My Take: How technology could bring down the church
May 15th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: How technology could bring down the church

Editor's Note: Lisa Miller, formerly the religion editor at Newsweek, is the author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,” recently released in paperback.

By Lisa Miller, Special to CNN

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and Bible publishers are ostentatiously commemorating the landmark by producing an abundance of gorgeous doorstops. Leather bound Bibles. Two-volume sets. Replicas of the 1611 version complete with “original” illustrations.

The hoopla is entirely justified, since the King James Bible revolutionized Bible reading, bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world.

It is not too much to say that the King James Bible - mass produced as it was, thanks to a new technology called the printing press - democratized religion by taking it out of the hands of the clerical few and giving it to the many.

Today, another revolution in Bible reading is underway – one that has nothing to do with gilt-edged paper. If the King James Bible brought the Bible to the English-speaking masses, today’s technology goes a giant step further, making Scripture - in any language and any translation - accessible to anyone on earth with a smartphone.

Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it.

In the face of church leaders who claimed that only they could interpret the Bible for the common people, Reformation leaders like Martin Luther taught that nothing supersedes the authority of the Word itself.

"A simple layman armed with Scripture,” Luther wrote, “is greater than the mightiest pope without it."

In that vein, digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities. And it lets users share interpretations with other non-authorities, like family members, friends and coworkers.

With Scripture on iPhones and iPads, believers can bypass constraining religious structures - otherwise known as “church” - in favor of a more individual connection with God.

This helps solve a problem that Christian leaders are increasingly articulating: that even among people who say that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and savior, folks don’t read the Bible.

According to a 2010 survey, more than a third of born-again Christians “rarely or never” read the Bible. Among “unaffiliated” people - that is, Americans who don’t belong to a religious congregation - more than two thirds say they don’t read the Bible.

Especially among 18-to-29 year olds, Bible reading has come to feel like homework, associated with “right” interpretations and “wrong ones,” and accompanied by stern lectures from the pulpit.

Young Christians “have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive,” the Christian demographer Dave Kinnaman told the Christian magazine Charisma in 2009, “that allow them to be open and honest with their questions, that are technologically stimulating, that are done alongside peers and within trusted relationships.”

This yearning for a more unmediated faith - including Bible verses live in your pocket or purse 24/7, available to inspire or console wherever and whenever they’re needed - has met an enthusiastic embrace.

For growing numbers of young people, a leather-bound Bible sitting like an artifact on a stand in the family living room has no allure. It’s not an invitation to exploration or questioning.

Young people want to “consume” their spirituality the way they do their news or their music. They want to dip and dabble, the way they browse Facebook.

Thus the almost-insane popularity of Youversion, a digital Bible available for free on iTunes and developed by a 34-year-old technology buff and Christian pastor from Oklahoma named Bobby Gruenewald. He conceived of it, he told me, while on a layover at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, wishing he had a Bible to read.

“What we’re really trying to address is, how do we increase engagement in the Bible?” he said.

Now available in 113 versions and 41 languages, including Arabic, Youversion has a community component that allows users to share thoughts and insights on Bible verses with friends. It has been installed on more than 20 million smartphones since 2008.

On May 2, Youversion staged its own King James commemorative event: for 400 seconds, starting at noon, more than 10,0000 users logged on and read a portion of the Bible – King James translation, of course - a kind of 21st century Bible-reading flash mob.

Traditionalists worry that technology allows young believers to practice religion without committing to what in the south is called “a church home” - and they’re right.

I did a public Q&A with Michigan pastor Rob Bell on the eve of the publication of his new bestseller "Love Wins" and was astonished, during the book-signing that followed, at how many acolytes felt they knew Rob through his sermons, which they regularly downloaded off the internet, even though they had never met him. They hailed from places like Australia, South Africa and New Jersey.

They listen to Bell while they’re working out, or commuting to work. They get their religion - like their meals - on the run.

It is now possible to imagine the extinction of the family Bible, long given as a gift on graduation day or other big occasions and inscribed with special dates: births, marriages, deaths.

Instead, the Bible may someday exist exclusively online, with features that allow for personalization: Link to photos of weddings and baptisms! “Share” favorite verses!

When Bible study can be done on Facebook as easily as in the church basement, and a favorite preacher can teach lessons via podcast, the necessity of physically gathering each week in the same place with the same people turns remote.

Without a doubt, this represents a new crisis for organized religion, a challenge to think again about what it means to be a “body” of believers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion • Technology

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