’ve kept this view to myself for several years because it was kind of generational. It was mostly a question of technology vs. old school and I didn’t entirely trust my own judgment. But now the same ideas have cropped up again on the trendier side of things. People in my demographic think a lot about typography, layout and now even the construction of books. It’s a good thing to think about, and I’m not uninterested in it myself.
Applied to Scripture, this has resulted in some really neat projects that I do think make a difference in how we read our Bibles. The ESV Reader’s Bible takes out all the references and reading it in paragraphs like a continuous story. I highly recommend it—it clearly changes the way you read. Going even further, Bibliotheca and the new six-volume ESV add thick pages and premium quality binding.
Which is where I start to get a little uncomfortable. There’s no reason to make Bibles ugly. But might we get so excited about the hand-stitching and soft paper with torn edges kept in a leather covered box that we actually lose touch with a more basic priority? Might we fall in love with the bracketed serifs of the designer font meticulously worked out in precise kerning and forget to spend time looking at the words?
In fact, the two generational extremes are less different than we think. Today’s hipster is tomorrow’s has been. The new, cutting edge, thought-provoking insights turn into stale and stodgy tradition in a decade or two. Either way, the basic problem is that loving your Bible shouldn’t be about the crinkly sound of the pages nor the hand stitching and leather covered box for our five volume set. The point of the Bible is the text. I don’t mean typeface and kerning; I mean the words. We read the Bible because God said it.
And those words are so profound, they can be rendered into any language and still change lives. They can be scratched onto papyrus or displayed with e-ink and at essence it’s still the same. We ought to be glad for people to read God’s words wherever they can or will—on their phones, their kindles, their grandmother’s old two-column edition or on a chalkboard if that’s what they want. The most important attributes of any Bible in any medium are the same: (1) God said it and (2) those words change people.
So here’s my advice. If you have a Bible you treasure because it holds your notes from thirty years, you should treasure it even more. If you’re thinking about making an investment in software (as I have) or a nice reader’s edition, I hope you will. People that love God’s words usually invest in them too. But more important to me than your buying them, keeping them, or treasuring them is that you read them. It’s the truth that changes people; not physical objects. Counting the number of words in a Bible counts for nothing spiritually if you don’t read it. So don’t just venerate a stack of papers wrapped in calfskin leather. And don’t get so obsessed about the beauty of your new readers edition that it distracts you from the whole point. The beauty of the Bible is in the words. Read it.